By Sarah E. Schoper
As a person with multiple disabilities, and someone who didn’t acquire her disabilities until four years ago, what I can tell you is that discrimination will most likely happen to you whether or not you work in higher education. It will always be your choice regarding whether or not to report your experiences officially, so please keep that in mind as you read this brief article. Furthermore, this article is only meant to identify a few steps you might take to consider addressing the issue. It is not intended to be used as a prescription, nor is it fully comprehensive. You know best the environment you work within, so my hope is that you will consider steps you can take and the ripple effect various actions might make for you.
So, you experience a moment of discrimination, whatever it may be. First, please know that even if you believe no one else will believe you, I believe you. Often experiences with discrimination are covert, although to a disabled person it can seem overt. From my experience, they can leave a person wondering if they are making too big a deal out of something. There is a cost to taking a step to do something about it. I believe that this is often why we pause before doing something. The cost could be social isolation, it could be you becoming a joke to others, etc. Furthermore, there are a whole host of options regarding how addressing these issues might impact you going forward. Know, though, that if your gut is telling you something was not okay, it most likely was not okay no matter what you choose to do about it…including deciding to not do anything.
Second, find out who the person is at your institution that supports faculty and staff with disabilities. Hopefully you already know who this person is and have been in contact with them to request accommodations for yourself. Please know that often you will need to initiate the documentation process for yourself and that you can continually update your accommodation documentation. If you are like me and struggle to know what you need until you need it, a good place to get ideas is the Job Accommodations Network. You can contact them and they will provide you with a list of “usual” ways that your disabilities are accommodated within a workplace. You can contact them at: www.askjan.org.
Okay, back to what to do when you experience discrimination. As mentioned, locate the person who serves faculty and staff with accommodations; often, the person has some type of connection to your Human Resources (HR) department, though not always. Contact them and ask them what steps you can take. It might help for you to ask them if it will remain a confidential conversation between you and them before you share your experience. This can provide you with a bit of comfort in the reporting process. Be aware that it will depend on the situation as to whether the HR person will need to be address the situation, even if you’d prefer them not to do so. Also, be sure to ask what the next steps are that you can take if you do decide to act through the reporting process. Finally, remember that the HR person works for the institution, not for you. This matters because you might want them to take action in defense of you, but they are considering the experience from the perspective of the entire institution.
Perhaps you decide you don’t want to take formal action at this time. That is certainly okay. Be aware that you will need to demonstrate documentation of the experience in the future if you intend to take action at another time (for example, perhaps you decide you want to demonstrate a pattern of discrimination). This is where a disguised respectful “thank you” note can come in handy. Believe me, the first time I heard of it, I thought “A thank you note? Why would I be thankful for such an experience?” However, it is very important that you begin documenting your interactions and communications with others at your institution; this can be vital for later action steps. As an example, you could follow up with the person or people the next day via email and say “Thank you for taking the time to discuss with me the program meetings we will be having tomorrow. As you know, I shared with you my request for an agenda, a meeting time that allows me to get from one location to another, and meeting minutes so that I could be included in discussions going forward. I am optimistic that we can go forward working together. Please let me know if you need any other information from me regarding my requests.” This is a solid form of documentation. Do not be surprised if you do not get a response (side note, I wrote it thinking about a real situation I experienced in which these were my requests related to some of my disabilities). If your email thank you does not get a response, what you wrote stands as the record. If it does, you can clarify, ask more questions, etc….whatever is appropriate. The key is that you’ve documented the experience.
Two more potential steps will be identified in a later blog post on theCoalition for (Dis)ability’s website. Please be sure to check it out!