At the beginning of October Rutgers announced a university-wide commemoration of Disability Awareness Month. Raising awareness is an important step towards a more inclusive and just world for people with disabilities but it is not enough: We need the university to take action and demonstrate that it values access and inclusion for disabled people year round. There can be no sincere commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion without concern for disability.
With the confusing roll-out of the FlexWork pilot program as well as the sudden lifting of the student mask mandate, Rutgers left immunocompromised staff who work in shared office settings, employees with student-facing jobs, students who must attend class in-person, and faculty who are at high-risk for severe COVID-19 infection in a difficult situation: not having enough time to obtain accommodations necessary after changes to schedules demanding more time in-office and the lifting mask mandates.
At the start of the October Disability Awareness Month, our unions proposed a rule whereby individual instructors could retain the discretion to require masks in their individual classrooms – a practice at neighboring institutions. As Disability Awareness Month nears its end, Rutgers administration appears to be interested only in performative gestures. When immunocompromised faculty raised concerns about the abrupt change in policy and institutional messaging, as early as September, this administration left our most vulnerable colleagues, students, and staff out to dry. To do so on October 1, or Day 1 of Disability Awareness Month, suggests that Rutgers is not, in fact, disability aware, and is not prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion.
The lack of awareness and action to meet the needs of disabled Rutgers employees and community members extends beyond COVID-19 risk. Staff report finding mold and insect infestations in their buildings impacting those with allergies and respiratory issues. University buildings and rental properties have entrances which are difficult to navigate if using mobility aids and are inconsistently accessible. Lack of remote work options disenfranchises disabled workers, something an expert on disabilities from Rutgers has pointed out. Options for accessible parking are limited and not always close to office spaces. Rutgers employees going through the accommodation request process have described the Office of Employment Equity as lacking awareness and understanding of the nature of their disabilities and their accommodation needs. Increases in health insurance premiums for Rutgers employees will disproportionately impact people with chronic health issues. Employees also report an ableist or non-inclusive tone in Rutgers communications about issues that impact people with disabilities.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought to the forefront multiple ways the university has failed to demonstrate an awareness of the needs of people with disabilities. Now is the time for Rutgers to raise awareness and take action to create an inclusive, beloved community for all or risk increased attrition and unqualified labor pool. The university must consult with Rutgers’ unions in order to assess how changes in remote work policy, current infrastructure, and the accommodations process adversely impact not only disabled people but also the entire Rutgers community and provide solutions that minimize barriers to access
.The URA-AFT Health and Safety Committee
Christine O’Connell, President URA-AFT, Local 1766
Amy Higer, President PTLFC-AAUP-AFT
Rebecca Givan, President, AAUP-AFT
AAUP-AFT health and safety committee
Kathleen Hernandez, EVP CWA Local 1031, AFL-CIO
Diomedes Tsitouras, Executive Director AAUP-BHSNJ
Ryan Novosielski & Justin O’Hea, Co-Presidents, HPAE Local 5094
Tzeidel Eichenberg, Delegate, CIR
Helen Lu, Delegate, CIR
Alexandria Ali Cooper, Delegate, CIR Kevin Pineda, Delegate, CIR
Committee of Interns and Residents, SEIU
Frank P. Proscia, M.D., President, Doctors Council, SEIU