Do I want to be recognized? Reflections on my experience with (Dis)Ability and working in Higher Education

Paul Artale
Henry Ford Community College
Paul Artale, Keynote Speaker
Author Profile
published Oct 5, 2017 2:09pm

My name is Paul. I was born missing fingers and have funny arms. I am ok with it. There really isn't much that I can't do and I have learned to adapt.

People who looked at me probably thought I could never play college football but yeah...I did that. I even coached it for a while. I loved my time working in athletics and although I looked different, I never felt out of place or discriminated against. I was just Paul Artale, football guy, and keeping teams from scoring on us was the most important thing in the world. I bring up football because being an athlete (and the lessons learned from it) are still very prominent pieces of my identity.

Disability is a complex and nuanced identity. Disability is not a primary, or even secondary identity for many people with a disability. My athletic identity, ethnicity, and nationality (Canadian) are far more prevalent in my life. On a good day, it is something I don't think about much about. On a rare bad day it is something that I repress. Disability is often left out of discussions about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) because individuals with disabilities frequently do not prioritize their disability identity, or leave it completely out of conversations because it is a secondary or tertiary identity. Another reason is that disability is often perceived as a medical condition; a person has a condition, they adapt, they persist, and they almost forget they had a disability in the first place.

Viewing disability identity through a social lens complicates things further. Society as a whole is not comfortable talking about issues around ability on a meaningful level. The subject is a bit taboo and as a result an individual with a disability may not always feel that wearing the disability hat is in their best interest. One doesn't want to be tokenized, or thought of as less than, so you hide the disability, don't mention the identity, and in doing so hope it is overlooked. This is the reason when I am job searching I love phone interviews, and dread in-person ones. On the phone, I am like everybody else; in person I have to worry about being discounted the moment I extend my hand to say hello. Sometimes I tell myself, "this institution prides itself on diversity in the workforce." But do those interviewing me see ability as part of the diversity puzzle? I am not so sure.

What do I mean?

Ironically, the problem emerged when higher education institutions started to pay more attention to DEI issues. When DEI emerged as a priority, the exclusion of ability as an identity made me feel isolated and less welcome than one might expect.

Consider for a moment a hiring committee that is very focused on bringing in a diverse applicant pool. What if, while looking at materials the committee chair says, "We want to bring a diverse pool to campus of underrepresented applicants. So let's make sure we have diversity in terms of gender and race/ethnicity." Two things a committee member with a disability might be thinking are: 1) are those with disabilities not underrepresented? and 2) what are the pros/cons of me speaking up and making a point?
The struggle to speak up is not just rooted in fear of association, labelling, etc. It is also rooted in knowing that many are uncomfortable or not knowledgeable enough about disability to properly react.

Let me share a personal experience.

At the beginning of my doctoral program, during my search for external scholarships. I came across a scholarship from a major national educational organization advertising scholarships for members of traditionally underrepresented groups. I read the scholarship description, but while it mentioned racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic identities, ability was not specifically mentioned. However, the criteria still seemed vague, so I emailed the committee. Two days later I received a reply that confirmed that ability was not a qualifying criteria; however, the response also noted that if I had a racial or ethnic identity in the minority that my disability would make my application "very competitive" which in my mind translated to: disability didn't count unless it was a free add on bonus.

As a student affairs practitioner, frustration surfaces in unexpected places:

  • Being told my department has absolutely no diversity (I flailed my arms around to remind people, but I guess it didn't work).
  • When DEI programs about disability are dealing with ADA compliance, and not identity, nor the myriad of disabilities (visible and invisible) that our students possess.
  • Working on campuses that programming heavily for heritage months but ignore Disability Awareness Month.
  • Not hearing ability mentioned in discussions of marginalized groups.
  • Presenting a workshop on navigating disability identity in the workplace to colleagues with disabilities and getting collective agreement when you mention how often ability is left out of many DEI initiatives. It's bittersweet. On one hand you are glad to find common experience with colleagues; on the other hand, you almost hope that your experience is unique, because being unique in this case means others aren't struggling with this issue.

Up until a year ago I was hesitant to mention anything about ability in a meeting or to do any work that directly deals with this topic. It was at a meeting where a new scholarship policy was announced that I felt was not fair to students with disabilities that I finally opened my mouth. In that moment I realized that my silence helped nobody. This is why I have now embraced being on a few diversity committees, working in a new job that has some disability related work, and even doing workshops on disability identity for campuses and organizations.

By now you may be asking "What can I do to improve the situation on my campus?"

I am offering eight easy strategies and some resources to get you started. They are:

1. If you are involved in making curriculum decisions for, or teach courses addressing DEI, ensure disability is covered.

2. Attend trainings on disability related matters and/or cover disability related in staff trainings. Improve your practice and knowledge by making the discussion on disability part of core expectations. To do this:

a. Ensure trainings shift focus between spheres such as identity, physical disability, and invisible disabilities.

b. Share the information gained from these trainings with your student leaders, incorporate it into diversity and inclusion trainings, and infuse it into student staff trainings (resident assistants, orientation leaders, Rho Gamma etc).

3. Understand that disability is not just a medical condition requiring Individual Education Plans (IEPs), formal diagnosis, accommodations and modifications; it is an identity that contributes to the diversity of your institution.

4. If you are forming committees made up of "diverse" membership, then make it a point to ensure a voice (or two or three) is present to represent the viewpoints of people with disabilities.

5. Hire speakers who are disabled and identify with it, whether they speak on disability or not.

6. If you don't have much experience working with people with disabilities, engage with them.

7. Create robust programming around Disability Awareness Month. Don't rely on the fine folks in Disability Services to do all this work alone.

8. Reflect on your own practice. How inclusive have you been on this topic? What are your biases, assumptions, and conceptions What can you do to affect positive change around this topic?

The higher education landscape still has a long way to go in creating a more inclusive environment for those with disabilities. As a field, we still view it from a largely medical and legal perspective, but disability as an identity and as a social construct is complex and warrants more attention. The good news is that the field of higher education is filled with great people who are committed to change and who have inspired me to speak up, get involved, and work towards a more inclusive practice.


Artale, Paul. Disability awareness: Disability Identity at Work. Video

Bruyere, S. M.; Erickson, W. A.; Ferrentino, J. T. (2003). Identity and disability in the workplace. William and Mary Law Review 44(3), 1173-1196.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common Barriers to Participation Experienced by People with Disabilities.

Department of Labor. National Disability Employment Awareness Month 2017.

Seale, J. K. (2013). E-learning and disability in higher education: accessibility research and practice. Routledge.

Wendell, S. (1996). The rejected body: Feminist philosophical reflections on disability. Psychology Press. * particularly Chapter 2. The Social Construction of Disability.

Suggested Citation

Artale P. (2017,October 5). Do I want to be recognized? Reflections on my experience with (Dis)Ability and working in Higher Education Retrieved from

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