Unruly bodies: My life as an academic with disabilities

The fourth post in this series, curated by the WPSA Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession, is a window into how personal health issues and disabilities influence the understanding of, and approaches to, academic success and failure. Other posts in this series are listed below.  If these topics are of interest to you the short course on this topic, Unlocking Success with Failure, at the APSA conference in Philadelphia is underway. If you are interested in contributing to analyzing successes and failures in the academy, we invite you to propose a roundtable, paper, or session to the Critical Perspectives on the Academy section of the WPSA conference, which will be from April 13-15 in Vancouver, British Columbia. Participation requests are due September 18th.

By Ellen Ann Andersen


Based on some commonly used markers, I am an academic success story. I have a tenured position at a university I am pleased to call home and I live in an area of the country I adore. I’ve made a name for myself in my areas of research; my teaching is closely aligned with my research interests. My wife and I teach at the same university and have done so for nearly twenty years. I have also been able to secure academic positions at universities with extraordinary medical facilities and excellent health plans. I’m extremely aware of how lucky I am in all these respects.

At the same time, as my university has increasingly come to define success primarily via scholarly output—which necessarily devalues teaching and service—the temptation to see myself as a failure is all but overwhelming. You see, my capacity to engage in sustained research and writing waxes and wanes with the vagaries of my health, and my health has a wicked sense of humor. I am what might be termed a medically complicated person. My body is like a Russian-nesting doll: health problems layered on top of health problems. I came to graduate school with a mobility impairment and a progressive neuromuscular disease. Working around my body’s limitations was fairly easy at that point. And, in fact, the professoriate can be a terrific place to work for someone with either (or both) of those conditions. Our work isn’t physically strenuous; we work with our minds far more than our muscles.

But what happens when we can’t think? As I moved from graduate student to assistant professor to associate professor, I accumulated a series of new diagnoses, largely related to my auto-immune system. They ranged from the trivial-but-irritating to the very serious, hitting lots of stops in between. As a result, my literal capacity to think on any particular day is unpredictable. Migraines persisting for months at a time? Check. Acute pain requiring mind-fogging medication for weeks and months at a time? Check. Fatigue so severe that getting out of bed is an accomplishment? Check. But days, weeks, and months with hardly any pain and an unclouded mind? Also check. Will I be able to think clearly enough to finish my overdue article tomorrow? I don’t know yet; let me get back to you on that.

As a result of dealing with my health issues, I’ve learned a lot about my capacity to engage in the various tasks my job requires. I can teach a 75-minute class pretty well on days when I’m at about 50% of my mental capacity; the adrenaline powers me through. I can grade short answer exams efficiently at about 60% of my brain power, but grading essays and papers takes me a very long time. To do those well, I need to be at about 70% of full strength. That’s the point at which I’m also capable of conducting most forms of research. I need to be at about 80% of my maximum mental acuity to do any sustained academic writing; that’s the part of my job that has always come hardest to me.

The part of my job that my university is placing ever more emphasis on, then, is the same one that my body’s limitations most affect. I am transforming from a success into a failure—or at least a disappointment—from the administration’s perspective. I am becoming “that” associate professor. You know the one. The one who fails to make adequate yearly progress toward promotion; the one with the suspiciously large gap in her vita.

However, the same bodily limitations that hold me back in some parts of my job have actually proved to be assets in another: my teaching. As my body has become increasingly ornery, I’ve realized that I owe my students the same consideration I sometimes need from others. Students have complicated lives, and while as a general rule it’s important for them to learn to meet deadlines, it’s also true that deadlines are sometimes negotiable. I no longer see it as my business to police deadlines for their own sake. Some class requirements are necessarily inflexible, but when accommodations are feasible, I’m far more willing to make them. Might students take advantage of this? Sure. I don’t care. I care that they learn the material and if some flexibility on my part helps them do so, I’m all for it.

My own bodily limitations have also helped me to forge connections with students who themselves are navigating college while coping with some form of disability. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, roughly eleven percent of undergraduates in 2011 reported having some form of disability to their schools. (The actual numbers are likely much higher; underreporting of so-called invisible disabilities remains a problem.) These numbers are only expected to increase. The Centers for Disease Control reports that a wide array of disabilities have been becoming more prevalent in recent years, including autoimmune disorders, brain injuries, depression and anxiety disorders, and attention-deficit disorders. These students are showing up in my classroom and I’d wager they’re in your classrooms as well.

And when my disabled students come to me to talk about the problems they face navigating college with an impairment, my unruly body can serve as a point of connection. I have no direct experience coping with an attention-deficit disorder, or a traumatic brain injury, or many of the other bodily impairments my students contend with. But I know what it’s like to have a brain that stubbornly refuses to make connections, that can’t concentrate, that feels like it’s dragging a fifty pound chain behind it. And I know what it’s like to struggle with distances that everyone else seems to negotiate with ease, to have difficulty accessing spaces on campus and in the community, to look at a flight of stairs and wonder whether it’d be easier to walk out of my way to get to an elevator or to just suck it up and begin climbing.

I want to be sure to say that I never assume that my struggles are equivalent to the struggles my students face. In fact, I always take pains to point out that I don’t know what it’s like to be in their bodies. I’m quick to connect students to my university’s accessibility support services and, as appropriate, our counseling services. What I can offer students is simply my intimate familiarity with failure. And frustration. And coping mechanisms and workarounds. And with my determination to occupy public space as a person with an unruly body not despite my unruly body.

So how then to weigh my successes against my failures? On some days—days when I can’t write, days when I have to ask for an extension on a deadline—I absolutely feel like a failure. On those days I believe my university’s narrative. But on other days—the days when I connect students to support services on campus and in the community, the days when I help students figure out how to navigate campus, the days when I watch them graduate—on those days I feel quite successful indeed. And that will have to be sufficient.

My thanks to Susan Sterett, Judith Grant, and Jennifer Diascro for broaching a discussion of failure and success in the academy.

Ellen Ann Andersen is Associate Professor of Political Science and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at the University of Vermont. Her research focuses on the intersection of law, social movements, and sexuality. She currently serves on the American Political Science Association’s Status Committee on LGBT Individuals in the Profession.

Other posts in this series:

Failure and Success in the Academy, By Susan Sterett, Jennifer Diascro, and Judith Grant

The Personal is Political, or At Least, Relevant, by H. N. Hirsch

Contingent Faculty and Labor Justice, By Julie Novkov


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