Three days before the start of the fall semester, an assistant professor in the UofA’s Counselor Education and Supervision Program sent an email to students enrolled in her fall courses notifying them she would be unable to teach the classes. Since then, outrage has been building among CESP students and faculty members who say Tameeka Hunter’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act were violated when she was denied a request to teach remotely.
“It is with grave disappointment that I share that I will be unable to teach this course Fall Semester 2021,” Hunter said in her Aug. 20 email. “I have a life-long disability, and I am not permitted to teach this course remotely as an ADA Accommodation.”
Hunter, who teaches in the rehabilitation counseling track, told students and colleagues she could not safely teach in person during the COVID-19 pandemic, so she withdrew from instructing after university administrators denied her request to teach remotely.
Brent Williams, an associate professor of counselor education and supervision in the rehab track who has worked closely with Hunter, said he was dumbfounded and heartbroken when Hunter told him she had been denied accommodations.
“I am not a lawyer, but I have worked in the field of disability (for) 20, 25 years,” said Williams, who also has a disability. “I know probably as much about disability law as most folks on this campus. This is what I do for a living. And as I said, though, I'm not an attorney, this seemed to be just such a clear violation of the ADA, that it was just incomprehensible.”
The ADA of 1990 requires that employers make “reasonable accommodations” to allow individuals with disabilities equal opportunities to successfully perform their job tasks.
University officials cannot comment on individual requests, but the UofA “is fully complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act with all accommodation requests,” Associate Vice Chancellor of University Relations Mark Rushing said in an email, speaking on behalf of Terry Martin, interim provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. While officials enter into a collaborative process with employees who request accommodations, and attempt to grant all requests, not every requested accommodation is deemed reasonable, Rushing said.
“Generally speaking, offering remote instruction as a reasonable accommodation to faculty would constitute a fundamental alteration to the University’s instructional program,” Rushing said in the email. “Teaching courses in-person is an essential function of a faculty member’s job.”
Hannah Gliemann, a rehabilitation counseling master’s student, said she likes the professor who is filling in for Hunter’s fall vocational rehabilitation course, but was looking forward to class with Hunter.
In the previous course she took with the professor, Gliemann said Hunter spoke openly about living with cerebral palsy and the challenges she encountered as a person with a disability. As a counseling student preparing for a career working with individuals with disabilities, that perspective was invaluable.
“Learning more about her story and her experiences, it was amazing,” Gliemann said. “Because you know, even though she has a lifelong physical disability, it's never been an issue for her to achieve her goals and dreams. And in this program, especially the rehab track, that's what we're trying to do is help people with disabilities reach their goals and be their guide and their counselor.”
Because cerebral palsy can restrict lung function, individuals with the congenital disorder are listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as having a higher risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms if infected, according to the Cerebral Palsy Alliance.
Williams said he is disappointed Hunter could not teach this semester, because he thinks rehabilitation counseling students are missing out on a valuable educational opportunity.
“As a person who has encountered marginalization and discrimination throughout her career, she brings insight and life expertise that just, quite frankly, is unparalleled,” Williams said. “I mean, she simply has an understanding that other people don't have, so for our students to be denied the opportunity to have her knowledge, her expertise and her experience is a real loss to them.”
Hunter said in an email that she was advised not to grant an interview on the specifics of the ongoing situation, but confirmed she has a physical disability requiring a motorized wheelchair and had a 17-year career in ADA compliance before joining the UA faculty in 2020.
Heather Wood, a rehabilitation counseling master’s student who previously took courses with Hunter, said she was so angry and hurt by Hunter’s situation that she considered leaving the program.
“I mean we're advocates for people with disabilities, what the hell are you doing?” Wood said. “And so it's a really heated thing and a lot of people are super, super angry. I personally have a disability, I live with a disability and (for) me, I’m like ‘Okay, so where do I fit in if you're going to do that to my professor? What are you going to do to me? What, do I not matter?’”
Gliemann, Williams and Wood said they find the administration’s decision especially disappointing because the rehabilitation counseling program is about teaching students to be champions of people with disabilities’ rights.
“Obviously we're in a field where we're being educated in how to work with people with disabilities,” Wood said, “so it's pretty crazy, outlandish, insane that one of our professors who has a physical disability would be discriminated against.”
Rushing said in an email that the university cares “deeply about our faculty, staff, and students, particularly those who may have a disability,” but that administrators have to balance all its responsibilities to students and employees.
“Offering in-person instruction — except for those classes that are intentionally designed and designated as online courses, and which students purposely select on that basis — to our students is a fundamental aspect of the University’s operation,” Rushing said.
Gliemann and Wood said they would be happy to continue taking remote classes from Hunter as they did in the spring and summer. Because the infrastructure for such courses already exists, it seems illogical not to use it to accommodate a faculty member with a disability, Wood said.
Gliemann, Williams and Wood said they hope UA administrators will reverse their decision on Hunter’s accommodations in the spring, and issue an apology or explanation. It is essential to send a message that faculty and students with disabilities are welcome at the UofA, they said.
“It kind of seemed like last year...the university was trying to be like, ‘Oh hey, we want to make sure people know that we are about minorities,’” Gliemann said. “And that includes people with disabilities, you know? And I think they just need to step their game up a little bit because this seems like a step in the wrong direction, and they're going to lose great professors like Dr. Hunter.”