Emily Kibler is a senior exercise science student at Elon University with research interests in exercise and ADHD. Emily is neurodiverse and has physical disabilities that require various mobility accommodations including a wheelchair, a bicycle, and a cane, which she has used to navigate Elon’s campus at various times throughout her career.

Caroline J. Ketcham is a professor in exercise science at Elon University with research expertise in movement control and neurodiversity. She is a mother to 2 boys, the youngest of which is Autistic and Apraxic. Caroline has no disabilities.

Emily and Caroline have partnered to write a sub-series of blog posts around ableism in academia using a co-mentoring model (Ketcham, Hall, and Miller 2017). We intentionally discuss the reciprocity of the work we are doing together and have much to learn from each other and together in our individual professional development journeys.  

When higher education institutions think about accessibility, oftentimes many just address elevators, ramps, and extended time—none of which are, or should be, simple check-off accommodations; every individual has unique needs. While this checklist of accessibility (Akshita 2018) mentality is a start, it is short-sighted. The motivation should not be about trying to hit every student’s accommodation but rather about making a better learning environment for all students (Thurber and Bandy 2018).

It is both impractical and impossible to list all the places where universities are falling short with accommodations. We must be more intentional on addressing the inequities. Disabled students face discrimination and exclusion in classrooms, dorms, campus jobs, dining halls, labs, gyms, clubs, and many more spaces. Essentially, almost every building presents roadblocks to many disabled people every day, whether or not they have a ramp.

If you have followed the last couple of blogposts in this series so far (Post #1; Post #2), you have a sense of my (Caroline’s) positionality as a scholar and a citizen of the world. I tend to spend time on components of language and practice that trip us up primarily because I know (or hope) our nature isn’t to intentionally be hurtful to people with different perspectives and experiences from ourselves. I am also a mother of an autistic teenager; I have navigated many systems and spaces with him. I am not disabled, so my perspective stems from entering spaces and places with Liam, as well as listening, observing, learning, and empathizing. The more I look, the more I see just how unaccommodating spaces meant to ‘welcome’ really are.  

Emily has experienced ableism in physical spaces on Elon’s college campus, exemplifying repeatedly that inclusion was not and is not the goal. We have had many conversations, and as a faculty member on this campus committed to inclusive spaces, I continue to be humbled and horrified to hear about Emily’s daily experiences in a place we both currently call home. As much as I am a partner and advocate, my experiences remind me that I am always a bystander who is rarely personally impacted by the blatant ableism so many navigate allthe time.

Tablet Desk - Chair on 4 Wheels with a Tablet Arm Attached That Can Pivot Around Chair
(Tablet Desk – Chair on 4 Wheels with a Tablet Arm Attached That Can Pivot Around Chair 2010)

Academia and places of higher education champion working to be more inclusive and welcoming, articulating that it is a journey not a destination. We (Caroline and Emily) would like to highlight just how very wrong we are getting it by using one simple example: desks. Yes, our institution is still challenged to think inclusively about desks, which very much translates to disabled student experiences beyond desks. To the right is a picture of the desks in the newest classroom updates on our campus. What does this desk accommodate? Handedness—this desk has put left-handed people in a position to have equal access to writing—just spin the table arm. Check— Inclusive seating, or at least more inclusive than the tablet desks of the ‘70s (Akanegbu 2011) that didn’t pivot.

