- (Un)Reasonable, (Un)Necessary, and (In)AppropriateBiographic Mediation of Neurodivergence in Academic Accommodations
At forty-four, I was diagnosed with autism and with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (inattentive type). My emerging interest in disability studies— part of my ongoing research into social justice activism in personal online life narratives and collective action through social media—suddenly became more personally salient than expected. Since then, I have, sometimes tentatively and sometimes confidently, begun to explore and assert my identity as a disabled scholar on academic and public Twitter, in closed-membership Facebook groups for adults with ADHD and for women with autism, in person among friends, and in public in the context of advocating for accommodations for my autistic daughter and against ableism more generally. I have even spoken about my diagnosis on national radio.1 And yet. I have not disclosed my disability formally at work, even though I know I have legal entitlement to accommodations that would surely mitigate some of the pronounced difficulties I experience in my work as a tenured faculty member.
I was already puzzling over this hesitation when the call for papers for this issue appeared in my inbox. In that call, as in her article on the topic, Ebony Coletu describes "biographic mediation" as "any institutional demand for personal disclosure to make decisions about who gets what and why" ("Biographic Mediation" 384). It struck me that the "biographic mediation" of disability experience, identity, and rights entailed in securing workplace accommodation as a faculty member was exactly at the heart of my hesitation: the formal structures of disclosure and accommodation in institutions of higher education enact precisely the demand and both provoke and suppress the critiques that Coletu identifies. The question of "who gets what and why" often presents itself as an implicit or explicit complaint that necessarily puts the institution and the individual into conflict (Ahmed). After [End Page 693] all, the twin bureaucratic regimes of disability diagnosis and academic workplace accommodation are geared toward managing (i.e., limiting, as we will see) demands for access. No disabled person goes to the substantial and costly trouble of submitting to evaluative processes in different medical and bureaucratic contexts, of securing and deploying diagnostic paperwork, if they are not seeking to circumvent an obstacle impeding their full and equitable participation in the workplace. No university goes to the substantial and costly trouble of setting up elaborate special offices, paperwork, standards of practice, staff complements, handouts, mandatory trainings, and high-level policies unless it is seeking to limit some combination of legal, financial, and sometimes social liability.
Attention to the forms and practices by which biographic mediation is enacted can show, Coletu asserts, "emerging patterns and tactics of governance, reform, and resistance" ("Call for Papers"). Biographic mediation of disability through accommodations bureaucracies in the academic workplace attempts to contain and control difference in such a way as to leave intact the fundamentally ableist set of values, practices, and built environments that constitute the institution known as "the university." The main sites of biographic mediation of disability in the academic workplace are diagnosis, the formalized processes of disclosure and verification in the university accessibility bureaucracy, and the enactment and framing of any granted accommodation. Each site is the ground for battles over agency enacted through the solicitation, management, and framing of disabled life stories. Ultimately, what is at stake in the biographic mediation of disability in the academy is not so much whether the provision of extra administrative assistance or noise-mitigating equipment is affordable. It is, instead, this: what do disabled lives mean? The model of academic accommodations fundamentally frames disability as a set of (tragic, pathological) medical characteristics that impair "otherwise qualified" (that is to say, able) individuals, who are entitled to "reasonable," "necessary," and "appropriate" special arrangements within their educational or workplace environments as set out in law. By contrast, disability activism demands a more thoroughgoing rethinking of the ableist character of higher education more generally, with a view to creating a truly accessible university that ontologically and routinely makes space for, incorporates, and celebrates difference as a basic condition of all social, educational, and work spaces. This is...