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Disability and neurodiversity in HE: how to tackle discrimination and champion diversity

Ivory towers, steep career ladders: it’s revealing that concepts associated with academia as a profession often carry strong notions of exclusion and inaccessibility.

Recent years have seen HE institutions across the world work hard to position themselves as champions of diversity, with much being done to widen access and promote inclusivity. As a result, students with disabilities or neurodiversity now benefit from increasingly thoughtful provision.

But can the same be said about the academics who teach them?

A culture of overwork and perfectionism, spiralling precarity and deterioriating mental health was putting many under intense pressure even before Covid-19 hit. Where does that leave academics with additional challenges such as a disability or neurodiversity? That their numbers include those who have developed a health issue like chronic fatigue as a direct result of unhealthy expectations and work practices simply highlights the scale of the problem.

Just as disability itself is diverse – congenital or acquired, visible or hidden, physical or mental – so are the experiences of academics themselves. But many are depressingly common, from outright hostility to jolting thoughtlessness: able-bodied people parking in disabled spaces, the siting of disability support offices in obscure, hard-to-access areas, repeated failure to provide image descriptors in journal articles or signers in online meetings.

Many disabled academics report that the time required to request, negotiate, manage and refine the support they need amounts to a second job in itself. Some have been asked to take on further time-consuming unpaid work such as disability policy formulation – which can in itself exert a negative impact on their career progress as it reduces the time available for more research-focused, promotable tasks. The burden of this extra workload, the friction caused by ill-fitting or inadequate solutions, and the experience of being overtly or subtly excluded leaves many academics with disabilities or neurodiversity feeling they have little option but to leave HE.

When that happens, the academic world only grows weaker. Those who have regularly faced – and overcome – huge challenges to reach sought-after academic positions are likely to possess inspiring levels of tenacity, ingenuity and motivation. People with different cognitive functioning and processing, such as ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), dyslexia or Tourette Syndrome, often have significant strengths in such valuable areas as creativity, attention to detail, flexibility, problem-solving, empathy and energy.

An academy under pressure urgently needs the breadth and vitality of contribution that people with such qualities and characteristics can bring. So what can be done to ensure that they are not pushed out, but empowered to stay and excel?

There’s plenty to do, but the good news is that small, thoughtful changes at each stage in the employment process can make a big difference. Here’s how.

Recruitment

Take time to review your recruitment processes. Subtle nuances caused by conscious or unconscious bias in job ad terms can have a surprisingly powerful effect on those reading them. This can leave strong candidates from a minority group absorbing the implicit message that the job is not for them before they even begin to draft their application. To avoid this pitfall, consider using blind hiring software from a company like Applied.

Traditional interviews can also be a minefield. Look for and then eradicate potential hurdles at each step. Would candidates welcome a preliminary visit to see the interview space in advance and identify any access issues that need resolving? Could you schedule interviews at times that don’t require people with disabilities to travel during rush hour? How diverse is your interview panel? Are interviewers sensitive to difference – would they, for example, know not to penalise someone with neurodiversity who finds making eye contact difficult?

Induction

When planning an induction, ensure that arrangements are discussed with rather than imposed on a new staff member. A proactively supportive approach will encourage self-advocacy rather than risk making a new recruit feel disempowered or isolated from the outset.

Invest in getting the best possible adjustments made to both physical environment and working practices, making use of the host of tools available, such as a Livescribe smart pen or Speechify text-to-speech software. Simplify workspaces and systems where possible: it’s likely everyone will benefit. It can also be a good idea to invite new starters to create a bio of how they work to share with their team, rather than relying on busy colleagues to notice and adapt appropriately.

Retention

The cultivation of a stimulating, supportive environment is key to retaining staff with disabilities or neurodiversity. This will involve a willingness to ask difficult questions, listen to honest answers and prioritise ongoing learning. Ensure staff across all roles are fully and sensitively trained – from line managers responsible for staff development to support staff charged with implementing vital PEEP (Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan) requirements.

Check the language your institution adopts. Academics know how crucial it is to use language carefully and precisely in their specialist field: make sure the same standards are applied to those terms that relate to people with disabilities or neurodiversity. Phrases such as ‘suffers from’ or ‘is confined to’ can undermine and alienate even if they are well-intentioned, and are best avoided.

Relationships between staff members and their line manager or mentor are critical, too. People who feel seen, included, supported and developed will be in a better position to navigate the added challenges that their disability or neurodiversity brings – and thrive. Steps to achieving that could include issuing a swift, uncompromising response to any form of bullying or harassment, and gathering unfiltered feedback through anonymised staff surveys and exit interviews. Do what you can to make sure findings are not then shelved, but are examined and acted on, with attention and commitment from the highest levels.

Promotion

One effective way to ensure that your institution fully benefits from all that academics with disabilities or neurodiversity have to offer it is to review the way promotion works. Do people feel able to speak openly about the challenges they face? Senior staff have a key role to play here in being vocal about their own disability or neurodiversity (like the University of Connecticut’s Professor Brenda Jo Brueggemann, who writes and speaks widely about hearing loss, and her own experience of it), or in amplifying the voices of others.

Some structures or practices associated with promotion also serve to discourage good candidates from seeking it. What behaviours are being modelled from the top at your institution? If it’s the silent shouldering of unrealistic workloads, you may find you are effectively excluding those already handling the extra burden of negotiating a disability. Do promotions tend to go to those who network impressively? If that’s the case, you might be excluding highly talented people who find networking events (particularly in packed or noisy environments) hard to access physically or socially.

Do what you can to review and refine the promotion process so that career progression is not dependent on a person’s ability to socialise in a specific way or to take on more work than is healthy or sustainable. Your entire staff body is likely to benefit as a consequence.

Change is in the air. Taking the time now to identify and address obstacles that hamper the progress of academics with disabilities or neurodiversity will, in time, win your institution a reputation for championing equality – and access to a deep pool of vibrant, resilient, generation-changing talent.


Further reading

Harvard Business Review’s ‘Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage

Ableism in academia: Where are the disabled and ill academics?’ by Nicole Brown, University College London and Jennifer S Leigh, University of Kent, UK

Survey highlights challenges disabled academics face – and what can be done to address them’ from ScienceMag.org


Image credit (from left to right, obtained from the Noun Project):

  • Cane by Adrien Coquet
  • Disability by Arijit Adak
  • Intellectual Disability by Template
  • Deaf by Arthur Shlain
  • Blind by Royyan Wijaya
Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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