However, this desk does not allow big and tall people to fit comfortably with middles and knees easily obstructing the movable table. For people who fidget, the desks roll around or knock everything strategically balanced on the floor. In all practicality, a computer and a notebook are difficult for anyone to maintain on the desk with all the moving parts and smaller surface area. If we look closer at the  history of desks, this picture of the early (1899) standing desk (McKay and McKay 2011) depicts how exceptionally inclusive desk designs started, highlighting the blatant ableism of current desk updates at the expense of access and inclusion.

early (1899) standing desk depicting how exceptionally inclusive desk designs started, highlighting the blatant ableism of current desk updates at the expense of access and inclusion
(McKay and McKay 2011)

Could we have desks in classrooms so all who enter see there is a space for their needs, no matter handedness, mobility, size, positional preference, or knees? Why does the “newest” desk design accommodate handedness but not mobility or size or fidgeting?  Why did our institution purchase these? Occasionally there is a table in the corner you could wheel up to, navigating at best around the cramped space, or move a chair to, so we aren’t “excluding” anyone from the space, but this is not inclusive! Why is inclusion not the default here? Why are tablet desks still even a thing? Why do the same people have to point this out instead of it being part of the design team’s expertise?

This exemplifies ableism, and it is in our classrooms in institutions of higher education. “Ableism is at work when disability is not an inclusive part of the design process,” says Luticha Doucette, a black wheelchair user, in her article, “If You’re in a Wheelchair, Segregation Lives” (2017). However, ableism does not only manifest in mobility access. In “You Are Special! Now Stop Being Different,” Jonathan Mooney, co-founder of Eye to Eye (2017), a disability advocacy organization, discusses multiple experiences of disability, including being shamed for not sitting still at home, at school, by his parents, and by his teachers. There is a simple fix to this problem—remove the chair and allow Jonathan, or any student, to stand behind their desk and fidget away. Bonus if the desk is made to be raised or lowered to accommodate multiple learners’ needs. 

I (Caroline) have mentored undergraduate research investigating the implementation of dynamic seating (yoga balls) in a 2nd grade classroom (Burgoyne and Ketcham 2015). When students were given the opportunity to pick seating styles that promoted movement (perched and balancing on knees, bouncing, rocking), we observed marked improvements in classroom engagement and did not observe any instances of students falling off their yoga balls. Fun fact, when we observed the controlled setting of standard chairs, there were multiple instances of students falling off their chairs. Flexible seating options have become more widely embraced and incorporated into classrooms, especially K-12, yet not in a college setting where we should be leading on making flexible seating (e.g., standing, yoga balls) the norm. Instead, our primary desk is still tablet seating.

So far, we have been talking about desks in classrooms of a well-resourced institution where equality, equity, diversity, and inclusion are supposed to be welcomed and celebrated. A place where universal design principles should be standard. This practice of accommodation, with all the right paperwork submitted to the appropriate offices, creates a culture of social isolation for our students who need pretty common and simple solutions to support their learning. Emily Rapp Black, in “Why is Our Existence as Humans Still Being Denied?” (2017), describes the disability experience fostered by the “show-me-your-rights” culture. “We can get in the door, but once there, we face a whole new battleground, a whole new fog of misunderstanding and disrespect.” Ableism, summarized, isn’t just about getting through the door—both physically and metaphorically—it is also about the attitudes and experiences beyond the door.

As a disabled person, I (Emily) rarely find myself having to explain that places have to accommodate me, by law (the American Disabilities Act (Civil Rights Division 1990)). Instead, I usually end up on the receiving end of a tornado of accommodations to help me arrive at a similar endpoint as everyone else. For this I am always grateful, and it is at times like this when I find myself alternating between a chorus of “sorrys” and “thank yous.” But it hurts to be an afterthought—and it hurts even more to be constantly told that I should be grateful and never complain. 

I recently had to go to the Apple Store to get my computer fixed. When I got to the Genius Bar in the back of the store, I realized that the counter was too tall for my wheelchair. I was utterly dumbfounded when a worker motioned for me to follow them to the end of the bar, where they proceeded to fold out a shorter table and pull up a stool on the opposite side. They acted as if they weren’t phased at all to accommodate me, and the truth was that they weren’t acting—they genuinely did not see me as an inconvenience. For once, I was not an afterthought, but rather part of the design process. This is true accessibility. It isn’t as difficult as many people claim when it is taken into consideration from the beginning.

