Saturday, 22 July 2017

Improving access on campus

Written by Katherine Deane

I work at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, UK. Based in the School of Health Sciences, I’m a Senior Lecturer in Research, working with people to improve their management of long-term conditions. I’m also a wheelchair user.

In the 1960s UEA’s campus was designed with the intent of creating a sense of community. Unfortunately, back in the ‘60s, people with disabilities were not considered to be a usual part of the university’s community. So our campus was built without implementing the principles of universal design and included inherent barriers to access.

I joined UEA in 2009. As my own disability progressed and I needed to use a wheelchair to get around, I hit many of these barriers. Some were physical – heavy doors, which put me at risk of dislocating my shoulder again; some were attitudinal, such as requiring my department to spend an entire year’s budget excess to power-up key doors (that made me real popular). When I started to try and advise my university on the design of new buildings, I was met with condescension, incomprehension, and conflicting priorities. I was usually ignored and told it wasn’t that important an issue. When I suggested some new heavy doors to seminar rooms should be powered-up, I was told this wasn’t a “green” option. It was a very frustrating time. Whilst I was getting some personal accommodations, I could see new building and refurbishments being constructed with yet more access barriers built in.

Then we got a new Vice-chancellor, Professor David Richardson. In his first days as VC he held an open meeting with staff. I sat at the front of the room in my wheelchair. I challenged him by saying that even new buildings on campus were not accessible, and that UEA wasn’t using its in-house expertise to make them so. He invited me to have coffee with him in one of these new buildings, where I demonstrated the problems I had getting around a brand new building that had had millions spent on it. He thought this was unacceptable, so he asked me to help set up the Access All Areas Team. I wrote the terms of reference for the group, a key priority being that anyone with a disability – staff or student – could attend meetings and inform the decisions of the group.

We took the existing jobs list which was created from the mandatory accessibility audit. The legislative standard for access in buildings (Schedule M) is minimal – if you have a step-free, powered front door and a disabled toilet, you’ve pretty much met the standard. While the existing audit met this standard, we added a lot of jobs that are extra to that standard. We have an annual central budget of £300,000, but we have over 100 buildings on campus, and a single powered door can cost £15,000 to buy and install. If we only addressed our highest priority items, this would cost over £1 million.

We reprioritised the job list. We prioritised safety and being able to get around the campus. So we encouraged the Fire Safety Team to buy evacuation chairs. In the event of a fire, someone with a mobility impairment can sit in an evacuation chair and be rolled safely down the stairs by a fire warden. This made many more teaching spaces accessible. We reprogrammed some of our newer lifts so they can now be used in the event of fire, making more of our rooms fully accessible for those who can’t get out of their wheelchair and into an evacuation chair. We have installed 162 powered doors in the last three years. These were prioritised as front doors, then corridor doors, then teaching space doors. Public areas were given top priority, followed by student areas and then staff areas. A quarter of a million pounds was spent on a new fire lift to ensure that the students’ union is fully accessible. We also have more fully accessible teaching rooms, accessible toilets, ramps, better signs, etc.

We have created guidelines for architects, explaining how we want all future buildings to be designed. These guidelines follow the principles of universal design, so our new buildings will work for our entire community. We are aiming to build the most accessible science laboratories in the UK, which will include a changing place – which is a disabled toilet with a bench and hoist to allow people to be changed with dignity. In fact, we have established a policy that all new buildings and major refurbishments will install a changing place.

We held our first Disabled Access Day in March of this year, celebrating our access improvements, and we are now moving on to address attitudinal barriers. We are working to improve the experience of students with disabilities by improving the knowledge and attitudes of the students’ union’s societies and sport clubs. They are receiving mental health first aid training from MHFA England and I’m teaching a course in disability confidence.

External bodies have noticed our expertise and we are starting to advise charities, councils, and service providers about improving accessibility and disability awareness. We are aiming not just for an accessible campus, but one that sits within an accessible community, welcoming to everyone.

