I just attended the 11th IEP (individualized education plan; US Dept of Ed) meeting for my son, and it has me in the land of mixed feelings. As I sit with my experience, I think of the students in my classrooms who too may have engaged (along with their parents) in this process on their way to our classrooms. I have gotten the rhythm of these meetings and find his “team” supportive and open to my ideas, all of us championing meaningful expectations and appropriate supports. No matter the team, or the preparation, or the grade—it lays me out every. time. It is emotionally and mentally exhausting and it is not about me—it is about my kid who is in our schools and society that are made for neurotypical and physically able people. He lives this every. day. My disabled students do this every. day and the ableism continues to increase in academia and their worlds (Dolmage 2017). Where am I going here . . . I promise there will be a point and I will pivot away from “woe is me.”

My blonde lab mix, Hobbes, wearing a black harness and laying on a pile of international flags

My son “cannot” read, but he knows where Wendy’s is and can identify the flags and spell the names of probably 250 countries. My son “cannot” do math, but he knows the exit numbers of his dentist (100 miles away), his developmental pediatrician (80 miles away), and how far we are from Uncle Jim’s cabin. The fact that our medical resources involve significant travel should give readers pause about accessibility. As we enter the teenage years, I more frequently sit in these IEP meetings and think, “Why, what and who cares about reading fluency and adding coins.” This year I kept returning to, “But Siri can do all that if he can just translate his wants and needs to Siri”—can we focus on using the technology that is available and stop focusing on the curriculum that has always been? (Sanchez 2021)

This is where I pivot to my college classroom and my role as department chair—can we stop focusing on the curriculum that has always been and focus on using the technology that is available. I know our students are intellectually not as challenged as my son, but what are we teaching and expecting that doesn’t align with the technology and resources now available to us, to our students? Do I consider this in my classroom, do I support faculty and the development of faculty to consider this in their classrooms? Do we hide behind the term “rigor” to preserve tradition of educational practices? Does rigor promote ableism?

Pivoted for those waiting . . .

Rigor—oh, we love this term in higher education. What does it mean? Perhaps just as we do for our learning goals for programs, courses, and experiences, we should assess and address what we mean by rigor (Schwegler 2019; Culver, Braxton, and Pascarella 2021). Is it the adage—I did this in school and so you should too? Is it—if x number of students get A’s then this class was “easy”? Is it—if you don’t study x number of hours a day, you aren’t putting in “the work”?  Colleagues, friends, peers, I enter this discussion reflecting on my goals and expectations in my courses and my role as chair of exercise science—what do we really mean by rigor and do we have an opportunity to pause, ponder, pivot. . . .  

Ableism in academia is thriving, and we need to systematically address this (Dolmage 2017; Singer and Bacon 2020). As I reflect on what rigor means in my classroom and my program, I can’t stop thinking: As much as I think I bring innovative pedagogy to my teaching, it is still code for fitting into the mold we have always created? Should we consider that rigor for our students and our course goals might, and should, look different? Is our continued traditional definition of rigor ableist? Here is the box of expectations—meet it and join the club, or miss it and maybe there is a different staircase you can find to take to your goals.

For me, I want students to engage in the material in ways that embrace where they come from and extend them into spaces that prepare them for where they are going. It isn’t about how much they can read, absorb, and synthesize, but it is about how they can reflect on the material and apply to their now and their next. Join me in pondering: What is the connection between rigor and ableism? How does this also play into the mental well-being of our students?


Culver, K. C., John M. Braxton, and Ernest T. Pascarella. 2021. “What We Talk about When We Talk about Rigor: Examining Conceptions of Academic Rigor.” The Journal of Higher Education 92 (7): 1140–63. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221546.2021.1920825.

Dolmage, Jay Timothy. 2017. Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education. University of Michigan Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvr33d50.

Sanchez, Kait. 2021. “Apple Announces a Slew of Accessibility Updates.” The Verge, May 19, 2021. https://www.theverge.com/2021/5/19/22444137/apple-accessibility-updates-disabilities-iphone-ipad-watch.

Schwegler, Andria F. 2019. “Academic Rigor: A Comprehensive Definition,” 22. Quality Matters. https://www.qualitymatters.org/qa-resources/resource-center/articles-resources/academic-rigor-white-paper-part-one.

Singer, Steve, and Jessica Bacon. 2020. “Ableism in the Academy: A Series about Disability Oppression and Resistance in Higher Education.” Critical Education 11 (14): 1-13. https://ices.library.ubc.ca/index.php/criticaled/article/view/186616.

Caroline J. Ketcham is a professor of exercise science at Elon University, and she is the 2021-2023 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Ketcham’s CEL scholar project focuses on equity in high-impact practices (HIPs) for neurodiverse and physically disabled student populations.

How to Cite this Post

Ketcham, Caroline J. 2022. “Ableism in Academia: Is Rigor Code for Ableism?” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. January 25, 2022. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/ableism-in-academia-is-rigor-code-for-ableism.