Stay tuned – we will continue to visit inclusion and accommodations in upcoming blog posts. For now, please look at your spaces and begin noticing and advocating against the design choices that intentionally exclude. Institutions often point to cost as the barrier, but these new chairs are literally replacing desks and chairs that were far more inclusive. We need to stop making excuses and put equitable design into action in all spaces and places, fulfilling what we say we strive to be. Let’s make all our spaces not only accommodate but also welcome learners, so we all have the chance to focus on the task at hand: the opportunity to engage in the course.


Akshita. “Checklist to Comply with Ada Accessibility in Higher Education: OpenSense Labs.” OpenSense Labs, October 28, 2018. https://opensenselabs.com/blog/articles/checklist-comply-ada-accessibility-higher-education

Akanegbu, Anuli. 2011. “A Visual History of School Desks.” Ed Tech K-12. October 12, 2011. 

ADA. 1990. Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, Pub. L. No. 101-336, 104 Stat. 328

Burgoyne, Molly E., and Caroline J. Ketcham. 2015. “Observation of Classroom Performance Using Therapy Balls as a Substitute for Chairs in Elementary School Children.” Journal of Education and Training Studies, 3(4): 42-48. doi:10.11114/jets.v3i4.730.

Civil Rights Division, Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and Revised ADA Regulations Implementing Title II and Title III § (1990). 

Doucette, Luticha. 2017. “If You’re in a Wheelchair, Segregation Lives.” New York Times, May 17, 2017.

“Jonathan Mooney.” Eye to Eye. Jonathan Mooney, 2019. https://www.jonathanmooneyJo.com/project/eyetoeye

Ketcham, Caroline J., Eric E. Hall, Heather Fitz Gibbons, and Helen Walkington. 2018. “Co-Mentoring in Undergraduate Research: A Faculty Development Perspective.” In M. Vandermaas-Peeler, P.C. Miller and J. Moore (Eds) Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research. Council on Undergraduate Research: Washington D.C.

Ketcham, Caroline J., Eric E. Hall, and Paul C. Miller. 2017.  “Co-Mentoring Undergraduate Research: Student, Faculty and Institutional Perspectives.” PURM: Perspectives of Undergraduate Research Mentoring, 6.1, 1-13. PDF LINK  

Ketcham, Caroline J. “Mentoring Across Differences: An Upcoming Series of Conversations [Blog Post].” Center for Engaged Learning, June 8, 2021. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/mentoring-across-differences-an-upcoming-series-of-conversations/

Ketcham, Caroline J. “More Than Words: Inclusion and Equity for Students with Disabilities [Blog Post].” Center for Engaged Learning, June 21, 2021. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/more-than-words-inclusion-and-equity-for-students-with-disabilities/

McKay, Brett and Mary McKay. 2011. “Become a Stand-Up Guy: The History, benefits, and Use of Standing Desks.” The Art of Manliness. [Blog Post: retrieved from https://www.artofmanliness.com/character/knowledge-of-men/become-a-stand-up-guy-the-history-benefits-and-use-of-standing-desks/ ]

Mooney, Jonathan. 2017. “You Are Special! Now Stop Being Different.” New York Times, October 12, 2017.

Rapp, Emily Black.  2017. “Why Is Our Existence as Humans Still Being Denied?” New York Times, July 26, 2017.

Tablet Desk – Chair on 4 Wheels with a Tablet Arm Attached That Can Pivot Around Chair. Photograph. Chicago, 2010. NeoCon.  Thurber, Amy, and Joe Bandy. “Creating Accessible Learning Environments.” Vanderbilt University. Vanderbilt University, 2018. https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/creating-accessible-learning-environments/#space.

How to Cite this Post

Ketcham, Caroline J. and Kibler, Emily (2021, November 9). Ableism in Academia: Let’s Talk About Desks [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/ableism-in-academia-lets-talk-about-desks.