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Disability in HE: building on recent breakthroughs

Disabled people including myself have long campaigned for accommodations to help us live our lives. The COVID-19 pandemic shows that these are not as impractical as we have always been told.’

– Ashley Shew, Assistant Professor
Department of Science, Technology, and Society, Virginia Tech

Remote working, asynchronous timetables, a reduction in presenteeism – developments that disabled academics have spent years calling for have been swiftly and widely adopted in the light of the pandemic. Many of these modifications to longstanding HE working practices are refreshing and innovative and may yield lasting improvements for many disabled academics.  

Sought-after academic advances are secured through the inclusion of people with sharp brains and big ideas. These people may be working with or without a disability (be that visible, hidden, congenital or more recent onset), chronic illness or neurodiversity. However, it has become all too painfully clear that growing marketisation in HE has created conditions that often exclude or marginalise disabled academics. Target-driven pursuit of high student satisfaction scores and research excellence has in many cases brought with it a toxic burden of unrealistic expectations, overwork and ableism.

On top of ever-increasing professional expectations, many disabled academics have little choice but to shoulder significant extra workload such as the need to identify potential obstacles and then define, request, negotiate and justify accommodations, as one interviewee in Merchant, Read, D’Evelyn et al.’s  The insider view: tackling disabling practices in higher education institutions explains:

I spend about three days a week – three full-time days a week – arranging my own travel, booking it all, researching it, filing my university claims – because everything has to be claimed through the university first – and then the [UK] Access to Work claim. Each one is a three-stage process.’

Even events, like conferences and seminars, designed to foster connection prove divisive if they are poorly planned without consideration for the range of requirements attendees are likely to have. Issues include the use of buildings with inadequate access, the scheduling of long, physically demanding days that culminate in noisy networking events, and financial pressures caused by the slow processing of claims for additional support or transport. This leaves some conference delegates absorbing the message that they don’t belong and aren’t valued. Marisa De Picker’s paper ‘Rethinking inclusion and disability activism at academic conferences: strategies proposed by a PhD student with a physical disability’ offers an insightful first-hand exploration of this dynamic.

The persistent and profoundly frustrating sense of exclusion described by one disabled academic on Twitter: ‘“#ableismtellsme” that I don’t belong because non-disabled people refuse to remove barriers that exclude me, then turn around and say “See? Disabled people aren’t cut out for academia”‘ can lead to disabled academics being sidelined, silenced or even leaving HE for good.

But as disabled academics connect across a range of formal and informal support networks to resist this, the volume of voices speaking out both within HE institutions and across social media (using hashtags like #DisabledInHigherEd, #DisabledinSTEM, #DisInHigherEd and #AcademicAbleism) grows powerfully. This kind of collaborative, concerted advocacy has the potential to shift attitudes and inspire positive action, particularly in a context in which so many norms are being rethought.

Ambitious, culture-changing calls are being made for:

  • An end to retro-fitting – the often clunky, time-consuming process of adapting what already exists – and the establishment instead of ‘inclusive by design’ spaces, systems and technology as standard
  • Far-reaching, non-tokenistic representation, as Ashley Shew urges, ‘Include disabled people in boards, teams and studies, and learn from us’
  • Widespread, high quality training, preferably delivered by disabled people, across HE – including staff with practical responsibilities such as overseeing disabled parking spaces and those on governing bodies driving the direction of policy and funding
  • The rethinking of attitudes around concepts as central as normative time – the demanding deadlines and work schedules that underpin so much of academic life. In Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time, Ellen Samuels explores the value of ‘non-linear flexibility’ – something many are increasingly espousing in response to COVID-19-related constraints.

Alongside these bold goals, the Chronically Academic network of scholars with disabilities and chronic illnesses (@chron_ac) recently invited contributors to share  what, in their opinion, makes a good ally. Responses suggested that small, thoughtful actions from colleagues have greater value than might at first be thought: 

I have specific diet needs that make travel very hard. So, for an international work trip, my friend/colleague gathered menus from the city we were visiting. She put them all in a PDF for me, without my ever asking. One of the most caring things someone has ever done for me.’

How can I help you/What do you need? Followed by if that changes let me know…1st day at my new job – straightaway I knew I had an ally manager.’

An email to the whole committee that says “A copy of the agenda is attached. I’ll be bringing X copies in size X font.” So I know if I need to bring my own or not.

My advisor insisted we use the budget to rent a more expensive hotel with a kitchenette on a conference trip so that I could prepare meals (I have very strict dietary restrictions).’

Let’s hope that the compelling voices of disabled academics and the contributions of non-disabled allies in this period of accelerated change might finally provide the momentum needed to address stigma and marginalisation at a systemic level. It’s long overdue.


Further reading

Krys Méndez Ramírez’s ‘Academic ableism: fighting for accommodations and access in higher education

Let COVID-19 expand awareness of disability tech’ by Ashley Shew in Nature

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

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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