VI. Afterthoughts

It is a great shame (and I use the word advisedly) that there is not a greater awareness and understanding of disability within the academy. This leaves us all intellectually impoverished, since Disability Studies is both a subject in its own right and informs all other fields in some way. It is also a shame because it hinders access to the academy for disabled people, when academic life is particularly suited to people with impairments. From the students' point of view, many, like me, return to study to redirect their careers following disability; while the growing proportion of mature students also makes it inevitable that an increasing number of students will be disabled. From the point of view of the staff, the expansion of the British higher education system in the 1960s means that the academic population is now ageing rapidly, with associated health problems. Are they simply to be offered redundancy or early retirement, rather than the academy attempting to meet their needs along with those of already disabled applicants?

Evidence seems to show that the current equal opportunities policies are at best ineffective and at worst exist only on paper in terms of enabling disabled people to work within the academy. For example, Sally French writes that:


My own experience of teaching for a term at a college of higher education in south-west England, as I ended my "writing-up" period, is a case in point. Although I provided details of my impairment on my application form, I was not asked any questions about how this might affect my teaching or my ability to cope with the campus, nor was I offered any support or advice. Instead, I was treated as if I had the same physical abilities as other members of staff. This meant that I had to work out my own strategy for dealing with problems as they arose. As a result, even the minor irritations caused difficulties out of all proportion to the actual problem, and could themselves have contributed to my leaving.

For example, during the second half of term I was expected to pick up the key to my teaching room from the library at the other end of the campus - across a main road and down a hill - whilst still carrying my bag because, of course, the only room where I could leave it was locked. In fact this would have left me physically incapable of teaching for at least half an hour afterwards, so I arranged for my students to pick up and return the key instead. This, however, left me exposed to action by the College if anything happened to the key; no attempt was made by the College, for example, to arrange to leave the key with the caretaker or with another member of staff instead. During the same period, in order to obtain a hot drink I had to go down two flights of stairs and cross the campus and the main road to get to a drinks machine, then try to carry the cup back when I was already using a stick. This was particularly difficult because there was only one break scheduled between my classes, which ran throughout the day. It was also entirely unnecessary because there was actually a kitchen within the building where I was teaching, but only the student union's staff were allowed to use it.

Attitudes were also very disabling, particularly when reflected in the terms and conditions being offered to me. I found a general belief amongst my colleagues that, as a disabled woman, my life was without value and I had effectively retired from actively pursuing my own career. Instead, I would be happy to spend my time in assisting the careers of my students and colleagues. As a child-free woman, there also appeared to be an assumption that in teaching I would find fulfilment in expressing my maternal instincts; despite the fact that I had entered the College primarily as a researcher and was child-free through choice. This meant that when I expressed my desire to obtain a permanent part-time position on the same terms and conditions as my full-time, non-disabled colleagues, there was general surprise combined with resentment that I was not prepared to play the role assigned to me. In any case, I discovered that no such part-time posts existed anyway: staff were expected to be able to cope with the physical demands of a full-time post; and no job-share applications were allowed.

It was not these incidents in themselves, though, which prompted me to leave. During the first half of term, I had been employed to teach web production and design in a very small, south-facing room containing twelve computers. The teaching suite was sub-standard in a number of ways, most obviously in that there was no ventilation other than a window, no blind other than a black-out blind, and the chairs were of moulded plastic and could not be adjusted in height. As a result, the environment was very uncomfortable for both myself and the students, with obvious negative effects on the teaching and learning experiences. Since I was wearing a heavy plastic back brace and spent all day in the room, the conditions were worst for me. Not only was I extremely uncomfortable, I also had to expose the brace to the students as it was too hot to wear anything over the top of it; if I had not had the assistance of a friend who decorated the brace for me, I doubt whether I could have faced this.

At the end of the five-week course, I informed my head of department that I could not work in the same room during the summer term unless improvements were made, since it would simply be too hot. I felt that this was a reasonable request, since as an employee I was covered by European health and safety legislation which ruled that the environment in the room was illegal (see Health and Safety in the Non-Linear Environment for more details). In one sense, it was not a disability issue at all, since a legal computing environment is not disabling for me (although it could of course be for many other people with different experiences of impairments). Fortunately other teaching suites within the College did meet European standards, so the College had the choice in the short term of simply moving my class. However, at the end of the term I was told that my teaching hours would be doubled and the room would remain the same, leaving me to spend two days a week there instead of one; I was therefore unable to take up the teaching contract being "offered" to me.

