Sunday, 7 January 2018

Access denied: the dark side of prestige

Written by Hannah Gibson

‘In order for others to [be accommodated], who as beings have a different set of requirements, they would have to push for a modification of the environment. Some have to push to be accommodated. Given how able-bodied privilege comes to structure a world (both a physical and social world) then people will disabilities have to push to have their own requirements met.’ (Sara Ahmed)

Spaces. Each one requires a different physical and intellectual attentiveness. Perhaps you have never thought about how much energy it will take to get from one space to another, how your body responds when faced with slight inclines or uneven paths. The lighting of a space, whether there is a clear trajectory from the doorway to a seat. The space itself, how it seems inoffensive yet from the outside looking in, certain spaces are porous, where the walls, floor, ceiling have come to assume a certain type of body will fill that space.

Some weeks ago, there was a public engagement session that I wanted to attend in the Department of Sociology at The University of Cambridge. Around the same week, I was looking forward to a lecture on intersectionality by Sara Ahmed. Both events were scheduled to take place in the same seminar room, but I could not go because on those days, it was too difficult to walk up or down stairs. I live with complex and rare multi-system invisible illnesses, and the challenges I face, particularly within society and academia are what disable me (thus, I identify myself as a disabled person). Living with invisible conditions means that I look physically capable and ‘healthy.’ In this blog post, I want to create (or contribute to) a dialogue about the salient and ignored issues related to being disabled (both visibly and invisibly) within an academic institution, access (or lack of) to spaces, and what messages this reproduces.

I feel honoured to be a Visiting Scholar at Reprosoc* in the Sociology Department at The University of Cambridge. My family are proud. It is a privilege. Speaking out in any way that isn’t positive about a prestigious institution feels wrong – I should be thankful, right? A girl who didn’t attend high school and fought her way through her undergraduate and graduate school now sits at a desk at one of the world’s most renowned universities, and I am raising questions that may make people uncomfortable. But, as Sara Ahmed would say, you have to push against the tide and push against others walking in the opposite direction to be accommodated. As for the notion of privilege and prestige, they work to silence me, trying to erase my discomfort before I begin to give shape to the words and dare to speak them. However my positionality as a temporary visitor is perhaps what gives me the confidence to be honest. My goal is simple: to raise awareness so that long-term, disabled students, staff, and other visiting scholars have access to access any room or area that able-bodied people have.

Although there are archaic and small elevators (note the word ‘small’ as you read on) in some buildings, there are a number of areas that have none. The first time I was presented with stairs to the aforementioned seminar room, I walked up them. The next few times I couldn’t due to pain and fatigue. I do a lot physically with my limitations already, so forcing my body to ascend stairs and endure pain as I sit through a lecture or seminar is not productive. I have found that having incredibly supportive colleagues and mentors is not enough. They cannot erase the stairs that must be climbed or make the paved streets straighter. It is illogical that given how inaccessible rooms and buildings are in a country that has so many laws about being inclusive (see The Equality Act 2010).

At an individual level, not being able to participate fully in the both the academic and social aspects at an institution is isolating and pushes me, as a disabled person, further into the periphery of university life. This is not an unfamiliar feeling: to sit and give people my attention when the pain sears through my body, being too exhausted but wanting to attend something important, swallowing medicine to get through the day. The difference between this ‘normal’ and my current locale is that the physical barriers become much less about my in/abilities and more about the spaces that I am barred from, where the hurdles are concrete steps, uneven pavements and the way this has been allowed to continue into 2017. It is in the spaces found outside of the rooms beyond my physical reach that I stand (often alone) and feel defeated. It is infuriating but also incredibly sad. Why does an institution that has so much to offer is so exclusionary?

Without extra challenges, as a sick graduate student, it’s a David and Goliath battle, a weak body pitted against a myriad of challenges that form one giant monster. Pain, fatigue, deadlines, nausea, weak immune system, dysfunctional autonomic system, rest to fit in around all of this, and not forgetting to eat. It’s a constant roundabout of things to do, to cope with, and to juggle. Add on the normal pressures of completing a PhD (and particularly in anthropology where your body is your main tool as you undertake intense fieldwork – data collection – to understand the lives of your participants), I have a challenging schedule. Having environmental barriers further debilitates and narrows one’s options to participate in the very world in which one continually fights to carve out a space for oneself. Sadly, to be at Cambridge has meant more about adapting to an able-bodied world and less about engaging with my research.