We have changed university policy at the highest level. It is now part of the Corporate Plan that the campus is to be “accessible for all”. Today we have nearly 1500 students on our campus and 12% of them have disabilities – a 50% increase over the last 10 years. Diversity has long been identified as leading to greater commercial success. Disabled people improve our university’s diversity and so our potential for success. Having a disability means that people develop many skills such as problem solving, time and energy management, and communication skills. We think these skills are hugely valuable to our university community. We believe that if the barriers to participation are removed, then people with disabilities can demonstrate their brilliance. We want all our students to be brilliant. We know our job is not yet complete. We have come a long way, but we have further to go before we achieve our aim of a campus that is accessible to all.

If you would like a copy of our Access Guide, or would like me to speak to your institution about the value of improving accessibility, please email me on k.deane@uea.ac.uk

About the Author
Photograph of Katherine, who is
Caucasian with short brown hair,
smiling in tinted blue glasses.

Dr Katherine Deane is a Senior Lecturer in Research at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. UK. She works with people with long term conditions to research the best way to manage them. She is also interested in disability and the built environment and is working to improve campus accessibility in particular. She has a number of long term conditions herself and is a wheelchair user – which gives her insight that just can’t be gotten any other way. She is a self-confessed geek and is raising a geek son alongside her geek husband.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

The Fog

Written by Ian

Trigger warning - mention of suicidal thoughts.

Cutting through the fog is what I needed to do.

The lone scholar myth persists and is still the model of an academic. Individual achievement and “genius” is what the system is geared to reward. The relentless academic tournament where only a few “win” is exhausting and takes a toll on mental health, especially when things aren’t healthily competitive, but hyper-competitive as they are now.

I bought into the lone “genius” scholar model. Probably both consciously and subconsciously. Academia can be isolating and has been for me.

My internal dialog has an outsize influence. It has the credibility of a scientist working to falsify any positive idea I might have. The negative, harsh voice is one I would never apply to anyone else. Connecting to others can be challenging partly because depressive mood is not something I want to spread. However, luckily, I do have a few close friends—whom I would take a bullet for—to open up to, although none of whom I speak with enough.

There’s pain in the fog; a longing for light to cut through or for me to find a way to part it, if only temporarily.

At its thickest, there are two solutions to dealing with the fog. Waiting for the fog to abate, even partially. And there have been times when it feels oppressive and functionally no different from being dead. Suicidal thoughts crept in. I never had means to act on these thoughts, and had one motivation to not carry through: those good friends and family. I would wish to get hit by a bus or have some other fatal accident befall me.

Having these thoughts obviously didn’t help my work.

The fog thickens in times of uncertainty.

I’ve had to come back from that oppressive fog that began six years ago, when I nearly didn’t go on. That was a time I somehow waited out the worst. A time when taking any steps, any actions, seemed futile.

Coming back from that has been a big accomplishment, and I feel shows strength. All through this I kept going, kept learning, and was kind and patient with myself. I found new ways of connecting to people, mainly through Twitter. I started talking openly about depression and mental illness, particularly as it affects academics. I started writing about science too, beyond the technical writing, by guest writing on other blogs. I’m learning to be an editor. I’ve decided I want to step away from the lab bench, which has recently happened. As of this writing, I don’t have anything full time lined up. This latest uncertainty is a test of the network I have built up of close friends and acquaintances, and a test of my ability to go after new opportunities and reach through the fog to ask for help and connect to the wider world. How much will the fog close in this time?

Depression, even when well managed and apparently in the background, seems likely to be with me the rest of my life. The fog can thin and even disappear for a time, but never seems far away. Though even when it’s away, some of the habits developed in the fog’s isolation remain.

I fear stepping into another situation like academia. My next career step is one where I hope I can still further science, education, critical thinking, and the public’s connection to stories of science. Ultimately I hope it’s a career that’s better for my mental health than academia has been, by allowing me to connect more.

