Ken Thurman, a special education professor, noticed that although there were resources and committees in place for some of his fellow faculty members, there were few resources for faculty members with disabilities.
Now, Thurman is the chair of the Committee on Faculty Disabilities Concerns. The committee was formed in December 2015 and is responsible for working to improve inclusivity for faculty members with disabilities and help faculty members make classrooms more comprehensive for students with disabilities.
Before Thurman initiated the new committee, there was no similar group to advocate for faculty members with disabilities, despite existing demand.
In 2014, Jeremy Schipper, a Hebrew Bible professor, wrote an editorial about the importance of disability awareness in The Faculty Herald, the newsletter for the Faculty Senate. The Faculty Senate is comprised of faculty members from 11 schools and colleges who can voice their visions for Temple and “[act] as advisors to the administration and the Board of Trustees,” according to its mission statement.
“In university culture, we often think of disability as relevant only to matters of accommodations and services for our students, staff, and faculty with disabilities instead of an important aspect of identity and diversity on campus,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, disability is not only related to these very important matters, but also to critically understanding our notions of the self, others, and community as we engage both the people and the texts that play a fundamental role in a liberal arts education at Temple University.”
Thurman recognized that need for awareness and started the committee the following year.
“There was already a Committee on the Status of Women and Faculty LGBTQ Issues, but none for the disabled,” Thurman said. “So I initiated the establishment of the Committee on Faculty Disabilities Concerns with hopes that we reach out to and assist both Temple faculty and students with disabilities.”
The committee is the newest of the Faculty Senate’s 20 committees.
Thurman said the committee spent most of its first year collecting data to understand the scope and problems facing faculty members with disabilities.
“We’re not even aware of the number of people at Temple, especially on faculty, who live with disabilities,” he said. “Many may not want to disclose that for fear of people discriminating against them, so there’s sort of a Catch-22 legally in that if you want services, you have to disclose, but there’s a potential cost in doing that.”
This semester, the committee’s main goal is to issue a survey to faculty members to create a “census” of how many people at Temple have disabilities so the committee can cater more directly to their needs.
Faculty Senate committees have advised the Board of Trustees on matters like restructuring the General Education Program, improving community relationships and creating transparency in the university’s budget.
Thurman said his committee still has work to do, but before the committee starts to advocate for faculty members with disabilities, it first must understand their needs.
Outside of the Faculty Senate, Mark Salzer, director of the Temple University Collaborative on Community Inclusion of Individuals with Psychiatric Disabilities, supports the initiative to raise awareness for faculty disability concerns, especially mental health concerns.
“When faculty feels discriminated against because of their mental health, students are guaranteed to feel the same way,” he said.
“In general, in any type of employment setting, the first reason for providing people with support is from a civil rights perspective,” he added. “There are legal perspectives, but supports are also helpful just to make sure we have a diverse faculty, a faculty from a variety of different backgrounds who are able to be employed.”
“We want those people with great skills and experiences and backgrounds to be a part of our university,” he added, “so supports and resources are necessary in making sure that happens.”
Salzer said an important way to ensure faculty members are supported is to make them aware that resources and committees exist. Most universities don’t do enough to raise awareness for faculty members, he said, and in the future, he would like to see more public statements that the university supports both students and faculty with disabilities.
“Of course these resources are important, that is from a broad university standpoint,” Salzer said. “But from an individual person’s perspective, these resources are critical to enable these people to be a part of the university and contribute in their own unique way.”
Erin Moran and Anh Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.