Disability on campus: the challenges faced and change needed

Five academics talk about the issues associated with various disabilities and what should be done to improve support

May 18, 2017
Disability on Campus

There has been a lot of focus recently on equity issues around gender and race, but disabled academics have largely escaped attention.

This is possibly due to the relatively low numbers of staff declaring or disclosing disability, in either job applications or staff surveys. According to the Equality Challenge Unit, less than 4 per cent of UK academics report a disability (see graphs overleaf). However, my own research, along with other emerging studies, suggests that disabled academics are here – and we can be found up and down hierarchies and across disciplines.

Thanks to the hard work of disabled academics, conversations are emerging about the experiences of early career researchers, as well as more established academics. Much of this activism is taking place on Twitter, through accounts such as Chronically Academic (@chron_ac), @phdisabled and hashtags including #academicableism and #actuallyautistic. These create space for disabled academics to share their experiences and counter dominant narratives within academia.

My own recent, as yet unpublished research, funded by my university and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, brought me into contact with more than 60 UK academics from across the disciplines – some of whom had left academia because of disability discrimination or health-related concerns. I was told frequently that, for academics, being disabled is “like having a second job”. For starters, disabled academics have an additional layer of work to do to explain their condition or “impairment” to colleagues and to navigate the frustrating and onerous bureaucracy around making necessary adjustments to their working environment.

One researcher, a wheelchair user, told me about her efforts to secure an accessible car parking space. After many months of paperwork and requests, she was provided with a space more than a kilometre away from her office. Further exhausting and time-consuming efforts eventually resulted in her being given one near her office, but it was often used by non-disabled people. More than once, this left her unable to park and obliged her to cancel meetings and return home.

Fatigue was expressed by nearly everyone in the study. Academics are all tired, but some are more tired than others. For many disabled academics, fatigue is directly related to health conditions such as traumatic brain injury or chronic fatigue syndrome. For others, it emerges from the extra effort exerted to “perform” the role of the “ideal academic”, who is excellent at teaching, research and administrative tasks.

This academic exemplar, my interviewees told me, has no accessibility needs, can switch topics quickly, can teach for six hours without a break, can eat anything and can read, write, publish, research, teach and use a computer without assistance. The ideal academic can climb stairs, use standard toilets and parking spaces, can stand at doorways and chat with colleagues and can travel anywhere at any time. In short, the ideal academic does not have a body. This is absurd, of course, but the norm is so strong that disabled academics internalise it too – and some in my study had self-selected themselves out of promotion or a career in the sector.

An academic with dyslexia might take 50 per cent longer to write a paper than a colleague who does not have the condition. Going to a two-day conference might require five days of recovery time: longer, perhaps, if the conference food contained gluten and the academic is intolerant to it. This extra effort is often exerted to the detriment of health – or not exerted at the expense of a nagging fear of career consequences.

Disabilities among UK academic staff

Graph of disabilities among UK academic staff

Note: figures are weighted by full-person equivalent, based on known staff data. Numbers are rounded to the nearest 5.

Disabled academics and those with chronic health conditions are often able to manage, up to a point, through informal flexible working practices, rearranging teaching or commuting after 9am and before 4pm to avoid stressful congestion. But there is still considerable scope for universities and research funders to improve their working lives further.

For instance, university websites could collate into one place all the various initiatives set up to support disabled staff, easing access of information. Promotion procedures should take into account the effects of disability – and all staff should be made aware of that. Senior academics should be trained in disability awareness and taught how to line-manage disabled staff – including what workload adjustments should be made for them. And research funders should clearly indicate the support they offer to disabled grant applicants and holders – possibly including the provision of flexible and part-time funding.

Creating an environment in which all staff can flourish, irrespective of disability, will require a cultural shift, but it has enormous potential to change universities. Younger researchers told me that when they were students they had been inspired to pursue a university career by a senior academic who had declared their disability. But disabled students continue to report considerable stigma, as well as variations in the availability and usefulness of adjustments.

Having more disabled staff could have profound effects on the curriculum and cultures of universities, making accessibility the norm, and thereby reducing the need for individualised adjustments. And, in general, a more inclusive, forgiving and flexible working culture could only be good for all members of the academic community who have lives, commitments – and human bodies.

Kate Sang is an associate professor in management at Heriot-Watt University.

Four more academics talk about disability on campus. Click the links to access their stories.

Nigel Lockett

‘I eventually came to realise that dyslexia is not a learning difficulty but, rather, a learning difference’

Nigel Lockett, professor of entrepreneurship at Lancaster University writes on life as "the dyslexic professor".

Farah Mendlesohn

‘The more excitingly designed a classroom is, the worse a time I am going to have teaching in it’

Farah Mendlesohn, associate dean: law, policing and forensics at Staffordshire University, writes on the problems caused by poor disability access on campus.

Anna Nibbs

‘My brain has too many tabs open, and too many applications running simultaneously’

Anna Nibbs, enterprise education developer at the University of Sheffield, writes about life on campus with autism.

Brenda Jo Brueggemann

‘I’m just a person who has figured out the potent possibilities of adaptability, flexibility and creative problem-solving’

Brenda Jo Brueggemann, professor and Aetna chair of writing at the University of Connecticut, writes on hearing loss.


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Reader's comments (2)

Brenda. the deaf professorial scribe is enchanting in her description of her disability but miles off the mark in terms of what a severe hearing disability is like to endure in the highly interactional locus of University life. A little bit of 'white noise' may be nice to smother out the rumble of conversation, but that is not what a serious hearing disability is about at all. For example, take my case with 'profound' loss of hearing throughout my 27 odd academic career, there have been times when the stress of running largely populated semesters and taking questions in from students in large auditoriums has ranged from very difficult to neigh impossible to endure. When this level of hearing loss is compounded with enduring tinnitus, it can mean actively participating in meetings and giving papers at conferences become major hurdles. The major difficulty is that while blindness cuts one off from things, deafness cuts one off from people and people are the stuff of academic life!
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