Where are all the disabled academics?

I remember crossing Kensington’s Anzac Parade for the first time. I was a regional kid, first-in-family, fresh and overwhelmed by Sydney. Heading to my first class at university, I felt that crossing that artery of Sydney traffic was like crossing some great threshold. Within the first few months, I would continue to get lost and started to get used to the standard level of city-rudeness.

I would also soon learn about some of the professional requirements of my new discipline.  I remember one of my first tutors explaining that entry to the legal profession requires one to formally declare any mental health conditions as part of proving one’s ‘capacity’. They officiously brushed over the finer details, but I remember feeling immediately discouraged. As soon as I heard this, I knew that I would have to make such a disclosure to the legal admissions board. I also have a condition which makes it difficult to read for long periods without experiencing nausea and headaches, and I identify as having a disability. Although I have since been admitted as a lawyer, back then I feared those rules spelled out a future where my efforts could amount to nothing. That I could be refused entry. That I may not be wanted.

The deeply embedded histories of ableism within the law itself and reflected in the culture of the legal profession were just the beginning. It wasn’t long after I had settled in that I began to unravel. I was struggling to manage my conditions while trying to stay afloat: interning, applying for scholarships, working, barely affording Sydney rent. Eventually, I dropped out. I couldn’t seem to get access to the support that might enable me to hang in for a bit longer. Yet I consider myself relatively lucky: my dropping out turned out to be short-lived, and I eventually managed to return and see my degree through.

Earlier this year, disabled students shared on Twitter the everyday barriers they experience in their education, using the hashtag #WhyDisabledPeopleDropout. Accounts of structural ableism included difficulty in obtaining reasonable adjustments, inaccessible campus infrastructure, stigma and ignorance.

Over the years, tertiary education reforms have meant that the student body in Australian universities has become more ‘diverse’. Entry and bonus point schemes have made universities a possibility for disabled people and those from working class and migrant backgrounds. But they remain sites of privilege, and disabled people have historically been excluded from them, with scholarship about disability most often conducted by non-disabled people.

No university can refuse to embrace inclusion or diversity outright. These efforts are part of a calculated public relations exercise. Despite the image they try to project, however, many universities have formal policies and processes that take a medicalised and deficit-based approach to disability. Those within the academy with disabilities talk about stigma, with some feeling that they have to hide their conditions.

Universities could be doing a lot more to attract and support more disabled academics and students. Research shows that disabled students are at a higher risk of not completing their studies, and report higher levels of financial stress and social isolation at university. Moves towards introducing trimesters and the cutting of disability support staff have had negative impacts on disabled students. At the graduate level, many institutions have no higher degree research scholarships awarded on an equity basis or reserved for prospective graduate students with disabilities.

Some of the suggested measures to get more scholars with disability working and progressing in the academy include extending training for staff on disability-inclusive practices and implementing affirmative action measures. Such measures could see quotas or targets for the recruitment of disabled scholars into academic and leadership positions, ensuring better representation. But, in order to have disabled academics, there must be a pool of disabled students, who can be supported, mentored and encouraged in the process of graduating from students into researchers. For that to happen, a future involving academic labour must first be seen to be a liveable, survivable and even just conceivable option.

For me, when I think about academia specifically, I see the impossible expectations of overwork, the precarity of casualisation and the related job stress for the underclass of casual university workers as factors that have caused me to hesitate many times over about pursuing an academic path as a disabled person.

I am aware that insecurity, exploitation and unreasonable demands for productivity are a defining experience of what it means to be an early career researcher. And of course the teaching conditions of staff are the learning conditions of students. For disabled undergraduate students, this is not a slogan but very much real, actual and felt.

I have recently made an informed choice to pursue academia regardless. But many others do not have the choice to see how long they can last in what Raewyn Connell calls the ‘privilege machine’.

Casualisation is just a symptom of our corporatised, profit-driven education industry. It is bad for both the disabled student – who cannot access her tutor as easily after class, who needs more time for consultation or to follow up about adjustments – and for her course tutor, who does not have an office and is not paid for this part of their work but does it anyway. We must not fail to acknowledge how the demands of the neoliberal university fall disproportionately on disabled academics and students and how this perpetuates deep inequalities, of which ableism is just one.

To hope that institutions constructed as centres of privilege and exclusion could become more inclusive of disabled folk, is to ask of them that they genuinely give up some of their power. The meaningful involvement of all kinds of disabled people in making knowledge does not rank very highly next to the profit motives of university managements. To achieve disability justice in our universities, we need to start from the place of radically reimagining what these places can be and who they are for. These struggles are very much at the heart of #WhyDisabledPeopleDropout.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Thank you for such a wonderful article. It raises so many issues many of us face.
    I still hope we can work together to identify and reduce these barriers.

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