Cripping Mentorship in Academia

Cripping Mentorship in Academia Word cloud in the shape of a lightbulb. Words include: academia, crip, mentorship, mental health, embrace accessibility

At the university, where productivity often takes precedence and expectations align with non-disabled norms, it becomes imperative to consciously disrupt these paradigms. As a faculty member and undergraduate students in a critical disability studies program, we are committed to fostering inclusive mentorship relationships and we have embarked on a journey to “crip” our mentorship dynamics.  

The term ‘crip,’ once used derogatorily, has undergone a transformative reclamation by some people with disabilities. It has evolved to be more than just a noun; ‘crip’ has become a verb, a form of practice that involves questioning norms and innovatively creating spaces for new ways of thinking and doing. This transformation extends into the realm of mentorship. As a dynamic practice, ‘crip’ mentorship challenges traditional models and introduces novel approaches to fostering relationships and facilitating growth. It represents a shift in perspective, embracing disability not as a limitation but as a unique lens through which mentorship can be re-envisioned and revitalized.

Cripping, in this context, goes beyond a conventional understanding of disability; it encapsulates the broader notion of questioning and dismantling ableism, advocating for inclusivity, and embracing representation. By cripping mentorship, we celebrate diversity as an inherent strength to be learned from and integrated into the transformative practices that reshape the future. Our commitment to crip mentorship is not merely a theoretical stance but a lived experience, a daily practice that aims to redesign what mentorship can look like.

By acknowledging and respecting each other’s capacity and needs on a human level, we ensure consistent, intentional efforts to provide reciprocal flexibility and accessibility. This understanding and genuine care disrupts the prevailing power dynamic that persists between professor/student, mentor/mentee in a way that creates space for us to learn, succeed, and challenge ourselves with mutual support. With consideration for each other’s unique ways of communicating, learning, and teaching, we feel appreciated and truly heard in an academic world that can be unwelcoming and unyielding.

In this reflective piece, we aim to share some tangible strategies and insights derived from our ongoing efforts to crip mentorship, offering guidance to both students and faculty members who are eager to embark on a similar mission. By disrupting the neoliberal processes that prioritize productivity, we hope to promote a more compassionate and inclusive academic environment. Next, we provide a few tips for faculty and students on how mentorship relationships can serve as transformative spaces. 

Prioritize Flexibility Over Rigidity

One of the fundamental principles of crip mentorship is acknowledging how rigid academic structures inadvertently marginalize faculty and students with disabilities. Recognizing this, a shift towards prioritizing flexibility becomes essential. This flexibility might manifest in various forms such as adjusting deadlines, modifying project formats, or adopting alternative assessment methods that are able to better accommodate the diverse ways individuals interact with academic material.

Students with disabilities often have additional responsibilities, such as caretaking for others, medical appointments, or other health-related commitments, which can lead to burnout. Offering flexibility is vital for both mentees and mentors to recharge from the demanding pace of academia. Regular check-ins, for example, are instrumental in evaluating if aspects of a project need to be restructured or if deadlines require renegotiation. Moreover, in scenarios where a student misses an in-person assignment due to medical reasons, providing an alternative assignment with equivalent learning outcomes supports, rather than penalizes, the student. This approach helps maintain a constructive and adaptive mentorship environment.

Open Communication

Effective mentorship is fundamentally grounded in open and honest communication. Within the context of crip mentorship, this translates into creating a space where students can comfortably express their needs, preferences, and challenges. It is essential for faculty members to mirror this openness, sharing their own experiences and being receptive to adapting their mentorship strategies to meet the diverse needs of their mentees. The foundation of a successful mentor-mentee relationship is built on this mutual disclosure.

Mentors, with the best of intentions, can sometimes offer more opportunities than students are capable of managing. Part of responsible mentorship involves supporting students in assessing their workload and declining opportunities without fear of judgment or assumptions about their abilities. In allowing a student to evaluate their circumstance and communicate their workload they are building skills for future jobs environments to wager what is an appropriate amount of work to take on. This approach underscores the importance of transparency and trust in the mentorship relationship.

The essence of mentorship also relies on creating a safe space for vulnerability. As students, we deeply value the openness of our mentor regarding his experiences with invisible disabilities. Our mentor’s honesty about the challenges he faces, coupled with the unique perspectives and commitment he brings to his work and mentorship, sets a powerful example. Open discussions about the best methods of correspondence, be it through email, Zoom, or in-person meetings, further enhance the effectiveness and inclusivity of the mentorship experience. Accommodating virtual meetings or allowing for asynchronous communication upholds the value of crip mentorship and ensures that all students have equitable access to educational opportunities.

Embrace Accessibility Practices

Crip mentorship inherently demands a steadfast commitment to accessibility. Faculty members can uphold this commitment by ensuring all learning materials, communication platforms, and physical spaces are fully accessible to students with disabilities.  Not only can they advocate for accessible practices, but actively implement strategies ranging from providing captioned videos and using easily readable fonts to offering transcripts for audio content, all aimed at creating an inclusive learning environment. One approach to ensure accessibility in the classroom is one our mentor has taught us students. At the beginning of each semester in the first class he provides an accessibility statement which provides an outline of how the classroom can be used in a more inclusive way. This statement allows students to move freely around the room and take breaks when needed.

