Saturday, 20 October 2018

Working from Home: Issues and Advice

Written by Calum Carson

Recent developments in communications technology and a greater recognition of the importance of a healthy work-life balance has led to a wider number of workers across the world voluntarily working from home. For those experiencing chronic illness and/or disability, however, such working arrangements are an unavoidable reality rather than a choice. For individuals in this position studying and working within a profession such as academia, where long periods of independent research and a lack of day to day working routine are already commonplace, there are a number of issues that can emerge through such experiences that it is important to discuss.

From my own perspective, the involuntarily imposition of home working arrangements is something that I have spent the past eighteen months coming to terms with, following the beginning of an on-going chronic back injury at the beginning of January 2017 (worst New Year’s gift EVER). This coincided with the beginning of the second year of my PhD following a six-month suspension for a research internship. I had spent the first year of my studies working 9-5 in the communal office space provided for doctoral researchers in my department, a routine I found easy to stick to after spending six years working 9-5 before returning to research for my Masters/PhD. My own particular injury essentially turned my back into what I liken to a cross between Goldilocks and an extremely moody teenager, with seating/standing/walking conditions etc. having to be “just right” in order for it not to tie itself into painful knots. This makes working from the rigid confines of a desk in an office extremely difficult, and has made developing a new working routine from home essential.

In a number of ways, the two key issues inherent in working from home are the same as those within any professional working environment: making sure routines and systems are in place so that you can work well and maintaining functioning professional relationships with colleagues to facilitate those routines and systems. The key difference for most home workers, however, is that the relationship aspect of work shifts from being comfortable with others to being comfortable with working alone and with yourself. This can be more difficult when home working has been imposed by an individual’s circumstances through a chronic illness or disability, rather than a specific choice deliberately made to better support family life and/or a work-life balance.

Given this, it is no surprise that a number of issues can manifest for someone finding themselves in this position. Feelings of loneliness and frustration about one’s circumstances are perhaps the most obvious, with the necessity of working from home making some depressed and anxious about missing out on working with academic colleagues. For some like myself it can also have a detrimental impact on work itself, with more distractions at hand and the lack of motivation produced by the lack of anyone around you doing the same thing.

Fortunately, there are a number of ways that working from home can be made more palatable in the twenty-first century. The same technological advances that have led to an increase in home working can be similarly utilised to provide home workers with more social and colleague-to-colleague interaction, for example through Skype “Shut up and Write” sessions and virtual coffee breaks. For those who can work for short periods outside of the home, meeting up with colleagues at a nearby cafĂ© or pub to work together for a couple of hours can be a welcome break from the confines of your typical routine, and the few-office-hours nature of academia can mean that arranging for others to work with you from your home are easier to arrange than they would be in many other sectors.

Setting clear boundaries between “work life” and “home life” are even more essential when your place of work is also your home, too: for example, by designating official start and end times to the working day, giving yourself a decent break for lunch (preferably outside of the house), and if possible ensuring that you get out in the fresh air at regular intervals (even if it’s just on the front door step). If you’re lucky enough to have a home office, use this more than any other room so that you can mentally leave your work in that room once the day is over.

While these may seem like very small and obvious pieces of advice, I can speak from personal experience that they really do help: working from home when you have no choice but to do so can be rough going at times, but there are a large number of things you can do to make things easier (and to avoid becoming a hermit): if you’ve got any advice of your own for us home workers, do please post it below!

About the Author

Calum Carson is a third year PhD candidate at Leeds University Business School, whose research explores the business case for the Living Wage amidst the continued growth of precarious work in the UK today.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

What neurodiverse, chronically ill and disabled academics do to manage life in academia

Written by Nicole Brown

Being chronically ill, neurodiverse, and/or disabled means that adjustments have to be made in life. Quite naturally, the symptoms of illnesses, neurodiversities, and disabilities also affect one’s working life. This is, of course, equally true for academics, although they are often seen to be privileged. The digital health community and advocacy web site The Mighty has recently published a contribution on impolite behavioural strategies that those with chronic illness engage in to protect their health as much as possible.

Many of the behaviour patterns mentioned can be transferred directly or in some modified, translated form to serve as coping strategies for academics. This is exactly what I am doing in the following. Drawing on the original list from The Mighty and on conversations with disabled, ill, and neurodiverse academics, I provide a non-exhaustive list of coping behaviours in academia.

  1. Saying “no”

  2. Institutional citizenship requires academics to take on extra roles and responsibilities such as attending events, getting involved in planning and marking, and representing departments; the tasks are unlimited. Saying “no” is not an easy decision, but in order to protect body and mind “no” becomes an important word and therefore needs to be accepted and respected. Saying “no” does not make academics traitors to their institutions; it actually means the opposite: the academics are loyal to their students and workplace and are trying to make sure they are able to keep up with existing workloads and do not risk burnout.

