“Now a secret must be imparted. Professor Pnin was on the wrong train. He was unaware of it, and so was the conductor, already threading his way through the train to Pnin’s coach. As a matter of fact, Pnin at the moment felt very well satisfied with himself. ”
Vladimir Nabokov “Pnin”
This is a confession of sorts: I’ve helped build two disability studies programs at major American universities and now, after twenty plus years I’m Professor Pnin on the wrong train, though I’m becoming dimly aware of it.
The problem is that disabled faculty who require accommodations to work, teach, and conduct research are not well represented in the field. This is because colleges and universities advance sub-rosa programs in “area studies” as long as they don’t have to engage in any new hiring. I’ve traveled across the US over the years visiting scores of campuses and I rarely meet disabled faculty. Note I say “rarely” for there are some stars of disability research who are cripples but they’re outnumbered. I’m no essentialist: I think non-disabled faculty can and should teach disability themes and conduct research. But I lament the divide that has kept younger disabled scholars and writers from advancing. I can also attest that my own need for accommodations in the workplace has been treated variously and it’s often the case that non-disabled faculty who trade in dis-studies are not meaningful allies.
It would be far different if there were more cripples in the ranks.
Prof. Pnin is Nabokov’s lost emigre scholar who suffers from accidie—that late medieval weariness of the isolated monk who just can’t go on. Pnin doesn’t fit in at the provincial American campus where he finds himself teaching Russian lit and experiences the loneliness that comes with having no true friends among his colleagues. The faculty are “in it” for themselves, an old theme perhaps but for disabled scholars this is a nightmare. Just last week a blind graduate student wrote to say she’s having the run around with her university’s information technology team who are unwilling to help her with assistive tech and rather than admit they’re not up to speed on ADA 101 tell her she’s the problem. When I told her this has happened to me repeatedly even as recently as last year, she was aghast. Surely I was somehow well off? Surely as a well known disability activist and writer with a professorship I must have found the secret to inclusion.
Ableism in the faculty ranks is not over. The cottage industry of hiring non-disabled faculty to teach disability related themes is not over. The unwillingness of technologists to meaningfully address disability is not over. The silence of some though not all faculty in the dis-studies field is not over.
There’s privilege in them thar halls.