6 ways to break barriers faced by academics with a disability

To learn from the lived experiences of academics with a disability or mental health condition, the Academy hosted an event this past July. 

Through this event, we sought to better understand the barriers faced by academics living with a disability, what we can do to break those barriers and how to be a good ally when you witness discriminatory behaviours. 
Here's what we learnt:

  1. Stop the myth of an ideal employee

    That ideal employee who is always on time, never sick, never sad, can access everything, is free from caring responsibilities, works till 2am and gives their life to their career is a total myth.

    ‘It’s not a real person, [and] yet, someone living with a disability is constantly expected to compete with them.' - Dr Gayle Brewer

    Not comparing people to an ideal that doesn’t exist doesn't just help people with disabilities, it helps us all. 

  2. Change the way we ask and talk about disability

    Give people the chance to express their needs and really listen to them, instead of relying on someone having a diagnosis. Understand people’s lived experiences and determine practical ways of addressing their needs so they can do their best work.

    This is particularly important at conferences, where making interpreters available, or having the session chair co-ordinate ‘raised hands’ can make all the difference.

    Talking to someone using an interpreter? Look at the person, not the interpreter!

    Conducting interviews? Don’t wait for people to come forward and ask for reasonable adjustments. Instead, give clear examples of what is possible and the adjustments you have made in the past, using language that is not intimidating. For example, “We can provide neurodiverse candidates extra time for their interview and will send interview questions in advance”. In fact, everyone benefits from time to think, so why not release your questions to all candidates an hour before the interview?

  3. Be your best advocate

    If you live with a disability, accept that you know yourself best. Others will often see the shiny version of you – not that it took you hours to get out of bed, nor that you needed to rest the entire weekend because the week was so exhausting. Therefore, they cannot and should not tell you if you are disabled enough or not, or that your needs are not justified.

    Don’t be afraid of labels. They are not important in defining your identity, but they will get you the support you need.

  4. Believe the person who is advocating for themselves

    If someone living with a disability opens to you about their struggles, believe them.

    “Questioning them is a microaggression,” - Dr Anica Zeyen

    Instead, work with them and determine the accommodations that can be made to empower your friend and colleague. If you are an academic supervisor, your responsibility is even greater.

    “My job as a supervisor is to remove barriers so you can shine.” - Dr Neil Alexander-Passe


  5. Normalise balancing workload

    Institutions should recognise that academics, regardless of disability disclosure, should have autonomy over their workload. Everyone should be able to create a work-life balance that prioritises their mental health and wellbeing. 
    Model this work-life balance in the workplace for your colleagues and friends. It will go a long way in benefitting those who might be too intimidated to ask. 
    As an academic with a disability, think of the ways of working that will suit your individual needs, and ask for them. 

    “We are part of a world which isn’t built for us, designed for us. It is hard enough to do the day-to-day tasks.” - Dr Anica Zeyen

  6. Microaffirmations can help counter microinvalidations

    Whether you witness ableism as a non-disabled academic or experience it as an academic with a disability, there are empowering ways to counter microaggressions.

    Microaffirmations can really shift the sense of being overlooked or feeling discredited for an individual.

    A simple example is ensuring that someone has been able to contribute to a meeting and has not been ignored or overlooked. If a person is not able to speak up at meetings because of their disability, microaffirmation takes the form of arranging for them to send in written comments, and crediting them for their contribution.

    Microaffirmations are also a way of stepping into a situation without taking away the agency of the person affected. When you witness discrimination, do not just jump in. Instead, ask if they need your help. If there is not much you can do, ask the person afterwards if they need anything. Even offering them a hot drink and giving them the chance to vent can make them feel less alone.

The Academy of Medical Sciences is committed to working towards full equity of opportunity both in our own organisation, practices and work, and in the wider academic workforce. We welcome comments and feedback and will always listen with an openness and willingness to learn how to do things better. You can view information on equlity, diversity and inclusion at the Academy here and download our EDI principles and values here.

Key contacts

Meet the President - Cambridge

Book Now

Meet the President - Edinburgh

Book Now

Mentoring Masterclass - September 2024

Book Now
View more
FB Twitter Instagram Youtube