Equity, Diversity and Inclusion: Disabled in Higher Ed

Conversations about the lack of diversity in academia need to include the needs and experiences of students and staff with disabilities.

Last year, a group of researchers – including Syreeta Nolan and Ava Gurba – decided to organize a series of online talks and panel sessions to discuss some of the challenges experienced by disabled people in academia. The success of this event led to the creation of Disabled in Higher Ed, an online platform that celebrates and empowers disabled individuals in higher education. Here, Linda Corcoran, a masters student at University College Cork and a member of the Disabled in Higher Ed team, shares her experience, advice and hopes about how academia can be made more accessible.

Image of Disabled in Higher Ed team member Linda Corcoran
Image of Disabled in Higher Ed team member Linda Corcoran (CC BY 4.0)

What has the response to Disabled in Higher Ed been like since you launched last summer?

The response has been amazing. We've received so much support and a number of people have written to us saying things like: "I thought I was the only person struggling being a disabled person in academia, and this has made me feel less alone." We’ve also been contacted by faculty and staff asking how they can make their work or departments more accessible. It’s showed us that there’s a real need for an organization like Disabled in Higher Ed. One of the main things we want to highlight is how disability intersects with other minority identities. So, this February to celebrate Black History Month, we hosted another series of talks and discussions focusing on the experiences of students and academics who are Black and disabled, which has also been really well received.

Why do you think disability is often forgotten about in conversations on diversity?

A lot of it comes from this societal view that disability is something people should be ashamed of, something that is an inconvenience to everyone else. When I’ve openly talked about my disability, I’ve had students and staff come up to me and say they don’t tell people about their disability because they’re worried if they ask for special treatment, people will think they don’t deserve to be here. You often find that a lot of the disability advocates are also part of other minority groups: for example, I’m also part of the LGBTQ+ community. And I used to be much more comfortable talking about this part of my identity than my disability, and it took me a long time to not feel guilty about asking for the accommodations I needed.

What are some of the unique challenges that disabled students and staff working in academia face?

Most universities have various systems in place to help people, particularly students, get the vital support they need – although the amount of assistance available can vary between institutes. However, to access that help, or accommodations, you need to essentially present evidence of your disability, which means you have to make sure that all your medical records are up to date and that you’ve completed all the necessary assessments. This can be a massive barrier for those who are trying to obtain a diagnosis and often results in students and staff not getting the help they need for years whilst they wait to be diagnosed. It is also essential to remember that disability is dynamic and the support a person needs can change over time, which many university systems do not account for.

How can universities overcome this barrier?

Some of them have started to implement Universal Design Learning, where teaching, demonstrations and courses are made accessible from the start, and not just when there is someone with a specific disability in the class. This includes making sure all teaching materials have alt text (written descriptions of images that can be read by screen readers), that videos have captions, and that transcripts are available for lectures. The problem is that some universities are not teaching their staff how to implement Universal Design Learning. Also, most of these resources are aimed at students: it’s as if universities think disabilities don’t exist after graduation!

How do these challenges reflect your own experience of academia?

I have faced a lot of challenges and negative attitudes during my time at university. There’s a lot of ableism, especially within teaching practices. I once had to fight with a professor to convince them to put their slides online after the lecture, despite them knowing about my disability. Another time I needed an attendance waiver due to medication that had really affected my energy and sleep, and a lecturer was adamant that I had ‘faked’ my way into getting this so I could go out partying every night.

But, I’ve also had lecturers who have been extremely supportive. During my undergraduate degree I would sometimes feel guilty about taking the accommodations offered by the university, and one of my professors reached out to me and said: "you are entitled to these and should not be ashamed to take them". That conversation was a real turning point for me!

Do you think attitudes towards disability are changing in academia?

Things are definitely changing. If you had told people, even five years ago, that most universities will be trying to implement Universal Design Learning, no one would have believed you. I think lecturers and supervisors are more accepting of people using accommodations and not viewing this as laziness or an unfair advantage over everyone else. But it definitely varies from country to country, and also from university to university. Unfortunately, accessibility and receiving accommodations still remain major issues for most disabled students and staff.

How do you think institutes can better support students and staff with disabilities?

First, just acknowledging that disabled people already exist in academia. You often hear people say that no one in their institute or department has a disability. But this often isn’t true: what’s more likely is that disabled people are there but are not open about their disability due to stigma or have been pushed out of academia due to inaccessibility. We need to start treating disability as a type of diversity and start making sure accessibility is considered from the get-go. One of the main ways to do this is to implement Universal Design, not just in teaching practices, but in all aspects of the university. Accessibility shouldn’t have to be asked for, and institutes need to ensure that all physical spaces, equipment (such as computers) and activities they offer also benefit disabled students and staff.

What unique skills and benefits can people with disabilities bring to the research environment?

People with disabilities have a lot of creativity and adaptability from having lived in a world that was not designed for us. For our entire lives we have had to come up with creative solutions for how to make inaccessible situations workable. In fact, there’s a hashtag on Twitter called #MyDisabilityMadeMeGoodAt which highlights some of the clever solutions disabled people have come up with.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to better support students and staff with disabilities?

Take the time and effort to learn about the experiences of disabled individuals, and how to make your content and spaces accessible. If you are a researcher or an academic, be willing to take on disabled students, and encourage and support them to use the accommodations they need. For instance, disabled students may feel that they need to take a break for their wellbeing but are afraid of how it would be viewed. As their mentor, one of the best things you can do is to reassure them that it’s okay to take the time they need away from work. Having someone tell you this can make a huge difference.

What’s next for Disabled in Higher Ed?

We hope to register as a non-profit and to provide training on accessibility and on how to implement Universal Design, particularly at the departmental level so that it benefits staff as well as students. We would also like to provide training for supervisors on how to mentor students with disabilities. However, our overarching goals are to continue fostering an online community for disabled people in higher education and advocating for disabilities to be included in conversations on equity, diversity and inclusion in academia.

Linda Corcoran was interviewed by Julia Deathridge, Associate Features Editor, eLife.