There are systemic and cultural changes to academia that can and should be called for like truly preparing PhDs and postdocs for careers beyond the tenure track. But for individuals coping with depression or another mental illness, I encourage them to find someone outside the fog to talk to. To build a support network (like Chronically Academic) of close friends/family and acquaintances, one at a time. Starting with a therapist is fine too. Medications may help lift the fog enough to feel and act normally as well. Resilience is easier when there are supportive people that are visible and accessible. That may include your advisor and other mentors—always build up a network of more than one mentor. Mentors can be anyone that positively influences you or your learning and having people to go to for specific things makes you less isolated and I believe learning from others, or just learning new ways of thinking, can help treat depression (it’s not *that* simple, but it has helped).

Navigating through life with a fog of depression over the brain isn’t easy, but it can also make those managing depression mentally tough and more resilient than may be apparent to even them.

About the Author

Ian is a plant scientist, science writer, and editor who recently transitioned out of academia. His science writing can be seen on his blog, The Quiet Branches. He can be found on Twitter at @IHStreet.

Reflections on being awarded tenure as a woman with kids and a disability / chronic illness

Written by Holly Witteman

We have kindly been given permission to reproduce this from Holly's blog, where you can read the full article.

There is no universal experience. In my individual experience, a good partner can make the ‘with kids’ part much easier but the ‘and a disability / chronic illness’ part remains tough. Support helps, but no one else can ever do the daily, relentless work of keeping myself alive in a world and career that isn’t always well-structured for staying healthy. The things that have worked well for me have been: (1) being flexible geographically, even at a cost to my family, (2) being extra disciplined about working hard whenever I can to balance out the times when I can’t, (3) using a calendar, not a To Do list, for planning my work, (4) writing constantly, and (5) having full drafts of grants ready 6-8 weeks ahead of deadline for rounds of pre-submission review. It also gives me hope for the future of science and research to (6) use my position to work to improve the system so that research and researchers don’t continue to be held back by barriers that have nothing to do with the quality of one’s work. This effort may or may not help me, but I am determined that it will help others. I am glad not to be alone in these efforts, and I invite anyone who isn’t already involved in such efforts to join in. Especially if you are an academic in Canada, please read this book.

In November, my application for tenure and promotion was approved. June 1, my rank went from Assistant Professor (professeure adjointe at my French-speaking institution) to Associate Professor (professeure agrégée), a bigger deal than I ever understood before I became a professor. This means that the university at which I am a professor has more of a commitment to me, and I to it. I will still be reviewed annually and need to continue to work hard, especially if I want to continue doing work that is funded by competitive grants, but this provides a higher level of job security than I had before. It means, essentially, that I cannot be fired without cause.

It has been a long road to get here, and the road doesn’t end here. My colleague Dr. Brian Zikmund-Fisher once told me, “Getting tenure is like winning a pie-eating contest in which the prize is more pie.” I have already found this to be true. But it’s a good time to take stock.

I originally started writing this for myself. I write for myself a lot. It is how I sort through my thoughts. In this case, those thoughts were about how I got here, what has gone well for me that I should keep doing, what has gone less well for me that I should stop doing, and what else I can do to help improve the system. I read something recently that really resonated with me and so I decided to share this post in case any of what I’ve written might be helpful to others, especially any others like me. (Those others will have to be people who can make it through many, many paragraphs. Scroll down towards the bottom if you just want my list of things that have helped me.)

I have two kids and have spent nearly all my life living with type 1 diabetes, a time-consuming autoimmune chronic illness classed as a disability. My kids are 10 and 5 years old. My diabetes is 34 years old. It took me quite a few of those 34 years to identify as disabled, a period of time I now recognize as being marked by my own internalized ableism that took some time to address, a growing awareness of how much I still have to learn about other forms of disability, and fear. When I say internalized ableism, put plainly, I mean that didn’t want to identify as disabled because I saw it as a negative attribute rather than just an attribute. It took me a while to deal with that. My fear comes from being afraid of having my ability to do my work impeded by ableism. I’m having a very successful career so far. I’m thrilled to be able to do research that I hope will help many people. I love doing the work I do. I love solving problems, answering research questions, and being able to support trainees in their paths toward their career goals. I don’t want that to stop for any reason, but I especially don’t want it to stop because people who have power over my career may be prejudiced.

