Nancy had already exchanged smiles across the room with
the school secretary, a pale, dark-haired girl, who was carrying her work
on a wide writing-board placed over the arms of her wheeled chair. Winifred
Arrowsmith was a cripple, who never (if possible) allowed her infirmity
to interfere with anything she chose to do. She had chosen, when her schooldays
ended, to return to St Bride's as a voluntary member of staff, and had
remained there ever since.
(Dorita Fairlie Bruce, Nancy Returns to St Bride's, Oxford University Press, 1938, pp51-2)
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:
For more than twenty years I have studied and worked in
educational institutions. My experience as a disabled woman has led me
to believe that equal opportunities policies in such places offer, at best,
tokenist help such as a piece of equipment, but also allow for enormous
complacency and hypocrisy. There is a lot of pressure on employers to be
seen to be "doing something", but the "solutions" adopted
often take no account of the individual needs of disabled people.
. . . Equal opportunities for disabled people, where they exist, often go no deeper than the idea of saying that they should employ more of us. Once they get a disabled person in the building it is convenient and cheap for employers to believe that we want to be treated "just like anyone else".
. . . If organisations were really committed to understanding disability they would put as much though and resources into acquiring the necessary knowledge and skills as they do into numerous other matters deemed to be important.
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
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
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
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
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:
disabilism has been a dominant feature of work done by researchers in the fields of learning and physical disability. This is as true for the liberal humanist tradition as it was for the more traditional medical model. As long as an unequal power relationship exists between disabled people and the non-disabled academics and professionals who make a living out of our needs, and as long as prejudice against disabled people is an integral part of our general culture, disabilism will continue to characterise the nature of the research done and the services provided.
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
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