Support, not statute

June 27, 2013

As a full-time academic who is a wheelchair user living with multiple sclerosis, discrimination is a fact of life. Unlike my colleagues I do not have a choice over how I get to work: public transport is not an option. Likewise, I face a number of environmental, societal and attitudinal barriers when travelling to conferences or doing research. People presume that I am unable to think or act for myself. I get ignored in restaurants, and trying to hail a cab is almost impossible (the wheelchair seems to act as an “invisibility cloak”).

However, it is a different story at work. My colleagues, managers and human resources team do all they can to help. I wouldn’t be able to pursue a full academic career if it weren’t for my immediate colleagues who willingly push my wheelchair, help me get in and out of places and do all sorts of non-work-related tasks that go beyond the normal requirements of collegiality (from fetching me a drink to driving me home when I am too tired to speak, let alone drive). Thanks to my group head I recently underwent an “access to work” assessment, as a consequence of which I have been provided with specialist ICT equipment and a new electric wheelchair.

Living with MS isn’t easy, but the law itself could never cover all the eventualities associated with discriminatory behaviour and the way society is constructed. However, thanks to the non-discriminatory and considerate behaviour of my colleagues and employers, and the policies and procedures of the university itself, I find myself working in an environment in which my disability isn’t an issue.

I am disabled: this is a fact that means on occasion I have to accept being treated differently from my colleagues. While some of this may be reflective of legally required “reasonable adaptations”, the fact that I can work at all is partly down to organisational policy, but is mostly because of a collegiate, supportive and somewhat bespoke working environment in which I am judged on my abilities. Because my disability is acknowledged and dealt with in a professional manner, I am able to make a full contribution to society – something I thought was lost for ever when I was diagnosed almost 20 years ago.

For me, actions and attitudes are what make a difference. While higher education may have some way to go, from my perspective as far as disability is concerned we are leading the field.

Jane Andrews
Lecturer and MSc programme director
Engineering Systems Management
Aston University

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