Professor Spotlight: Dr. Dugan Advocates for Disabled Students, Staff, Faculty

Sammi Bray ’25

Staff Writer

Dr. Kelly P. Dugan, Visiting Assistant Professor of Classical Studies at Trinity College, begins each class every semester by sharing with her students that she is physically disabled and neurodivergent. At thirty-eight years old and in her second year of teaching at Trinity, Dugan is unafraid to be who she really is, though it was not always that easy.  

Every course Dugan teaches begins with an open, honest dialogue with students. She chooses her words carefully, aware of the stigma surrounding labeling certain conditions. “When you label things or share details right away, it increases the chances of someone treating you inhumanely and you get boxed into the stereotypes of your conditions,” Dugan says. She explains that utilizing general words of identity like “neurodivergent” can help protect people like her in higher education that have mental health conditions that are often interpreted as detrimental to teaching and learning. However, she chooses to be more detailed about her physical disabilities in order to raise awareness about chronic and so-called invisible physical disabilities that require fluctuating treatments and on-and-off use of assistive technologies, like canes, as needed.  

In her twenties, Dugan began noticing pain in her hips. She was still able to partake in activities that she loved such as judo and working on archaeological digs in Greece, but the pain continued to increase. Several times she sought help and several times she was ultimately dismissed, told to take ibuprofen. Slowly, her ability to participate fully in activities decreased further. Active since a young age— Dugan danced (she admits not well), was a cheerleader in high school, and was on the sailing team in grad school— Dugan was losing something that had always been a source of joy, sharing that her childhood had not been easy, either.  

“It was very hard for my self-confidence… I couldn’t do the things I loved anymore,” she says. Despite the pain she lived through every day, Dugan finished two master’s degrees (one in Classics at University of Kansas and then in linguistics at The University of Georgia) and prepared to begin a PhD program at The Ohio State University.  

In October 2012, Dugan went to a doctor and finally had an MRI done. Via email, she learned she has idiopathic chronic avascular necrosis— also known as osteonecrosis— a lack of blood supply that causes bone death. It is very rare, and in her case, there is no known cause, something that took her time to come to terms with. Also in the email, Dugan learned she would be needing a hip replacement, which she wanted to put off for as long as possible.  

In 2013, she woke up in extreme pain—her hip had collapsed. At the beginning of the spring semester and four days after surgery, she was given a list of nursing homes, where she would go to live for the next six weeks.  

“It was a very hard time, mostly lonely,” Dugan shares, mentioning that she received little help in trying to keep up with her courses. “I didn’t want to fail at school,” she says. She found comfort in watching March Madness and a Fiona Apple album that came out around the same time— not too different from Trinity students today.  

“It’s never just the disability— a lot is always happening,” Dugan says, continuing to open up about her life. While adjusting to living life in a whole new way, she also had to adjust to the poor discord around disability of the time— which lingers on today. Students would make jokes and ultimately did not understand. As she tried to get back on track with her work, few professors understood or gave her leeway. This experience shaped her teaching style today.  

Eventually, Dugan decided to leave the program with a third master’s degree, instead of a PhD. It was “devastating” for her, but ultimately the best decision. She joined a friend on a road trip, leading her to a job teaching Latin and Irish history to middle school and high school students in Rhode Island, and as a writing coach at Brown University. She loved these roles— but the spark and passion to be a professor lived on. Dugan emailed professors looking for scholarship in anti-racist teaching and one month later, she applied to a PhD program at the University of Georgia in language and literacy education.  

At Georgia, Dugan found a community of people open about disability and received the proper therapy she needed— which she recommends to everyone. “I was accommodated for, I got to be a whole and complete person,” she says, “It felt natural, surrounded by professors, friends, and advisors.” With such a positive experience, Dugan applies the expectations given to her to her students now, with a flexible attendance policy, alternate assignments, and second chances. “I wouldn’t have succeeded without it and my previous education would have been so much more valuable with this,” she explains.  

Now, five weeks into her first year physically on campus at Trinity, Dugan wants to bring positive change and discourse. “I needed a classroom change (the elevator in her previously assigned classroom was broken), and I was able to get it thankfully,” she says, still in the early stages of creating a relationship with the community.  

Dugan is looking forward to helping our Trinity community strengthen our support for disabled students, staff, and faculty. Excited about the possibilities and positive Trinity is a school that can make this happen, she believes new directions in anti-ableism will help the longevity of the school and could open up fantastic mentorship opportunities for students with disabilities. “Living with disabilities can be like a rollercoaster… establishing more structures for supporting disabled people on campus will only help even out the rollercoaster,” she states. “You matter more than grades and classes ever will,” is the message she wants everyone to know.  

Next semester, Dugan will be teaching intermediate Latin and a course on Ethiopia & the Ancient Mediterranean. “Even if you take just one class with me, I’ll love it and welcome you!” Dugan says, encouraging all students to explore the ancient world and their passions no matter their major.  

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