Disability and Faculty Self-governance in the Age of Neoliberalism

When talking to faculty, students, and staff with disabilities who work or study at America’s colleges and universities, one quickly learns that higher education is broadly disinclined to treat disability in a concerted and efficient manner, but instead engages in widespread administrative deflection. From architectural barriers to simple pedagogical modifications colleges routinely drop the ball where equal access is concerned. So ubiquitous have these stories become one can browse the web for hours reading of school after school that has violated basic civil rights protections guaranteed by the Americans With Disabilities Act. From the University of Michigan, to Penn State to Harvard, one finds dramatic instances of disability discrimination. As a disability rights activist and professor who teaches that incorporating physical difference in the village square creates powerful opportunities and advantages I’m often asked why higher education performs so poorly. For many years I imagined these failures had simply to do with a basic financial resentment of the ADA, as one hears the widespread complaint from college administrators that it’s simply an “unfunded mandate.” The idea that barriers should be removed as a matter of civil rights is represented as a violation of libertarian principle. This seemed reasonable enough until over time I realized there’s a broader delegitimization of disability in the Ivory Tower and it’s only loosely connected to money.

In a recent interview at TruthOut Henry Giroux observes of Neoliberalism:

As a form of public pedagogy and cultural politics, neoliberalism casts all dimensions of life in terms of market rationality. One consequence is that neoliberalism legitimates a culture of cruelty and harsh competitiveness and wages a war against public values and those public spheres that contest the rule and ideology of capital. It saps the democratic foundation of solidarity, degrades collaboration, and tears up all forms of social obligation.


The past quarter century has seen the American academy shift from collaborative and democratic agreements about social obligations toward an embrace of monetized aggression. During this period the ADA has been overtly ignored by colleges of every kind. The two developments are syncretic, reflecting what Giroux rightly calls the failure to contest the rule and ideology of capital. It’s relevant to note in this context that “disability” first appeared in the mid-19th century as a term for laborers who’d been rendered unfit to work. The 20th century saw sustained advances in rehabilitation and employment services for people with disabilities, improvements which culminated in the passage of the ADA in 1990.

Neoliberal pedagogy and campus politics depend on limited faculty governance, the erosion of public debate, and the establishment of a culture of severe economic competition. Disability is re-inscribed as a 19th century problem. Accommodation services are sequestered—students are “sent” to ancillary offices for accommodations which they may or may not receive; faculty are taught nothing about pedagogy and disability; basic services like sign language interpreting or accessible technology are hard to find, and sometimes non-existent. At one liberal arts college where I recently spoke, a disabled student told me, “the disability office is hidden like an asylum.” Indeed. Disability is a drain on capital. Not because it’s an unfunded mandate but because after all is said and done, neoliberal visions of success are built as Giroux rightly says on cruelty and competitiveness.

Harvard and MIT are contesting the demands of deaf students and staff that instructional videos be captioned. Harvard’s opposition is symptomatic of the neoliberal university’s war on basic public values. In terms of governance Harvard’s resistance represents perfectly the academy’s abandonment of the principles of social obligation. But institutions only arrive at such a place when faculty are deterred from self-governance by the obligation to write endless grants and compete for provenance in the marketplace of capital ideas, when teaching and idealism are considered quaint and immaterial. In turn the civil rights of academic communities are “handled” by offices that are both physically and culturally distant from the “agora” or academic life of the campus.

The neoliberal campus relies on distention of self-governance and enforces centralized administration. Moreover it thrives on factionalism. A faction, as James Madison famously wrote in essay 10 of The Federalist Papers is a group “who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

Because college faculty are often divided by competing interests and since some of these divisions reflect the complications and struggles of identity, it’s difficult to forge consensus about disability and disability rights—they seem tailor made for deflection, a problem for a specialized office. In other words, disability is often viewed by academics who are already narrowly factionalized as too difficult to embrace. As Lennard Davis notes in his book Bending Over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism, and Other Difficult Positions:

Because disability is an amorphous identity with porous boundaries, other identity groups in the United States have had difficulty incorporating it into their goals. Previously legitimized groups such as Latinos or African Americans have been reluctant to admit disability into the multicultural arena. For example, in 1996 a disabled, white assistant professor at a historically black university found that the chair of the department and the dean of the school had recommended against tenure, saying that any analogy between disability and race was both methodologically unsound and insulting to the unique history of African Americans. For them, the categories of oppression were mutually exclusive and should not be mixed. After much public outcry from the disability community, the president of the university decided to award tenure to the assistant professor. Nevertheless, the issue of an identity defined by impairment as opposed to one defined by race or ethnicity is a sticking point for some. When some faculty members at Hunter College in New York City tried to include disability studies as part of the requirement for a multicultural curriculum, they were opposed by many of the ethnic and national groups that usually make up the progressive wing of the university. Hunter ended up deciding to omit disability from the curriculum.


From a disability studies perspective one sees how sectarian infighting among faculty concerned with categories of oppression can further the work of neoliberal administration, not by embracing the neoliberal brand of governance, but by replicating its effort to de-legitimize disability as a mainstream concern. De-legitimized disability remains in the province of non-academic offices. In turn university faculty fail to understand and embrace the nation’s largest minority. Such neglect reinforces a central fact of neoliberal administration which supports deflection where accountability is concerned and it represents rather broadly a further symptom of weakening faculty self-governance.