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‘I’m okay, just scanning proof that my leg is still amputated’: how can academia become less ableist?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 26 May 2021

geralt / Pixabay

Nicole Brown.

If the pandemic has taught us all one thing, it is that disabilities come in many forms. Covid-19 has meant that personal experiences of mental health issues, long-term fatigue and persistent pain have become more prevalent.

Although awareness of the difficulties that disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent staff and students face in academia has increased over the past few years, few attempts have been made to share, theorise and learn from these experiences. My new books Ableism in Academia: Theorising experiences of disabilities and chronic illnesses in higher education and Lived Experiences of Ableism in Academia: Strategies for inclusion in higher education do just that.

Unfortunately, the reality of being disabled, chronically ill and/or neurodivergent in academia means that many highly talented individuals drop out. This is because the structures of academia are built on the productivity, efficiency and excellence of standard, normative, fully able and abled people. The truth is, however, that there are many of us in academia for whom this ‘ideal’ remains elusive.

Individuals’ needs and differences are vast, and yet there are many experiences that can easily be seen as comparable. As the books Ableism in Academia and Lived Experiences show, the biggest concern and challenge are the lack of understanding and awareness that often result in unintentional hurt:

I’m okay, just scanning proof that my leg is still amputated – for next year’s parking pass.” Laura Ellingson

I could write a guide to the toilet facilities along the route.” Rosalind Janssen

I am R- R- Robert. I am m- meant to be p- p- p- present [intake of breath]. Speaking after the break. But I do nnn- not thhh- thhhthink that I will be able to do it, because of my st- st- stammer.” Robert Mann

What is required is an attitudinal shift among everyone studying, working and living in academia in order to build a higher education sector that becomes inclusive and allows for different ways working. The common thread through the two books is that there is no quick-fix solution, but that there are strategies to improve inclusion in higher education.

There is significant need for awareness through education and training to form the basis upon which understanding, empathy and compassion can be built. Within that, learning designs that may make use of technology and tools in order to be inclusive for students would obviously be helpful, but we should not ask individuals to rely entirely on technology. Individuals require support through online communities, networks, peer group support or mentoring schemes. Ultimately, we should not only look to our own needs, but be active role models for others and embody the kind of empathy and compassion we would like to see from and in others.

Ultimately, our aim must be…

  • to involve those who are affected by disabilities, chronic illnesses and/or neurodivergences in conversations around their experiences at work;
  • to truly listen to their stories and plight;
  • and to empathetically support them in the way they say that they would like to be supported.



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