Disability in academia: early thoughts

I am roughly 2/3 of the way through my interviews with disabled academics. So far I have a pretty even split across disciplines and a mixture of ECRs and established academics. Most of my participants are women (so far) and few mid-career academics (again so far). Although I still have a number of interviews to complete, a few people have been asking what my early findings are and so I thought I would consider the emerging themes.

Disability covers such a broad range of ‘impairments’ that there is no one experience of being a disabled academic. However, there are a few shared issues. The first one is fatigue. Being disabled is akin to having a second job. Many interviewees have reported the considerable effort involved in securing even basic reasonable adjustments. The paperwork, appeals, phone calls, meetings are all exhausting and are in themselves a full-time job. This is on top of the fatigue which comes from ‘impairments’ for example, taking longer than non-disabled colleagues to read a paper, undertake marking, write a paper. As a number of people have said to me, we are all overworked, and disabled academics more so.

Fatigue can have an effect on other aspects of academic life, for example, networking. Conferences are pretty tiring things! But when managing the effects of travel, presenting a paper, physically negotiating getting into the venue, a conference dinner or chatting over wine can be more than many people can tolerate. For some people the nature of their ‘impairment’ can make the academic chit chat and socialising difficult if not impossible and some academics worry that the lack of opportunity for collaboration and network building may hold back their careers.

For some academics, they experience a sudden loss of support when they make the move from student to staff member, or taught to research student. Disability services may (or may not) cater for academics, but whether they have the resources and knowledge to be able to provide reasonable adjustments is questionable. This combined with an apparent lack of understanding of disability amongst PhD supervisors, line managers and colleagues can make securing reasonable adjustments difficult. One example is parking spaces, where disabled academics reported unsatisfactory arrangements made by employers, which can prevent an academic being able to access their offices.

The increasing pressures of paperwork, online learning and workload are affecting disabled academics. The rapid turnaround of coursework to satisfy perceived NSS needs impacts those with large classes or difficulty with aspects of the work such as reading. While the VLE can provide accessibility for staff and students, it can also be an exclusionary aspect of work for those who struggle with mouse or screen use.

Many of these problems are the result of lack of thought or unconscious bias, however, some interviewees have reported distressing examples of harassment, offensive and exclusionary language and disability focussed critiques in student assessments. For some academics, this overt discrimination exacerbated existing problems and was associated with mental health crises.

There are some positive stories though! Examples include accessibility maps for campuses, workload reductions, disability working groups feeding into university policy, strong efforts from the UCU and supportive line managers. Much of this seems to depend on particular actors having personal experience of disability themselves or disabled family members. This has implications for continuity of support when a line manager moves on.

These are just some early thoughts – not coherent yet, or fully analysed. There is more to explore around the role of the body in academic work, how these discriminations write themselves on our bodies. Does the nature of the academic work prohibit the accommodation of certain ‘impairments’? Participants generally seemed to think so. I need to unpick these ideas much more. But for now, that’s some preliminary findings!


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