How to wrangle my disabilities

My disabilities are not obvious at first glance. I do not wear a cast on an injured body part, nor do I use a mobility device like a cane, walker, or wheelchair. When you look at me, you are likely to miss or repeatedly forget the fact that I am disabled. I, on the other hand, get constant reminders throughout the day -- even while I am sleeping. Multiple well-regarded medical specialists in Toronto, Boston, and elsewhere have told me that my chronic pain originating in sporting traumas after the age of 30 (mostly this skiing accident) has every likelihood of being permanent. Since it is medically unrealistic to expect a resolution, you should avoid treating my disabilities as temporary or telling me that you hope I feel better soon.

My chronic pain has a baseline level set by my injury history. How much I suffer on top of that on a day-to-day basis depends directly on how decently non-disabled people treat me. After a large number of experiments over the years, I have learned that I can be much more productive as a theoretical physicist when everyone around me is being actively anti-ableist rather than shitty about my disability constraints. So how do you wrangle a professor, PhD thesis supervisor, or collaborator with chronic pain? The basic underlying principle is very simple: treat me with dignity, regardless of your level of physics talent or your academic rank. The most famous string theorist on the planet does, and so should you. Please also consult my difficulty metric table at the bottom of this page for further perspective on specifics.

What is ableism? In a nutshell: antagonism against disabled people by non-disabled people. In academia we are judged extremely harshly if we show any weakness, be it intellectual, emotional, or physical. Peer colleagues and students routinely assume that if we have a physical or emotional disability or illness, we must somehow be less able as intellectuals. This inference is of course totally ridiculous. Disabled and sick people are valid, important, and valued members of society and of universities. Just ask Stephen Hawking! So, what can you do to be less ableist? Start with some basic reading on the subject, such as this pamphlet on Disability Etiquette and this article on how to avoid everyday ableism.

I work hard to mask my disabilities from others at university, because nearly two decades' worth of ableism at work has worn me down. Asking for disability accommodations is inherently hard: we have to not only advocate for ourselves but also manage non-disabled people's clumsy feelings about our disabilities. I never ask for unnecessary disability accommodations, so if I do ask for some, you should deliver, on the timescales I specify. Logistical planning is significantly more complicated when managing disabilities and thus requires longer lead time. Remember also that you have zero experience of living in my body, so you naturally understand very little about how to organize my workflow. Do not try to impose your own sense of what accommodations I deserve.

The following information on my difficulty metric is intended to help you learn how to be more decent to me as a human being. Honouring my chronic pain constraints will result in a greater probability of you getting what you want out of our professional interactions, so it is in your interests to do so.

computer use3 hours per dayall day
task allocationsteady workloadvariable, peaky workload
deadline managementextra advance noticesudden short-notice work
supporting studentstalking livetyping asynchronously
classroom modeslecturing via iPad + projectorlecturing only on the blackboard
sittingmy specific office chairany normal chair
decibelsquiet environmentsnoisy environments
physical loadscarrying nothingcarrying over 1kg
travelstaying homegallivanting