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Survey highlights the challenges disabled academics face—and what can be done to address them

Kate Sang’s research about equality and diversity in the workplace focuses largely on gender issues. But the associate professor of management at Heriot-Watt University in the United Kingdom also knows firsthand about another less frequently discussed dimension of diversity: disability. To better understand the breadth of challenges disabled academics face and to bring the topic more to the fore, she recently conducted a qualitative survey of researchers in the United Kingdom. In an interview with Science Careers, Sang discusses what she learned about the experiences of disabled academics and how even small changes could make their working lives easier. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: First of all, how do you define disability?

A: For the study, I based it on U.K. law, which defines a disability as an “impairment” that lasts more than 12 months and affects day-to-day activities. But it is important to note that disability is diverse. Disabilities can be visible or hidden, congenital or acquired, and the experiences can vary greatly. Even two people with the same “impairment” can experience it completely differently. Disability may also affect somebody who is already well established differently than someone who is just starting their career and perhaps doesn’t want to declare something that they think might make them vulnerable.

I also believe that disability does not reside in or with an individual, but arises from an interaction between a person with an “impairment” and an environment which is not suited to their needs. So, rather than “person with disabilities,” I use the term “disabled person” to show that I consider a person to be disabled by their environment.

Kate Sang

Matt Davis/Heriot-Watt University

Q: How did the study come about?

A: There’s a lot more university support for disabled students than there is for staff, and I thought that a rigorous investigation of disabled academics’ experiences could help start to address this disparity. When I was a Ph.D. student in construction management, for example, I interviewed many architects and had hours and hours of tapes. But I have nerve damage in my arm, which makes it difficult for me to do a lot of typing, and I couldn’t keep up with the transcription. Someone suggested that I get in touch with the disabled student service, which filled out the paperwork for me so that I could get money to have my interviews transcribed. When I tried to go through the same process as a staff member, I was told there’s no support to fill out the paperwork even though I couldn’t do the handwriting. As a staff member, you have to push everything yourself.

So, I set out to conduct detailed interviews with disabled researchers across disciplines and career stages to learn more about others’ experiences and to come up with a list of suggestions for what funders, universities, and the trade unions that represent Ph.D. students and staff could do. Altogether, 64 researchers took part. For a qualitative survey, this is big. At the end of the interview, a lot of people said to me, “Thank you for doing this research. Thank you for giving me a voice.”

Q: What are your key findings?

A: A theme which all participants referred to was fatigue. For many academics, our work is tiring anyway. But in addition, disabled academics have to negotiate not only the effects of their “impairment,” but also institutional structures for securing the adjustments they need to be able to do their work. Many respondents said that being disabled was like having a second job.

A further key finding was the perceived effects on career progression. People felt that recruitment and promotion procedures were discriminatory and disabling. The interviews were kept anonymous because many expressed concern that being identified could stop them from being able to get a job or a promotion. Some had decided not to apply for promotion because they felt their “impairment” could not be accommodated within an academic career.

Most people had experienced what I would call incivilities from colleagues as a result of ignorance, but some people had also experienced outright aggression and discriminatory behaviors. For example, one Ph.D. student was stopped in a corridor by a more senior academic and told that she shouldn’t become an academic because people shouldn’t have to adjust to her disability. It was also apparent that many academic buildings and working arrangements were not suitable for those with any form of additional needs.

Q: Do you think many disabled people leave academia because they don’t have enough support?

A: My survey focused on working academics, so I can’t say how many leave. But what I can say is that some who stayed adjusted their plans so that it would be easier. I talked to women who left male-dominated disciplines like engineering or physics for more feminized fields so that they wouldn’t have double the trouble of being a woman and disabled. Some went into less physically demanding or more time-flexible fields. One person I interviewed now does online distance learning work as a kind of adjunct, which is certainly a way for her to survive, but could in the long term put her into a very vulnerable position.

People—including myself—also develop ways around things. For example, because I can’t do a lot of typing, I am quite strategic about what to publish. In my discipline, book chapters don’t count as research outputs, so even if I think it would be really great to write that book chapter, I will focus on writing a journal article instead if I have to choose.

Q: What should universities do to support disabled employees?

A: What’s coming out of this survey is that some people are having quite a difficult time, and a lot of it is so unnecessary and so easily fixed, without spending much money. One example from the survey is someone who was given a disabled parking space that was more than a 1-kilometer walk away from their office. In other cases, colleagues sometimes used disabled parking spaces, forcing the people who actually relied on those spots to just drive back home for the day. Measures to address such problems shouldn’t be that difficult or expensive, and would be a great improvement. It would also make a huge difference at little cost if universities had a portal listing all the services that they offer to disabled staff, as staff members are often unaware of them.

Measures that require a bit more time and investment include educating line managers about what it means to return to work after a disability and making sure that lecture halls are accessible and toilets not too far away. Another bigger issue to tackle is how to take disability into account when considering promotion. Dyslexia may affect how long it takes to publish a paper, and chronic fatigue syndrome may affect the ability to take part in networking events, for example. A very effective way to bring about the necessary changes would be to include disabled academics in institutional decisions right from the start.

By U.K. law, disabled employees are entitled to work adjustments, but people may not want to broadly disclose such personal issues or have the financial or emotional resources to pursue a case. The bigger argument then becomes, shouldn’t employers, and particularly universities, go beyond just sticking with a compliance approach and be more proactive and inclusive? Rather than singling out somebody for having an “impairment,” universities should make lecture halls and lectures accessible irrespective of whether or not you’re a wheelchair user, blind, or deaf. They should make quiet rooms available for everyone, regardless of whether you’ve got an anxiety disorder.

In the longer term, I would like to see a cultural change. Something I noticed with some of the interviewees is that they’ve very much internalized a rigid idea of what it means to be an academic—that you can’t be an academic and be disabled—and part of that I think is a lack of visibility of senior disabled researchers. More disabled academics who feel able to be open about their “impairments” could help foster academic cultures where all staff and students can flourish.  

Q: What advice would you give to early-career disabled academics?

A: Don’t assume there aren’t other people with your kind of issue around, because there probably are and you just don’t know about it. Don’t internalize this idea that there is an ideal academic, and don’t give in to impostor syndrome.

I’m not going to tell people to disclose, as they can feel uncomfortable or even put themselves at risk by doing so. It’s more a case of finding somebody you can talk to—whether it is your supervisor or through your trade union, the student union, or a staff network. If you have what we might call a social “impairment,” social media and Twitter accounts like Chronically Academic and PhDisabled can be great sources of support.

Q: And to other academics on how they may support them?

A: Go to diversity trainings so that you are aware of your own challenges and unconscious biases and what your institution offers to disabled staff and students. In my survey, people told me that they were worried about being thought of as lazy if they require an adjustment, especially in terms of working time, so try to put yourself in their shoes and bear in mind how they may feel. Don’t tell your Ph.D. students to work over the weekend, and don’t schedule meetings at 9 o’clock in the morning, as a lot of people with anxiety or “impairments” don’t want to drive through rush hour traffic.

Academics may feel at a loss when somebody discloses something, but it is OK to say, “I don’t know how to deal with it and need to think about it” or “I’m not actually sure what the university offers so let me have a look.” Sometimes, someone will say to a disabled staff member, “Just tell me what you need,” but they might not know what they need, so make suggestions and involve somebody else if necessary. Ultimately, more flexible and better working conditions will benefit everyone.