Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Disability in the Graduate Assistant's Contract

Written by Alyssa Hillary
We have kindly been given permission to repost this from:

Two years ago, I suggested to my graduate assistants union that disability and accommodations should be covered in our contracts.
I could understand why it hadn't been there before: 
  1. It's not the sort of thing most people automatically think of unless they are themselves D/disabled or have a disability. 
  2. The accommodations/access side is theoretically covered by laws like the Americans With Disabilities Act anyways.
But for a few reasons, I thought it needed to be there:
  1. Enforcing the ADA is really hard for most people, because it involves filing a lawsuit with the department of justice. Yes, even the threat of a lawsuit can be effective at times, but it generally needs to be at least a semi-credible threat.
  2. If it's in the contract, then violations can also be handled by having the union go to bat, such as by filing a grievance. That's got more force than showing up in an office and complaining alone, but is generally easier to accomplish than filing a lawsuit. This is important because many professors do refuse to ensure access for students, and many departments do actively exclude disabled faculty members.
  3. Attitudes: If following relevant disability laws is explicitly stated in the contract, even if it is a bit redundant (and as an engineer, I like certain kinds of redundancy, including this particular kind) tells people that there's a group on campus that cares about the disability side of things, beyond just disability services (who don't negotiate the graduate assistant contracts). There being such a group is a whole lot more welcoming for folks who find disability issues relevant than there not being any groups like that is!
And one more reason that occurs to me now but I didn't think of at the time:
  • Graduate assistants are both students and staff. Students handle accommodations through Disability Services for Students. Faculty and staff handle accommodations through Human Resources. Where do graduate assistants go, since we're both? That being unclear would be a barrier for anyone who has issues with bureaucracy. So would an answer of "Do both, haha," because that means dealing with two different offices for one issue.
Well. The executive board for the union agreed, and none of the union members objected. They pushed to get disability language into the contract, beyond the list of thing they're not supposed to discriminate against us for. (And disability definitely belongs on that list.)

Contract negotiations happened. While the university negotiators tend not to like adding information that's already in other places to the contract or even referencing those other places in the contract, they did add a line about disability accommodations.
4.5 Disability Accommodations– The Administration and GAU shall adhere to Federal and State laws and regulations as they apply to treatment and accommodation of persons with disabilities. Requests for accommodations shall be submitted to the Office of Disabilities for Students.
Am I totally satisfied with that? Not completely. I think it's progress, since there wasn't any information about accommodations before. I know that contracts are all about basic compliance and legal language. I've still got the same issue with "will follow Federal and State law" here that I do with it on syllabus statements and generally everywhere.

About the Author

Alyssa is a PhD student in neuroscience, an Autistic activist, and a disability studies scholar. They're interested in assistive technology that's not about imitating the standard ways of doing/being, and which addresses the mismatch between a person's abilities and environment rather than considering the problem to lie entirely within the person. Their art features on the covers of Typed Words, Loud Voices and The Real Experts: Readings for Parents of Autistic Children.

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