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Rights and Responsibilities of Faculty Members Who Have Disabilities

A new report from the AAUP offers practical guidance on faculty members who have disabilities. The report rejects the common stereotype that disability equates to diminished professional competence and asserts that “With suitable accommodations, a faculty member who has a physical or mental disability may perform equally well as, or even better than, a colleague who does not have a disability.”

Among other topics, the report addresses the essential functions of faculty positions. An essential function is a task that any individual in the position must have the capacity to perform, with or without an accommodation. Faculty members should play the major role in defining the essential functions of faculty positions. Essential faculty functions might include mental agility, including capacity for analysis and evaluation; mastery of a complex subject; initiative; creativity; strong communication skills; and ethical behavior.

Unless a disability is obvious, such as blindness or a missing limb, a college or university must not initiate discussion with a faculty member concerning a possible disability. Often a faculty member will disclose a disability at the same time he or she requests an accommodation. The institution may solicit and confirm information from the faculty member’s healthcare provider (or other appropriate professional) about the disability. Under federal law, such information should not be stored in the faculty member’s general personnel file.

The process of structuring a reasonable accommodation must be involve both the administration and the affected faculty member. Disability support staff, whose primary responsibility is typically to work with students who have disabilities, can often be helpful with structuring accommodations for faculty members. The institution makes the final selection of a reasonable accommodation.

Accommodations can take many different forms, such as modifying physical space, using adaptive equipment, or adjusting a teaching schedule. Some accommodations would be inherently unreasonable. For example:

Demand for the creation of a part-time position with a full-time salary

  • Refusal to serve on committees with specific individuals
  • Removal of the department chair
  • Refusal to teach undergraduates
As the report observes, American higher education “welcomes and supports qualified faculty members with disabilities, who deserve the same opportunities and protections as their colleagues who are not disabled.”

The new report grew out of a re-examination of Regulation 4(e) of the Association’s Recommended Institutional Regulations. Adopted more than thirty years ago, Regulation 4(e) provided special procedures for the dismissal of a faculty member who had a physical or mental disability. With enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act and other developments, the regulation had become outdated. The AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure took the unprecedented step of withdrawing Regulation 4(e). This appears to be the first time AAUP has withdrawn an established policy.

Additional materials in the report include guidance on developing a faculty disability policy; suggestions from the Modern Language Association for search committees that are interviewing candidates; and an essay by Laura Rothstein (Law, University of Louisville) on litigation over the dismissal of faculty members who have disabilities.

For comments and questions about this report only, please contact us at academicfreedom@aaup.org.