Aptly put by this blogger, ‘when having to constantly seek out whether there is building access [to events], you’re having to foreground yourself as someone disabled before you get to present yourself as someone who is a badass researcher. Psychologically, achieving the inverse of this is hard enough with a temperamental body. Additional reasons to reinforce this lexical ordering of identity just aren’t welcome, especially when they’re avoidable if the access information was just made public.’  Indeed, this is a problem for many disabled people. We are in 2017, a time where one would hope accessibility issues would be minor. I could spend my time here unseen. If buildings were more accessible, I would not have to voice the concerns here. However, I know that if I were here full-time I would be reluctant to step forward. This makes it more of an imperative that I advocate and highlight the need for the university to be more inclusive.

The life of an academic (graduate, post-doc, research associate, lecturer) demands nothing but commitment and hours of input in order to survive within the academic setting. If healthy individuals feel the pressure, how are disabled people to speak of our struggles without inviting a spotlight that questions whether we deserve a place at the table to begin with? And why are people generally uneasy when the topic of disability is brought up? One thought: the systemic inequalities and oppression disabled people experience within institutions highlights how uncomfortable able-bodied people are with the concept of (any kind of) vulnerability. Disability studies have shown that one of the reasons able bodied people struggle to engage in dialogue about this topic is because anyone could become disabled and require help. Further, talk of limitations muddies the image of climbing the academic ladder or striving to be the best you. Thus invisible (and literal in the sense of lack of access) boundaries are created between the ‘able’ and the ‘dis-abled,’ and we become (alongside other oppressed minority groups) the Other (Ahmed, 2017 also writes to this).

At a wider level, a disabled person cannot study sociology at The University of Cambridge. There are specific spaces that it is not possible for disabled students to access. I’m here to ask, what message does this reproduce? In the first instance, certain bodies are more welcome than others. Yes there is a disability resource centre at the University, which I have no doubt provides help to those needing it, but I have to ask: where are all the disabled people? According to a study done in 2015, 1 in 10 students in tertiary education identify as disabled. Why am I seeing and feeling a disregard for those who inhabit this world differently to how able bodied persons might? Discarded before they are even acknowledged, the very smallness of the space that we are being given (if that) feels like a cursory attempt at inclusivity that fails. And the lack of access that I seek to this space but often cannot inhabit tells me something. To block, to restrict access, to continue to oppress, to ignore, speaks of what value is given to disabled people. And in turn it is reproducing the message that they are inferior to able-bodied individuals. To be a disabled person, it is always in proximity to the ‘abled’. Indeed, a disabled body creates the illusion that the able-bodied is the superior one.

Back to spaces. When I’m well enough, I walk around some of the streets close to my office. It is an incredibly beautiful town. Yet on bad health days, I have not felt like I belong. However, encouraged by my colleagues I have found space (for example in my office) that is inclusive, welcoming and non-judgemental. However beyond this, rooms can turn into spaces to fear, and ultimately avoid. Each space resides in beautiful buildings, but I have become smaller and voiceless. Until now. A colleague said something that struck a chord with me recently: don’t think you aren’t worthy of being here. Push the boundaries. Push to make them more flexible. And she is right. Waiting for others to realise anything can be futile. The best way I know how to push against the tide is through writing, experimenting and challenging inexcusable discrimination with the my own truth in order to challenge the norm so that those placed outside of it are not ignored.

*To note, this is not about my colleagues at Reprosoc, or anyone else that I have the pleasure to know in the Sociology Department. They make life a bit easier.

About the Author

Hannah is a PhD Candidate at Victoria University of Wellington and a Visiting Scholar at The University of Cambridge, UK.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Coping strategies for disabled academics: self-acceptance and collective solidarity

Written by Marion

Being a disabled academic is not easy. We frequently require considerably more time and effort to achieve the same as other academics and find some things which seem to be trivial for non-disabled colleagues almost impossible. We may need to achieve a lot more than others for the same recognition. We also frequently come up against a lack of understanding or even hostility when we ask for adjustments to overcome the barriers we face. It is very easy to become dispirited and to think all the difficulties are your fault and feel inadequate and incapable.

The first strategy is to recognise that you are not to blame and that academia is not particularly friendly and sometimes outright rejecting of disabled people. The social model of disability, though by no means perfect, is useful here. It puts the problem and responsibility firmly on society with its infrastructural, social and attitudinal barriers and not the individual and their impairments. It is the lack of large print books, ramps and lifts not the fact you are partially sighted or use a wheelchair that are the problem.

