person walking away from a surgical mask lying on the ground.

The Mask-Optional DEI Initiative

By Matt Dowell

Recently, I remotely attended a mask-optional, in-person meeting where campus leaders proudly proclaimed that DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) is my college’s “top priority.”

As a disabled faculty member who writes about disability access in higher education, I found myself considering how to make sense of such a statement — how seriously to take such statements, how much to care that such statements are being made.

I should be clear here that this was not specifically a meeting focused on DEI work, but a required department meeting where we were, once again, reminded of this strategic priority by leaders from outside the department. I should add, too, that “access” to the meeting via Zoom only existed because my department chair continues to provide it against a clear university expectation that everyone but those with “approved” accommodations work in-person.

My employer, like many universities, has followed a pandemic trajectory from remote work, to in-person work with masking and vaccine requirements, to in-person work that closely mirrors 2019, except for a small number of people at the institution “electing” to still mask.

Campus buildings — where in-person work is once again the norm — are now adorned with signs that declare with what feels like an overly proud tone that “masks are not required in this building.” And it’s both the moving on from still-necessary, effective, proven mitigations, and the tacit celebrations that such moving on has occurred (as perhaps demonstrated by the tone I read into that sign), that make me question what the managerial performance of an “investment” in DEI is meant to achieve.

I will be direct: schools that have officially departed from masking, including begrudgingly “allowing” people to still mask if they individually choose to do so, are stating an ongoing commitment to purposeful exclusion.

Moreover, the rejection of masking as a necessary mitigation will continue to prolong the pandemic and increase its harm for everyone, and especially for disabled students, staff, and faculty at institutions of higher education (a population that is likely increasing, for we do not yet know the pandemic’s full harm nor have we curtailed uncontrolled viral spread).

While the ongoing purposeful exclusion and/or harm of disabled students, staff, and faculty is certainly not the first illustration of hypocrisy being hardwired into many DEI performances, it is clear evidence that many institutionally-sponsored DEI initiatives project a better future largely divorced from the current material reality and organizational culture that necessitates “improvement.”

Jay Dolmage, a leading scholar in disability studies, has thoroughly traced how what he calls “academic ableism” permeates the priorities and practices through which the academy functions — priorities and practices that serve to maintain an ableist norm. Too often, he says, access gains are made as retrofits onto that abled normate, be that an access ramp ineffectively added to a building after the fact (his preferred example), classroom accommodations that modify the privileged class after the fact, or academic conference accommodations where, once again, access is created through modification of the pre-constructed “normal.” Dolmage’s use of the ramp is purposeful, so to demonstrate the uphill battle people seeking access and inclusion often encounter because the ableist default only considers them, if at all, once they’ve made that uphill climb.

Worse still than the retrofit is erasure. How can one retrofit that which has been purposefully erased? Pre-pandemic, most colleges and universities likely had an incomplete understanding of the number of disabled students, staff, and faculty at that institution because of how such knowledge is gained — primarily through voluntary self-disclosure by disabled individuals for the purpose of being “granted” accommodations.

Research shows up to two-thirds of students do not disclose disabilities to their college or university due to concerns about stigmas attached, prior bad experiences with accommodations and the acquiring process, lack of financial resources for mandated testing or expert confirmation to “prove” one’s disability, and/or dissuasion from doing so by red tape and arduous approval processes, to name only some factors that suppress self-disclosure rates. Likewise, the number of disabled faculty and staff is hard to establish through self-disclosure because of factors including fear of discrimination due to disclosing one’s disability, arduous accommodations approval processes, job insecurity, opposition to having to disclose private health information to an employer, and distrust of the process being managed by human resources.

All of these impediments to access name the very local reality that higher education leaders often choose to ignore when projecting better diversity, equity, and inclusion occurring at some point in the future. All of these roadblocks to acquiring accommodations, all of these institutional matters that explicitly restrict full(er) access (“inclusion”), purposefully invite institutions of higher education not to take a complete accounting of the full experiences of disabled people at the local institution. It’s worth noting that the institutional accommodations alluded to earlier are themselves retrofits that often operate at a legally-mandated minimum — if that — and only operate at all because of substantial labor outputs by the disabled person “needing” accommodation, including the requirement to first self-disclose so to be “accommodated.”

Full access imagines something else entirely, a world where disabled persons would be necessarily centered, not erased. And such centering of disability especially matters for the worlds that meaningful, valid diversity initiatives should imagine, because disability often functions within an intersecting web of multiple marginalization. But, for that to happen, supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion must be a real priority situated in material, local reality, not a “strategic” priority that is performed within neoliberal, managerial frameworks.

The rejection of masking during an ongoing pandemic by institutions of higher education and their leaders is clear evidence of how disabled people are regularly and purposefully excluded from full participation in colleges and universities. It follows, then, that necessary conversations about access — access in an ever-evolving sense, which anticipates and responds to the complex, changing, conflicting needs of disabled students, faculty, and staff — are not formally occurring and are unlikely to occur at these institutions.

Instead, colleges and universities are explicitly communicating a rejection of the ethical obligation to protect disabled, at-risk, and chronically-ill students, staff, and faculty, as well as disabled, at-risk, and chronically-ill family members and people in the larger community.

What then should we make of the performance that “DEI is our top priority”?

Matt Dowell is an Assistant Professor of English and Director of First-Year Writing at Towson University. A Type 1 Diabetic (among other chronic conditions), his current research focuses on frictions among managerial control, labor, and disability access. He has forthcoming chapters in edited collections on the rhetorical work of syllabus disability accommodation statements and the need for creating purposeful access at academic conferences.

The Petrie-Flom Center Staff

The Petrie-Flom Center staff often posts updates, announcements, and guests posts on behalf of others.

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