Accessible support: Chronically Academic

Researchers with disabilities and chronic illnesses are advocating for diversity to become normalised.
Interview
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Chronically Academic aims to make academia more accessible for researchers with disabilities and chronic illnesses by providing peer support and resources, and by advocating for them with funding bodies and universities. The group began in February 2015 and has since gained over 140 members and 2,000 Twitter followers. Here, Hazel Lowe, a postdoctoral research assistant at Imperial College London, who curates the group's blog, explains how more could be done to help.

Hazel Lowe lying on the lab floor while waiting for the vacuum chamber to pumpdown during an experiment
Doing what it takes to succeed – managing energy levels in the lab.

Image credit: Siddarth Patankar (@sidxms)

What inspired you to set up Chronically Academic?

One of our founding members in Germany was experiencing discrimination and reached out to other academics with disabilities/chronic illnesses for help and advice. She realised that there must be a more general need among scholars with impairments for similar support and Chronically Academic was born.

In what ways do you support researchers with disabilities or chronic illnesses?

We provide peer support via social media, including a secret Facebook group, as well as matching up individuals with more experienced researchers who can help them resolve whatever issues they are having. Our presence on social media and our website also gives visibility to our community. In addition, we have recently been registered as a charity in Germany so that we can start fundraising towards our long-term goal of being able to provide bursaries to PhD students with disabilities and chronic illnesses.

What has been your biggest achievement so far?

A conversation on Twitter led to collaboration between 12 individuals from 10 different institutions to organise a one day conference on Ableism in Academia (https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/ableism-in-academia-tickets-38939160076) at UCL in March. Academics from different disciplines will come together at the conference to discuss their experiences of ableism and strategies for change.

What do you think are the most common frustrations that people with disabilities and chronic illnesses face within academia?

Managing a disability or chronic illness takes time and effort and can become a job in itself. For example, we need to do extra work before attending a conference or participating in fieldwork as we need to make sure that our accessibility needs are met. This can mean anything from ensuring that wheelchair assistance and access are available, to requesting sign language interpreters, to finding out the distance between the conference hotel and the conference venue, to considering how the time difference and change to diet will affect us. These are just a few examples; there is no one size fits all approach to accessibility and individuals may have widely varying needs. Too often, the work required to ensure that reasonable adjustments are made as required under the Equality Act in the UK, or the Americans with Disabilities Act in the USA, falls on the affected individual, not the conference organisers. If you are organising a conference or workshop, why not check out this accessibility statement generator on our website?

How could we address these frustrations?

A culture change is needed whereby diversity is normalised, so that it does not come as a surprise to anyone that they are required to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that all individuals can participate. Universities need to take responsibility for training faculty members in unconscious bias and disability legislation so that it is universally understood that disability is a protected characteristic, just the same as religion or sexual orientation. Universities need to have clear sick pay policies for researchers at all levels, including for PhD students, as well as suitably trained equality and diversity representatives within organisations who can advocate for affected individuals.

What advice do you have for researchers who encounter difficulties or discrimination related to their disability/chronic condition?

First of all, make use of resources within your own university such as the student disability office, human resources or the unions for students and staff (the resources available vary between different countries and institutions). Secondly, remember the importance of self-care and that managing your health is always the first priority. Finally, contact us! We have many resources on our website and can offer advice and peer support.

How can researchers get involved with and support Chronically Academic?

You can find out more about Chronically Academic on our website (chronicallyacademic.org), Twitter (@chron_ac) and Facebook (facebook.com/Chronicallyacademic). We have a lot of ambitions for the group, so if you want to help us to build our scope (for example, to include lobbying funding bodies) let us know what you would like to get involved with. If you think of new ways to promote the group or a new area of activity that you would like to lead or contribute to please suggest it via info@chronicallyacademic.org.