The second strategy is achieving change both for yourself as an individual and more widely for other disabled academics through collective action with other disabled and non-disabled people. There is strength in numbers and working with others reduces the risk of victimisation. This should include joining a trade union. UCU (the University and College Union) in the UK, which also admits (postgraduate) students. Other useful organisations (in the UK) include Disabled People Against the Cuts which is campaigning, for instance, to remove the various hurdles to disabled people getting the benefits they should be entitled to.

In most countries there is legislation about adjustments for disabled people. In the UK there is relatively strong legislation, but no sanctions for not implementing it. While the right to adjustments in the UK is limited by considerations of their ‘reasonableness’, in practice most universities and research institutes are large enough and have enough resources for this not to be an issue. It is useful to encourage your trade union branch to negotiate a policy on reasonable adjustments with your employer. This should include reasonable time limits so that adjustments are put in place quickly and central responsibility for payment to prevent individual departments or schools objecting on the grounds of cost. It should also include disability leave, for instance for medical and other appointments related to your disability, getting a guide dog, learning to use new technology or time off due to changes in your condition. For many disabled academics excessive workloads are a particular barrier and working the nominal 35-38 hour week rather than the 50-90 hour week frequently expected could make a real difference.

If you require reasonable adjustments, you should involve your trade union in negotiating them, and therefore need to be a member. Despite their legal obligations, academic employers are not always helpful and trade union support can help to change this. It is also useful to know about financial support. In the UK Access to Work has been called the best kept secret. It covers, for instance, support workers, additional equipment, adaptations to equipment, fares to work if you cannot use public transport and disability awareness training for colleagues, though the employer might be required to pay a contribution.

The third strategy is talking and exchanging experiences with other disabled academics by electronic media as well as face to face. This can be very helpful in finding out what adjustments, if any, they have and which ones they have found useful, as well as any good practice in their institutions and campaigning strategies that have and have not worked. This can help you determine what additional adjustments might be useful to you, as well as what to campaign for in your institution and how to go about it. Drawing attention to any good practice at competing institutions can often be useful. Talking to other disabled academics can be very important in breaking down isolation and feelings of inadequacy and blame and helping you realise that any problems you are experiencing have structural not personal causes. Talking in confidence to people who understand what you are going through can help you survive when things go wrong.

A fourth coping strategy is recognising your strengths. We all have them, as well of course as weaknesses. The creativity and adaptations we have developed to overcome the barriers we face are in themselves strengths and some of us may have particularly creative ways of thinking and working and/or find easy things which most non-disabled people struggle with. However, when things become difficult it is easy to forget your strengths and creativity and all the positive qualities that enabled you to overcome all the barriers, hoops and hurdles to be accepted into academia. It is easy to fall into a deep hole and feel totally inadequate. It can even be useful to write down your strengths and your achievements at a time when things are going reasonably well, so that you can refer to them in the more difficult times.

The final strategy is keeping a sense of humour, being nice to yourself and not expecting the impossible, or at least not all the time. It is frustrating to have to accept that there are things you need help with or struggle with, particularly when non-disabled people seem to sail through. At these times it is useful to consider your strengths and the times you have helped other people, as well as recognising that the difficulties are due to barriers to disabled people not your inadequacy. Keeping your ability to laugh at things, including difficulties and the pomposity or obnoxiousness of colleagues can be helpful. And the last laugh will be on us, by staying in there and being successful academics despite all the difficulties.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Reasonable adjustments, Access to Work and disabled staff

Written by Wendy Merchant and Stephen D’Evelyn

We are two disabled members of staff at a UK university, both involved in an ESRC funded research project called ‘Getting Things Changed’. In our research we are trying to understand the way in which social practices can disable people, and how we can build on that understanding to question and to change practices which get stuck. Our particular strand of this work focuses on the academy itself, since we know that universities are rife with problems for disabled staff and students, and we are of course implicated in those practices. In this blog post, we pose the question: is ‘Access to Work’ the solution for disabled employees? ‘Access to Work’ is the name of a UK government funded scheme which claims to support disabled people to stay in work by “providing practical and financial support” (pg 1, 2017). In theory, costs for such support are divided between the employer and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

In the context of our research within universities, we have found that Access to Work is certainly not a bed of roses. The experience of disabled staff within the University navigating the scheme in order to obtain materials, resources and adaptations to buildings, is collectively identified as problematic by disabled staff at the University where we work. Neither is its availability nor the range of resources or support that it covers widely publicised to disabled staff. For instance, one of us is a woman, with various long-term conditions, working as a Research Associate on an ESRC funded project (‘Getting Things Changed’) and was unaware that Access to Work could fund a job coach to help her at work or could fund counselling for staff with mental health conditions (DWP 2017).

