Nearly every academic job listing claims not to discriminate based on disability. A lot of them still do.
By David M. Perry
Every faculty job advertisement at Holy Cross College at Notre Dame, Indiana, comes with this statement:
Repetitive movement of hands and fingers — typing and/or writing; occasional standing, walking, stooping, kneeling or crouching; reaching with hands and arms; talking and hearing.
Ability to lift and carry up to 20 lbs.
NOTE: The above statements are intended to describe the general nature and level of work being performed by the person assigned to this job. They are not intended to be an exhaustive list of all responsibilities, duties, skills, and physical demands required of personnel so classified…. Holy Cross College is an equal opportunity employer. All employment decisions are based on qualifications and are made without regard to race, color, national origin, age, sex, disability, or any other legally protected status.
Holy Cross College seems like a nice, co-educational Catholic school in one of the great college towns in America. There’s no reason to think the school’s administrators are particularly ableist or interested in discriminating against people with disabilities. But Holy Cross—like dozens of other institutions of higher education across the country — keeps appending these clauses to job ads. Imagine if you were deaf or in a wheelchair and wanted to apply, then read that “walking, talking and hearing” were required. Would you even finish the application?
These job ads send a different message: “Be normal or you can’t have this job!”
Despite the note appended to the end, echoing language in accordance with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, this statement is arguably discriminatory. The practice, however, is common. If you go to HigherEdJobs.com and search for “25 pounds,” you’ll find 654 entries right now that require various degrees of physical ability, often accompanied by other statements mandating “normal” modes of communication. Some of these positions are in jobs like nursing, where required lifting might be entirely reasonable, albeit still subject to laws around reasonable accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Others, like all the jobs at Hood College, Maryland, routinely repeat a boilerplate set of physical demands that do not seem remotely relevant to the job—though Hood’s at least uses the hedge-word “may” and explicitly talks about accommodations.
At least when taken to the extreme, as Holy Cross seems to do, the practice is problematic. I’ve been writing about and tracking such clauses in higher education job ads for a year, and expert after expert — including legal counsel at the EEOC — agrees. Human resource directors cannot just pile up physical demands that are not linked to the core requirements of the job. Roofers need to climb ladders. Truckers need to drive. Professors need to teach, an act that generally requires neither walking, stooping, kneeling, or carrying—or, for that matter, oral speaking or aural listening.
The key word here is requires, which carries with it a legal meaning not related to most of these positions, and certainly not most faculty jobs. To be clear, Holy Cross is not the problem here, but merely an instance of requirement creep filling up the legalese of hiring practices. I initially came across one of these job ads at a branch public campus in Massachusetts, and found them permeating both Texas and Arkansas systems. My resulting exposé, “Disabled People Need Not Apply,” did result in some changes in cases where I successfully engaged individual human resources managers at specific universities, but structural transformation has been harder to achieve. Moreover, the problem is not confined to colleges and universities. You can find similar requirements — especially the “must carry 20/25 pounds” clause — in job listings across industries. Social-media managers for non-profits or technical companies shouldn’t be “required” to carry heavy weight, yet, for some reason, many of them still are.
What’s going on? I’ve never quite been able to locate the reasoning behind this kind of clause. In general, the writers of job descriptions are encouraged to consider what would be necessary to complete the essential functions. “Walking,” though, is so clearly not an essential function for a professor, that it’s confusing how this has happened. Karen Nakamura, the Robert and Colleen Haas Distinguished Chair in Disability Studies and a professor of anthropology at the University of California–Berkeley, suggested to me that at least some of these clauses are intended to prevent workplace disability lawsuits: If your boss tells you to carry a heavy box of papers and you throw out your back, you can sue, but if your job description included that 25 pounds, then your employer might be safe.
There’s no evidence anyone is intending to use these clauses to discriminate against people with disabilities. Indeed, disabled academics do get these jobs, if they make it through the application process. Yet such clauses pre-screen out disabled candidates. The typically abled candidate might never even read the bottom of the job description (I never did when I was applying for such jobs), but if you’re a wheelchair user, you’ve become accustomed to checking for them. One academic who uses a wheelchair, who prefers not to be named because he’s currently on the job market, told me:
Someone has taken a lot of time to describe the physical, mental, and perceptual abilities of a “normal” person. I am disappointed that such normative language made it into these job ads. The academic job market is so trying and exhausting, and for someone with a disability, this sort of language stokes my worst fears.
What’s more, legal experts agree that one cannot simply tack on non-essential “requirements” to every job description. I spoke with Chris Kuczynski from the legal counsel office at the EEOC. He agreed that adding physical requirements to non-physical jobs would “deter people from applying for these positions” in contravention of EEOC rules. He also told me that, while the EEOC could investigate such clauses themselves, the best way forward was for a disabled would-be job candidate to go to the EEOC website and file a charge in response to a job with a clause that excludes them by unnecessarilylisting a specific physical attribute as essential.
Back to Holy Cross — again, just an example of the bigger problem, not a particularly bad actor here. My guess is that Holy Cross would consider hiring a disabled faculty member—if one applied. Surely the people there are of good will and likely even devoted to the inclusive tradition of Catholic social teaching, as suggested by their mission. But the job ads send a different message, telling the candidate that, if you want to be their next English professor, you have to be able to walk, kneel, and hear. It’s a clause that says, “be normal or you can’t have this job!”
Over the past few days, I called both the Holy Cross human resources department and its public relations department, spoke to a number of officials, and submitted questions to them in writing at their request. They have not responded.
In the meantime, if you are disabled and wish to apply for one of these jobs, you can contact the EEOC website and file a charge.