Dr. Adrienne Milner On Being Invisibly Disabled In Academia

Dr. Adrienne Milner is a teaching assistant professor in sociology at the University of Alabama Birmingham (see her full biography at the end of this post).  In her guest blog post below, Dr. Milner writes about navigating academia with an “invisible” disability, driven, in part, by her determination to “tough it out” as a former athlete.


Transitioning from Playing through to Working through the Pain: Athletics, Positive Deviance, and Being Invisibly Disabled in Academia

milner head shotBefore winter break, we had a college-wide faculty meeting with the Dean of Arts and Sciences to discuss the events surrounding the decision to eliminate football, rifle, and bowling at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). As someone who researches race and sex disparities in sport and teaches many student-athletes, I felt the need to express my support and concerns for my students during the meeting. I felt a bit nervous speaking out as a young, non-tenured, cisgender woman, but wasn’t aware of how visibly upset I must have been until after we adjourned. The dean came up to me, gave me what has been dubbed “the Christian side hug,” and asked if I was okay.

I was emotional because I know what it feels like to have a lifelong athletic career taken away. The summer after my freshman year of college, a car accident prevented me from continuing to play college basketball. During my time teaching as a graduate student at the University of Miami (UM), I witnessed a similar sense of loss among student-athletes who were suspended by the NCAA because of the . One of my brightest and most charismatic students, DeQuan Jones, was forced to obtain counsel and sue the NCAA after his indefinite suspension. He won his case and was eventually reinstated. His and many other football and basketball players’ personal reputations were damaged, however, and they suffered extreme losses in their professional draft stock.

I admire DeQuan for standing up to the NCAA and the UAB football team for expressing raw emotion during their meeting with President Watts after he . I was never as brave; throughout the majority of my academic career, I was silent about my car accident and my resulting disability.

Those of us who study sport are well aware of the positive deviant messages athletes receive and internalize from an early age, such as playing through pain, not letting the team down, and winning at all costs. “Positive deviance” is behavior that departs from norms but is interpreted as appropriate, and in sport, often results in hyper-compliance to sport values such as seeking distinction, taking risks, and challenging limits (see Hughes and Coakley, 1991). For me, conforming to this dominant sport ideology began at 10 years of age when I finished a summer league basketball game after breaking my foot, and continued to manifest throughout my athletic career and beyond. No matter how much I was suffering, I put my game face on, which in my academic life consisted of maintaining a smile and performance of an energetic, friendly, and positive self. Fooling my professors, students, and colleagues into believing I was able-bodied resulted in my personal satisfaction of “winning” at my disability.

It took me a year and a half after I was hired at UAB to disclose my disability to colleagues. Interestingly, it was in the form of a party invitation which read:

Please join us for dinner and a toast as we celebrate The Settlement of Milner v. (Insurance Company)

Many of our friends and colleagues are unaware that growing up, Adrienne was a competitive three-sport athlete (she played basketball overseas, consistently contended for AAU national championships, and was recruited to play both basketball and lacrosse in college). However, when Adrienne was 18 years old, she was in a car accident that ended her collegiate athletic career and left her with permanent injuries and chronic pain, After over a decade of litigation, the parties have come to an agreement that validates Adrienne’s suffering and course of medical treatment. Let’s honour Adrienne for what she has accomplished despite these circumstances and support her as she closes this chapter of her life!

Even the last sentence of the invitation conforms to dominant sport ideology, suggesting that I have conquered my disability and moved beyond my physical limitations.

After my car accident, it took me my remaining 3 years of college and another 2 years of graduate school before I registered with disability services, which was not nearly as helpful as it could have been earlier in my education (e.g. using time and a half to complete a 72 hour comprehensive exam with dislocated shoulders and hips, herniated disks, and migraines for me would have been more detrimental than beneficial). Not only did I forego years of services that I was legally entitled to, not disclosing my disability may have resulted in a misunderstanding of my character since presentation of self is so important in academics’ teaching and professional careers. Because of my injuries, some days, I am unable to brush my hair, tie my shoes, or stand for long periods of time. When I am in pain, I generally look rough, act distant, and may vomit as a physical response to the trauma my body is experiencing. Without explanation, this behavior is at best, odd, and at worst, signifies a substance abuse problem.

I’m not sure why I waited so long to tell the people who I saw every day, and who were generally kind, thoughtful, and understanding, that I was disabled. Perhaps it was the competitor in me that never wants to ask for help, or the fear that I would be viewed as incapable of performing my job. Disclosing an invisible disability is difficult, and may not be the right decision in all situations or for all academics. However, sometimes concealing it may also have consequences. I am fortunate to have a wonderful advisor who understands the sport mentality and makes a point to ask how I am feeling, supportive colleagues who covered a week of my classes and sent flowers after I had complications from back injections, and empathetic students who don’t mind when I teach in “tree pose” or pop my shoulders and hips in place during class. I am also fortunate to have witnessed honest communication about what one is entitled to from our football team and from DeQuan, who despite what he unjustly endured, ended up playing professional basketball. That being said, the athlete in me will still enjoy a sense of victory if anyone reading is surprised that I am disabled.