Disabled university staff we interviewed as part of our research described how they were left to navigate the lengthy and complex process alone, with little or no support from their employer. Instead, individual staff used the Staff Disability Forum (SDF) which disabled staff had instituted within our university as a group for peer support and collective action for positive change. This enabled them to share their difficulties and gain advice and support from each other. The SDF has become a hub where disabled staff share their experiences and give each other advice, in particular about the existence of and access to the “Access to Work” scheme. Several staff shared that they did not know what the scheme covered until another disabled staff member told them:

“…I actually got more advice and help from members of the Disabled Staff Forum. Because I didn't even know what I could apply for from some of those things, or what was relevant. What's the employer's obligation? Like, I didn't even know that. You know, what is the employer's obligation? What can I ask for from Access to Work? And so I did draw on the experience of people, other people, in order to sort of decipher that...”

As Sang (2017) suggests, such forums can, and do, act to facilitate the full integration of disabled staff into the structure of their organisation. However, by leaving disabled staff members to organise themselves and support each other to navigate through these systems themselves, there is a danger that the institution reinforces the notion of the disabled staff member as a “problem.” Although peer support is vital and at the heart of good practice, it can also generate problems, since it can reinforce the experience of only finding support from other disabled people, rather than enacting equality among persons with any variety of physical, mental health, and learning profiles. Forcing disabled staff to rely heavily if not exclusively on their own user-led groups, due to the lack of integrated support across an organisation, also reproduces and reinforces the structure of ableism—value determined by achievement—which could be said to be inherently discriminatory and disadvantageous to disabled people. A more equitable approach would recognise that all employees require a differentiated approach to their employment.

The organisation of the University into Faculties, Schools and Centres and the division of its budget further complicates the process. For example, if a disabled staff member is employed on a research contract, whose budget covers the University’s contribution to resources or adaptations? Disabled staff members reported their reliance upon having a supportive, informed and responsive line manager to support them through the process. Once the “Access to Work” grant has been made it becomes the responsibility of the individual staff member to administer their claim. This may involve managing the timesheets of support workers, submitting monthly claims and dealing with lengthy queries from the DWP regarding these claims. One disabled staff member suggested that:

“…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 Access to Work claim. Each one is a three-stage process…”

Another reported that their application was still being processed after 2 years.

These experiences raise so many questions for universities who champion policies that seek to “widen participation” and “include” disabled students and staff alike. Similar to the experience in the U.S. described by Franke et al. (2012), in UK higher education there is a discrepancy in the provision of support for disabled staff at universities compared with disabled students. However, looking at the experience of both disabled staff and disabled students within the University there is a shared sense of having to navigate organisational systems alone.

What is clear is that the University is not designed for disabled staff or students to easily fit in. This is a wider issue that is reflective of the ableist ideals of the neo-liberal society in which universities operate. Solutions instead seem to lie in the direction of firstly helping decision-makers become more aware of the value of identifying and making the most of all staff members’ potential, and secondly educating staff about the basic principles of equality which actually make for a more flexible and creative workforce. Finally, our project suggests that the most important thing is to shift models of value away from simply medical diagnoses of difference to a social model (Oliver 2013). A medical model focuses on the individual member of staff as a potential problem to be fixed, a rather prevalent attitude we have found in the university. By contrast, a social model approach would turn attention instead onto the structural issues and exclusionary practices which have become embedded and ‘naturalised’ in universities, in such a way that we often do not even perceive them. It is only by uncovering and questioning these practices that organisations may begin to tackle the power imbalances between senior and junior staff. Higher Education Institutions ought, we suggest, to be at the forefront of helping turn this vision into reality, helping transform social structures through greater understanding. To do this we need to continue the work of research, practical policy development, and improvement of organisational processes by testing policy against lived experience and revising it. In addition, we must consistently make the case for the incalculable value of the full person in all his or her variety to a society and a world facing challenges like never before.


Department for Work and Pensions (2017). Access to Work. Department for Work and Pensions. Available from: Accessed 24/8/2017.

Franke, A.H., Berube, M.F., O’Neil, R.M., Kurland, J.E. (2012). Accommodating Faculty members who have a Disability. Report from Sub-Committee of Academic Freedom and Tenure

Oliver, M. (2013). The social model of disability: thirty years on. Disability & Society, 28(7): 1024-26.

Sang, K. (2017). Disability and Academic careers. Herriot Watt University: Edinburgh

About the Authors

Wendy is a Research Associate in the School for Policy Studies at Bristol University and also a disability activist. Stephen is a disability activist and a scholar of Latin language and literature and Medieval Studies.