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: nicole.brown@ucl.ac.uk Web site: www.nicole-brown.co.uk Twitter: @ncjbrown @FibroIdentity @AbleismAcademia