Hughes, Robert and Coakley, Jay. 1991. “Positive Deviance Among Athletes: The Implications of Overconformity to the Sport Ethic.”  Sociology of Sport Journal 8: 307-325.



Dr. Adrienne Milner is a teaching assistant professor of sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Dr. Milner’s research addresses issues of equity in terms of race and ethnicity and sex and gender in sports and political contexts. Specifically, she examines disparities in access to sport participation and analyzes the costs and benefits of participation for individuals with complex and diverse identities. Her other work focuses on racial and sexual attitudes, policy preferences, and inequality in the Obama era. She has a forthcoming book with Dr. Jomills Henry Braddock, II on segregation in sport.

11 thoughts on “Dr. Adrienne Milner On Being Invisibly Disabled In Academia

  1. Indeed. It is still difficult later in life, when one develops these hidden disabilities, even if the occasion is publicly documented. Especially when the disabilities might seem run-of-the-mill problems similar to aging, or things that don’t intuitively make sense.

    No one really likes to admit limits, other than math.

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    • I agree, todamassa, that no matter the cause or when the onset occurs, disabilities are difficult to both discuss and understand. A big part of my struggle is admitting limits and coping with them, rather than concentrating on what I used to be able to do or what I think I should do. And who doesn’t love a good math joke? Thanks for your comment!

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      • When I was in my initial recovery a good friend gave this advice: don’t focus on the few things you can’t do, instead focus on the hundreds of things you can do.

        It was great advice and really helped reset my world view. Every little thing became a progress indicator.

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  2. I appreciate the article! You’ve hit the nail on the head. Playing through the pain with my game face on has become my status quo. It’s not even been three years since my accident yet I am still incredibly uncomfortable with people noticing my strange gait, which changes day to day dependent on many factors. I’ve started talking about the accident more to get “used to it” and to put it into the past contextually, however, pain and challenge are ever present and that’s hard to do. Coupled with the feeling that no one really wants to hear about it, I tend to pretend things are just GREAT! (insert big smiling face). It never even occurred to me to contact disability services for help. I’ve been dreading comps because of some limitations that I have never admitted to. Thank you for being so candid.


    • Thanks for your comment, Barbara. I understand not wanting to discuss the accident (because you don’t want to be seen as a downer) but also not wanting to NOT discuss it (because people notice your gate or other behavior that could be misinterpreted). I hope disability services, and perhaps your advisor and some of your peers, can offer some support as you tackle your comps and complete your degree. Best of luck!


  3. Nice article. Though the comment about substance abuse seems a bit alienating.


    • Thanks for your comment, June. I understand your point and apologize if that sentence was alienating or offensive. The reason I included it was because a professor of mine asked one of my peers if I had a problem because of my appearance in class one day. It was meant to show that sometimes invisible disabilities may be misinterpreted, not to pass judgement on those with substance abuse issues. Again, I am sorry if this failed to come across in the article, and I appreciate you calling my attention to this.


  4. I’m a sport sociology doctoral student with chronic pain as well and it’s a hard journey. Thankfully my chair is supportive (and even visited me in the hospital after my spine fusion), but it is still really difficult to be in the interstices between “able” and “disabled” in academe


    • Thanks for your comment, Casey. I am glad you have a supportive advisor. I understand what you mean that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between “able” and “disable,” and that it is a complicated interpretation for individuals experiencing it and for medical and legal professionals. Good luck with your journey to the doctorate!

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  5. Dr. Adrienne,
    Thank You for this article. Although, I prefer to remain anonymous due to the fact I am currently a student of yours, you are an inspiration. I too was in a car accident my junior year of high school due to a drugged driver. It scarred me for life. I came to UAB in hopes that I could “run away from my problems” back home.( i.e. insurance claims, settlements, courts, the guy’s family attacking me, the guy being in jail, etc). There is people out there living like you, Dr. Adrienne. Yes, things get tough, but we remain strong. I understand you are not religious, but neither am I, I am spiritual. I do believe that everything happens for a reason. I look up to you. You give me hope that we can live a normal life, that it is okay not being ‘okay’, and life goes on.
    Thank You!


    • Thank you for sharing your story. I really like what you said about “being okay not being okay”–that is one of the biggest challenges I deal with–accepting limitations and asking for help. Since you are in my class, I am sure that you already are learning that there is no such thing as normal, and we are already living our “normal!” I understand that you wish to remain anonymous, but am always available if you change your mind and would like to talk. All the best, A


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