  3. Rescheduling

  4. Many academics with disabilities, illnesses, or neurodiversities are overwhelmed with the tasks on hand, but they are still very keen to be fully involved in institutional life and decisions. They may just need some extra time or space for that. Rescheduling meetings and conversations is therefore particularly important, for the academics themselves but also for those involved in the decision-making meetings. After all, it is not in the interest of anyone to finalise decisions or documents under the influence of sensory overload, pain, fatigue, exhaustion, or any other symptoms. The flexibility of rescheduling means that the work the academics are contributing will be of a higher standard and the best possible quality. And sometimes, it may just be enough to allow for remote participation via email or video-calling facilities.

  5. Secluding oneself

  6. Many people with chronic illnesses, disabilities, and neurodiversities need their own space and time for themselves to which they can withdraw. For some, this may mean physically removing themselves into a quiet room where stimulants are limited. For others, this may mean resting or even taking a nap. For others still, it may just mean that they do not wish to network or engage in conversations. In a working context like academia, where networking and representation at events are everything, this is obviously very difficult to achieve. Therefore, the onus must be on all of us to create an environment where withdrawing from demanding situations is not seen as rude, but as a different way of working.

  7. Being assertive about needs

  8. This is in line with the previous points. All of us know for ourselves what makes us comfortable and productive and effective. So, therefore, any kind of workplace adjustment needs to be encouraged. This may mean offering a private office rather than an open-plan office – not because those with illnesses, disabilities and neurodiversities want to be treated differently, but because stimulants like noises, smells, lights or the flow of air (air-conditioning, heating, windows) cannot be suitably adjusted for each individual’s needs. Similarly, sunglasses, socks, blankets, pillows, backrests, and footstools are all items that can easily be provided. The message here needs to be that none of these items (or, indeed, any other support gadgets) should be ridiculed or envied. They are means to ensure productivity. Equally, being assertive about one’s needs includes strategies like staying away from work to avoid sick people during flu-season, asking not to be interrupted in order to maintain one’s stream of thoughts, not standing to greet someone, bringing one’s own food and drinks, and so on.

  9. Leaving

  10. Finally, and as important as the previous points, academics may need to leave. This may be leaving early to seclude themselves or to attend a doctor’s appointment, or this may be sick-leave. Many academics with chronic conditions feel under pressure to perform and produce so that they are pushing through acute flare-ups instead of allowing themselves a day or two to heal. In this sense, working models for flexible hours are probably the most feasible, sensible, and effective strategy for both academics and their employers.

For many, this list will include things they do to pace themselves and manage their needs. But for many other academics, this is a list of things they would like to do but feel they cannot. Academia is seen as an environment where there is no space for weakness, vulnerability, or anything less than being fully productive.

I am hoping that with the top-5 items highlighted, it may be possible to raise awareness of and increase empathy for the experiences of academics with illnesses, neurodiversities, and disabilities. Naturally, experiences of illnesses, neurodiversities, and disabilities need to be seen individually, but there are common traits affecting all non-neuro-typicals. And understanding and tolerance are what is needed most, after all.

Recent publications

Brown, N. & Leigh, J. S. (2018). Ableism in academia: Where are the disabled and ill academics? Disability and Society. DOI: 10.1080/09687599.2018.1455627

Brown, N. (2018). Exploring the lived experience of fibromyalgia using creative data collection methods. Cogent Social Sciences. DOI:10.1080/23311886.2018.1447759

Brown, N. (2018). Video-conference interviews: Ethical and methodological concerns in the context of health research. SAGE Research Methods Cases. DOI: 10.4135/9781526441812

Brown, N., Jafferani, A. & Pattharwala, V. (2018). Partnership in teacher education: developing creative methods to deepen students’ reflections. Journal of Educational Innovation, Partnership and Change, 4(1). DOI: 10.21100/jeipc.v4i1.747

Brown, N., & Janssen, R. (2017). Preventing plagiarism and fostering academic integrity: a practical approach. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, 5(3), 102-109. DOI: 10.14297/jpaap.v5i3.245

About the Author

Headshot of Nicole Brown
on a plain background.

Nicole Brown is a Lecturer in Education at UCL Institute of Education, and a doctoral researcher at the University of Kent. Her research interests relate to ableism, identity and body work, physical and material representations and metaphors, the generation of knowledge, and advancing learning and teaching within higher education. Contact details: Web site: Twitter: @ncjbrown @FibroIdentity @AbleismAcademia

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

‘Not What I Paid For’: Ableism, Evaluations and the Academic Life

Written by Aparna Nair

It was that time of year again.

The semester drew to an end and the university sent us enthusiastic email reminders to get students to evaluate our courses. ‘Evaluate NOW’, screamed the emails and signs posted all over campus. This semester, I caught myself instantly deleting that first notification as well as the later more urgent reminders. It was a futile gesture, since I nonetheless made sure to get my classes to fill in the evaluations. But for the first time in my academic career, I was genuinely anxious about the impending possibility of reading an evaluation report. Admittedly, 2017 was uniquely rough. A stressful year teaching seven courses was complicated by personal losses and the low hum of rising anti-immigrant sentiment, making it one of the most difficult of my life. I spent most of the year in a haze of auras, as my epilepsy had become rather recalcitrant.

