Saturday, 23 September 2017

Coping strategies for disabled academics: self-acceptance and collective solidarity

Written by Marion

Being a disabled academic is not easy. We frequently require considerably more time and effort to achieve the same as other academics and find some things which seem to be trivial for non-disabled colleagues almost impossible. We may need to achieve a lot more than others for the same recognition. We also frequently come up against a lack of understanding or even hostility when we ask for adjustments to overcome the barriers we face. It is very easy to become dispirited and to think all the difficulties are your fault and feel inadequate and incapable.

The first strategy is to recognise that you are not to blame and that academia is not particularly friendly and sometimes outright rejecting of disabled people. The social model of disability, though by no means perfect, is useful here. It puts the problem and responsibility firmly on society with its infrastructural, social and attitudinal barriers and not the individual and their impairments. It is the lack of large print books, ramps and lifts not the fact you are partially sighted or use a wheelchair that are the problem.

The second strategy is achieving change both for yourself as an individual and more widely for other disabled academics through collective action with other disabled and non-disabled people. There is strength in numbers and working with others reduces the risk of victimisation. This should include joining a trade union. UCU (the University and College Union) in the UK, which also admits (postgraduate) students. Other useful organisations (in the UK) include Disabled People Against the Cuts which is campaigning, for instance, to remove the various hurdles to disabled people getting the benefits they should be entitled to.

In most countries there is legislation about adjustments for disabled people. In the UK there is relatively strong legislation, but no sanctions for not implementing it. While the right to adjustments in the UK is limited by considerations of their ‘reasonableness’, in practice most universities and research institutes are large enough and have enough resources for this not to be an issue. It is useful to encourage your trade union branch to negotiate a policy on reasonable adjustments with your employer. This should include reasonable time limits so that adjustments are put in place quickly and central responsibility for payment to prevent individual departments or schools objecting on the grounds of cost. It should also include disability leave, for instance for medical and other appointments related to your disability, getting a guide dog, learning to use new technology or time off due to changes in your condition. For many disabled academics excessive workloads are a particular barrier and working the nominal 35-38 hour week rather than the 50-90 hour week frequently expected could make a real difference.

If you require reasonable adjustments, you should involve your trade union in negotiating them, and therefore need to be a member. Despite their legal obligations, academic employers are not always helpful and trade union support can help to change this. It is also useful to know about financial support. In the UK Access to Work has been called the best kept secret. It covers, for instance, support workers, additional equipment, adaptations to equipment, fares to work if you cannot use public transport and disability awareness training for colleagues, though the employer might be required to pay a contribution.

The third strategy is talking and exchanging experiences with other disabled academics by electronic media as well as face to face. This can be very helpful in finding out what adjustments, if any, they have and which ones they have found useful, as well as any good practice in their institutions and campaigning strategies that have and have not worked. This can help you determine what additional adjustments might be useful to you, as well as what to campaign for in your institution and how to go about it. Drawing attention to any good practice at competing institutions can often be useful. Talking to other disabled academics can be very important in breaking down isolation and feelings of inadequacy and blame and helping you realise that any problems you are experiencing have structural not personal causes. Talking in confidence to people who understand what you are going through can help you survive when things go wrong.

A fourth coping strategy is recognising your strengths. We all have them, as well of course as weaknesses. The creativity and adaptations we have developed to overcome the barriers we face are in themselves strengths and some of us may have particularly creative ways of thinking and working and/or find easy things which most non-disabled people struggle with. However, when things become difficult it is easy to forget your strengths and creativity and all the positive qualities that enabled you to overcome all the barriers, hoops and hurdles to be accepted into academia. It is easy to fall into a deep hole and feel totally inadequate. It can even be useful to write down your strengths and your achievements at a time when things are going reasonably well, so that you can refer to them in the more difficult times.

The final strategy is keeping a sense of humour, being nice to yourself and not expecting the impossible, or at least not all the time. It is frustrating to have to accept that there are things you need help with or struggle with, particularly when non-disabled people seem to sail through. At these times it is useful to consider your strengths and the times you have helped other people, as well as recognising that the difficulties are due to barriers to disabled people not your inadequacy. Keeping your ability to laugh at things, including difficulties and the pomposity or obnoxiousness of colleagues can be helpful. And the last laugh will be on us, by staying in there and being successful academics despite all the difficulties.

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