When mentoring students who have specific disability accommodations, it is crucial to integrate these accommodations into the mentorship process. This includes adjusting meeting dynamics, project deadlines, and the overall expectations of the mentorship relationship to align with the student’s needs. For instance, if a student has accommodations for extended deadlines due to medical flare-ups, it is important to adapt project timelines accordingly. Verbally acknowledging and affirming a student’s need to rest validates their experience and honors their embodiment of disability within an academic space. Such practices ensure that mentorship is not just inclusive in theory but empathetic and responsive in practice, thereby embodying the true spirit of crip mentorship.

Mental Health Check-Ins:

Mental health check-ins play a critical role in acknowledging the impact of mental health on academic performance. We incorporate regular check-ins that focus not only on progress but also on the well-being of mentees which promotes open discussion and destigmatization of mental health. These check-ins are vital for mentors to assist students in establishing a balance between academic responsibilities and personal life using time management strategies, realistic goals, and self-care.

The effectiveness of mental health check-ins in postsecondary education has been demonstrated in various innovative approaches. For instance, the first author has utilized creative strategies to engage students and effectively gauge their mental state including the use of Zoom polls featuring imaginative questions designed to prompt students to reflect and respond in a manner that resonates with them. An example of this is asking, ‘In what Mariah Carey mood are you today?’ with options like ‘A. Exhausted, darling’, ‘B. Hero – Feeling strong and resilient’, or ‘C. Fantasy – Cheerful and in high spirits’. This playful yet insightful approach encourages students to express their emotional state in a fun and relatable way.

Arts-based approaches provide another innovative avenue for mental health assessment. By asking students to create a comic strip encapsulating their feelings towards a particular topic allows them to communicate their emotional state visually and creatively. These artistic expressions offer unique insight into students’ perspectives and mental health, fostering a deeper understanding for the educator.

Peer Mentorship, Self-Advocacy, and Self-Efficacy:

Fostering opportunities for peer mentorship and self-advocacy is a key aspect of creating a supportive academic environment, especially for students with disabilities. The establishment of peer support networks alongside formal mentorship programs has lasting benefits. These interpersonal networks offer additional layers of support, enabling students to share their experiences and gain strategies for managing mental health. Peer mentorship among students fosters a sense of community and belonging rooted in understanding and shared experiences. Facilitating connections between students empowers mutual guidance and learning based on their experiential knowledge. Additionally, there exists a seemingly magical synergy when ‘crip’ and queer individuals come together. This natural gravitation towards one another fosters bonds that transcend traditional boundaries, celebrating the beauty and richness of diverse experiences. These connections enhance the academic experience, bringing unique perspectives and insights that enrich the learning environment for everyone.

Empowering self-efficacy is emulated in our mentorship, for example, by encouraging students to mobilize learning by presenting independently in conferences. The opportunity to take responsibility for bringing our shared work into the spotlight fosters network development, pride, and self-efficacy, translating to increased self-worth and confidence to self-advocate. Self-advocacy development in mentorship materializes by helping students build skills necessary to communicate their needs and seek appropriate accommodations independently which is essential for academic success and personal growth. Mentors and faculty must, however, to be prepared to advocate for students when needed. This duality of empowering self-advocacy while providing support ensures that students with disabilities are not only heard but are actively shaping their academic experiences. These practices provide students the opportunity to thrive.

Disrupting Academia Through Mentorship

In our collective endeavor to disrupt ableist norms in mentorship, adopting these concrete strategies is a pivotal starting point. As we navigate the dynamic and fast-paced terrain of academia, it is imperative to remember that the true strength of our academic community is rooted in its diversity. By embracing a crip mentorship approach, we pave the way for a more equitable and enriching educational experience for everyone.

For educators, a key suggestion is to actively educate themselves. Taking the initiative to learn about different disabilities and the range of available accommodations is crucial. This proactive approach demonstrates commitment and equips educators to better address the specific challenges faced by each student. Such knowledge and understanding are fundamental in creating an environment where all students can thrive.

Lastly, advocating for meaningful and inclusive policies is crucial in this journey. Pushing for improved accessibility, flexible academic policies, and increased funding for support services are essential steps in constructing a truly inclusive academic environment. These efforts are not just about disrupting the status quo; they are about cultivating an academic space where diversity is not just tolerated but celebrated, and where every individual’s potential is recognized and nurtured. Through these measures, we contribute to building a more inclusive, understanding, and supportive academic world.


Cripping Mentorship- Image of Alan standing with his arms crossed and smiling. He is wearing a blue shirt with all kinds of bugs on it (grasshoppers, butterflies, dragonflies, etc), round glasses, and cap.

Dr. Alan Martino (He/Him) is an Assistant Professor in the Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies program at the University of Calgary. He’s also the Lead of the Disability and Sexuality Lab. 

Cripping Mentorship- Naomi is sitting in a frozen ocean with ice skates, gloves, and hat on. She is smiling at the camera with a single side braid

Naomi Eastman is a graduate from the Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies program at the University of Calgary. She actively works to translate knowledge into the disability community and has been published in the Palgrave Encyclopedia of Sexuality Education.

Cripping Mentorship- Image of Eleni. Eleni is standing in front of trees smiling with long brown hair and white shirt

Eleni Moumos (She/Her) is an undergraduate student studying Psychology with a minor in Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies. Her research interests include mental health, disability, and sexuality.

Cripping Mentorship - Black and white image of Miila. She has shoulder length hair, nose ring, and glasses

Miila Gordon (She/Her) is a Bachelor of Community Rehabilitation student, minoring in Sociology at the University of Calgary. She is passionate about “cripping” academia, and all things regarding Queer and Women’s health initiatives for all folks.

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