My fears are well-founded. Academia is a competitive, reputation-based business, reputation is determined by people, people shape and are shaped by fundamentally unequal social structures, and many people also have individual biases. Individual biases may be conscious or unconscious, against groups of others or against groups of which we are members. There are many randomized controlled trials and well-analyzed observational studies in which the data support what people from underrepresented groups have long said: when you are a member of one of these groups, you have to be extra good to get an even chance. (For those who are curious, here is an excellent annotated bibliography on gender bias and other biases in academia. I also linked to a number of studies in this editorial and you may also wish to use search engines and academic databases just like you would for any other academic topic.)

The effects of four such biases in academic research in Canada are most easily apparent in statistics for the Canada Research Chairs program, a prestigious salary award program that was required to set targets for equity after a court settlement. Canada Research Chairs pay whole salaries or portions of salaries of professors and thus, are used as recruiting tools and/or budget line adjustment tools by universities. It’s up to each university to nominate people for the chairs they have been allocated. They may nominate professors already appointed or they may recruit new professors.

The idea of having these targets is to help ensure that known biases in academia don’t prevent qualified candidates from being nominated. These targets are achievable, not aspirational. They reflect realistic, even low, proportions within the available pool of candidates in academia. All of the targets are well under than the associated proportions in the general population. In Canada, including Indigenous nations, women represent 50% of the population, visible minorities (a Canadian term for people of colour) represent 22%, Indigenous peoples represent 4.6%, and disabled people represent about 14% of the population aged 15 years or older. For context, in the US, 19% of the population have a disability. In Australia the figure is 18%. In France, the statistic is 18%, with 80% of those being invisible. In the UK, 16% of working aged adults are disabled. Countries don’t all have the exact same definitions of disability but it’s clear that in all countries, there are a lot of people who face different kinds of barriers.

The fact that the Canada Research Chairs program isn’t achieving easy targets suggests strongly that the nominations processes as a whole are unfortunately biased, most likely in subtle ways that may be hard to identify in any single decision. This means we, as a group, are likely failing to hire and/or nominate excellent candidates. Data below are from the Canada Research Chairs’ Program Statistics, using their nomenclature. They only report single categories, no combinations. In other words, as Dr. Malinda Smith notes, there is no intersectional presentation. In statistical terms, this is like looking at main effects but not interactions, even though you know that interactions are likely to matter.

Canadian universities have had trouble with all four targets but they failed most spectacularly in nominating disabled people, so much so that the target was lowered. Among the people I know in academia in Canada who advocate for leveling the playing field for everyone, they often bring up issues of sexism, sometimes racism, sometimes colonialism, but rarely ableism. (There are also other dimensions that get less attention in academia; e.g., gender identity, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, and others.)

About the Author

Holly Witteman, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Family & Emergency Medicine, Université Laval (Laval University), Quebec City, Canada. Quebec City is unceded traditional territory of the Abenaki and Wabenaki Confederacy and the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) people. Dr. Witteman directs the research unit within the Faculty of Medicine’s Office of Education and Professional Development. She is also a scientist at the Research Centre of the CHU de Québec-Université Laval, at the new Institute of Primary Care Research affiliated with Laval University, and an Affiliate Investigator at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, Ottawa, Canada, unceded traditional Algonquin territory. With an interdisciplinary background in human factors engineering, human-computer interaction, and decision sciences, her research is about the design and evaluation of digital and other media in health decision making. She specializes in human-computer interaction in health education, risk communication and decision making, including design methods to support broad, inclusive user-centredness and patient-centeredness. Her work as Principal Investigator has been funded by the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Santé (FRQS), the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI, United States), the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).