Subsequently the College agreed to bring the suite up to standard during the summer vacation, but ruled that in the meantime I could simply have opened the window to lower the temperature - the fact that I had been able to smell my own body odour with the window wide open in January seemed to be irrelevant to them, as was the actual temperature in the room during the summer term. I was thanked "for bringing the matter to [the College's] attention" but my teaching was not reinstated in another room. Presumably the college felt that it was important to provide reasonable conditions for non-disabled students and staff, but my own part simply proved that I was too "difficult" to employ. It was also quite clear to me that my colleagues had engineered the situation in the first place after my declaration that I would like to work on the same terms and conditions which they enjoyed: I was seen as immensely useful in supporting their work; but illegitimate as a peer.

I was therefore left without work and without an academic career. I did not, of course, wish to be employed on inferior terms and conditions to those of my non-disabled colleagues, given that I was better qualified than the majority of them. I also had a number of other employment options, which of course most people in my situation would not. How many disabled academics are currently struggling to survive rather than receiving the assistance and respect which they merit, and how many are hiding even the fact of their impairment for fear of the response? And how much poorer is that academy for my and others' absence?

Genuine equal opportunities policies have to begin by recognising that many of us have not had equal opportunities in the past, so that our qualifications and CVs may not compare to those of white, non-disabled men with similar abilities. They then have to recognise that many of us do not have an equal opportunity to work full-time, for whatever reason, but do deserve to work on the same terms and conditions as full-time members of staff. Then they have to recognise that impairments will affect people's experience of and ability to cope with an institution, and provide support which is tailored to individuals' needs.

After all, the cost implications are not great. Many disabled people, like myself, need only to be treated with common sense - for example: to base us as close to transport facilities as possible and if necessary to make parking concessions etc; to provide us with locker facilities; to maintain and renovate buildings with our needs in mind; and to provide suitable furniture where necessary. Where special adaptations or equipment are needed a number of grants are available, but, as Robert Buckley points out, surely making buildings more accessible is desirable anyway? Equally, flexible working practices such as job-sharing benefit a wide range of staff, including parents and carers.

What does need to be borne in mind is that disabled people do not automatically have an expertise in disability issues. I did not, for example, acquire a knowledge of disability rights or the welfare benefits system along with my back pain, nor was I divinely vested with Pride, and the fact that I gained these later was due to my existing professional and personal contacts. In general, since disability is characterised by isolation, disabled people are often less likely to be informed and to be able to access the relevant information than are others. And while disabled people are clearly best placed to define our own needs, this can only be done when there is knowledge of the circumstances we are facing. I could not, for example, define my needs with regard to any campus without being fully informed and, if possible, experiencing it for myself. These are some of the reasons why the provision of trained and competent specialist disability advisers is so important.

Another issue which is particularly important to disabled students is funding. Disabled students inevitably face higher costs, and also find it more difficult to obtain part-time work because of discrimination in employment, access problems and physical limitations. In the UK, disabled students who receive grants can obtain three additional allowances in recognition of this. However, students without grants - the majority of postgraduate and part-time students - are not entitled to any of these. In an ideal world all disabled students would be entitled to grants: the majority of disabled people are dependent on welfare benefits; and gaining a higher education qualification is often crucial to gaining employment. But even in the current economic climate, surely it would be possible for all disabled students to receive the disabled students' allowances, whether or not they have a grant?

The benefits of and to the academy if it did face its fears and recognise disability and the rights of disabled people would be great. First, this would benefit the lives of many individuals. Second, this would improve the nature and standards of research and teaching generally. The presence of disability and the work of disabled people would enrich the work being done across a broad range of fields, including disability itself. As Jenny Morris points out:


From my experiences as a disabled researcher, though, it is hard to see how the position of disabled people within the academy can improve without a movement for change which, as Mike Oliver points out, is "not afraid to speak out, tread on toes or offend vested interests" in order to obtain funding, access and real equal opportunities. Shulamit Reinharz, in relation to feminism, points out that: "The ability of contemporary lesbian and straight, radical and liberal, black and white, old and young feminists to speak, write, and teach is a gift from our foremothers, not simply a reflection of our individual talents or current policies." As disabled feminists, we must continue to create a similar legacy. And as Kevin Robins reminds us: "Because it is a materially straitened and socially divided world, we should remember how much we remain in need of politics."

Next: VII. Bibliography
Return to: My Experiences as a Disabled Researcher Index
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