And then I got these comments in my student evaluations:

I know she is sick. I know that she needs to sometimes bring her support dog into the class. I get it. But she missed classes. I know her TA took over, and that she caught up when she returned. But that is not what I paid for.

I expect more.

I don't want to hear about her illness. She gets paid to do this. WE are paying her to do this. She just needs to stop talking about it.

Even as I type the words, the shame rolls over me.

Evaluations like these raise the question of how academics who openly lay claim to disabled or chronically ill identities should respond when students demonstrate open, almost casual - certainly deliberate - ableism in evaluations. There is nothing in the faculty handbooks, endless trainings and workshops about being confronted with such blatant ableism.

I have lived with epilepsy for a very long time--I was diagnosed at the age of 11. In the deeply traditional and conservative South Asian cultures where I grew up, difference was neither encouraged nor tolerated and conformity was consistently rewarded. As a result of my illness, I experienced isolation, marginalization, derision, stigma and violence. After nearly two decades of concealment, I made a conscious decision to stop pretending that epilepsy was not a serious part of my life. Why, I thought, should I deny something that impinged on my every waking hour in ways that people rarely comprehended? Why did I need to pretend I was ‘normal’ (which my family had desperately wanted me to be) when I knew how illness marked me as different?

So, I ticked off the ‘Yes, I have a disability’ box when I applied for the position I have now, nervous and uncertain as to whether it made me just too marginal for a deeply conservative public university. I lay open claim to an epileptic identity as being part of the reason for my research agenda on disability studies and disability histories in South Asia. I design and conduct workshops on disability in university settings with a wonderful collaborator, and discuss what it means to be a chronically ill faculty member and how to ensure that our classrooms are accommodating and welcoming to disabled and chronically ill students. I publish autoethnographies on epilepsy in South India.

And every semester, my hands still shake when I tell students that I am epileptic in that first introductory session of every course. I strive for a matter-of-fact tone, and tell the classes that while this is not something I would usually share, there may be some times in the semester that my illness becomes uncontrollable and I might need to cancel a class. I then reassure them that this is factored into their syllabus and semester planning and that they will not lose out in terms of learning. Interestingly enough, my disclosure has consistently impelled students to share their own chronic illnesses or disabilities with me in private and I am very grateful for this, since it means I can make accommodations for them and design the class around their needs as well. But I have also come to realise that my initial fears about this act of public disclosure were not unwarranted.

For most of my teaching life, evaluations have always been the space where students expressed themselves anonymously and openly about their professors, without fear of reprisals. Evaluations can be funny and frivolous; trite and tough. Most of us who teach have been embarrassed at some point or the other by what seems to us sometimes unfair, occasionally inapposite ‘bon mots’—from comments on our sartorial choices (‘I loved his t-shirts’ to ‘He wore the same shoes all semester long’) to condemnations of our general affects (‘She is very opinionated! And expects you to agree with her’) to the student’s pondering what on earth we were doing in our chosen professions (‘I don’t know why he is teaching, clearly he is happier in the lab’). But evaluations can also be serious and help us adapt our teaching styles, our evaluation methods, our reading assignments and other pedagogical choices. I learnt that students liked blogging, but that they did not think that they had enough time to work on their exercises in class. I learnt that students will always have mixed opinions about group work, but that it is nonetheless useful. I learnt how the complicated courses I taught on race and empire and disability were received emotively and intellectually, and those responses were profoundly important in developing my courses in certain directions. So I had accustomed myself to opening my evaluations with the certainty that I would find useful information on my course design and assessments along with the more frivolous comments.

But I am at a loss as to how to respond to the casual ableism in my student evaluations, ableism which will become a part of every job application, every promotion and tenure application. It will be misinterpreted and decontextualised by committees and administrations and will eat into my teaching accomplishments or my research portfolio. For many people who see these comments, my epilepsy will circumscribe my abilities and skills.

How then do we respond to ableism in evaluations? I must admit, I am left only with questions. One option is to mention nothing of epilepsy at all in my classes. But it feels dishonest and just wrong.

So I can tell you how I have learnt to cope. I try to focus on the students with whom I seem to be connecting, the ones whose work is wonderful, who challenge me in class and whose presence in my classes is a true joy. And there are many of them. I have begun conducting my own evaluations in class, asking students what worked and what did not—and these are often more detailed feedback for adapting my pedagogical approach in different classes.

My methods do not always work. I sometimes feel like Sisyphus, and wonder if there is any point. I wonder if the affective (and physical) toll of being ‘out of the closet’ in academia is worth it at all.

And, in the meantime, it is more than a month since my evaluation reports were published. I still have not clicked on the link that takes me to the report.

Maybe next month? Or maybe not.

About the Author

Aparna Nair currently works as Assistant Professor in History of Science at the University of Oklahoma-Norman. She teaches on disability, race, empire, medicine and public health and her research explores colonialism and disability in British India as well as the meanings of chronic illness in modern south India. She blogs at