How Academic Jobs Screen Out Disabled People

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Every faculty job advertisement at Holy Cross College at Notre Dame, Indiana, comes with this statement:

Physical Demands

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?

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. 

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