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Disability in universities: an uphill struggle

Published: 24/10/2017

Countdown to #ECU2017

ECU is now counting down to our 2017 annual conference, which is taking place in Birmingham on Tuesday 7 and Wednesday 8 November 2017.

As part of our countdown we will be publishing blog posts written by speakers, at our conference, between now and the conference itself.

The third post in this series is from Val Williams and colleagues at the University of Bristol who will be presenting on ‘Hidden and discursive barriers: taking apart the ‘common sense’ assumptions in university talk on day two. For more information about this workshop visit our online conference programme.

Disability in universities: an uphill struggle

‘We are on a hill’ was one of the common-sense ripostes by senior management at a university to requests about disability access several years ago.  More recently, we as university staff have faced the difficulty of creating level access with lifts within buildings which are ‘listed’.

Our research is known as ‘Getting Things Changed’. We are interested not just in taking action to make changes for disabled students and staff, but also in understanding what is going on to make such change necessary in the first instance, even though it is challenging to bring about.  In tackling some of the barriers faced by disabled students and staff in a university, we have tried to work out what it is that is going wrong. For sure, disabling barriers does not happen just in care homes, in public transport or in health services. They are around us in universities, and that means we are all unwittingly part of them.

Higher education is tasked both with extending and opening its doors to a wider range of potential students, while at the same time maintaining its ‘excellence’ in academic standards, research and teaching. These two goals should of course be complementary, both lying in the same direction. We know that disabled people, both as students and staff, are assets to universities, bringing with them a wide vision and insight into their own subjects, insights born out of their need to reflect, to consider how to approach their lives, and how to adapt. This understanding is not always shared by people in positions of authority, however.

‘…the university does seem to have a desire to help students with disabilities, but there has been a huge lack of staff awareness regarding disability and a lack of clear pathways for disabled students to get the help they need. It feels as though students with disabilities are having to find their own paths, to get help and support, which is both exhausting and frustrating.’ [Disabled student]

One of the issues we are finding is the underlying and unvoiced assumption that disability is a ‘problem’ and that the adjustments to be made for each disabled person will be merely an additional expense, creating extra ‘support’ tasks, extra issues for building services, and extra issues for teaching staff and colleagues. Thus although any educational institution might have processes and policies to support disabled people, these processes become shaped and solidified by discourses of negativity which may undermine their positive purpose and potential.

From the point of view of staff, the scene may be similar. But the user-founded and user-led Staff Disability Forum is a group where employees share experiences of being overlooked. A recent case is a much-publicised university initiative to demonstrate its competence in combatting discrimination on the grounds of mental health. Yet while the university is appointing student wellbeing advisers and taking other measures to solve the problem that ‘students do not enjoy being here as much as we hope’, staff have been told efforts to support their mental health have not been given financial backing. There is no dedicated staff disability service to match the student disability service. Again and again staff with both mental health conditions and physical impairments encounter extra disability-related pressures.

‘We have to manage our own support services, fill in our own support-worker time-sheets, make our own travel arrangements, even though all of these support needs are effectively created by the demands of our jobs. We effectively do double the work.’ [Disabled member of staff]

To really make a difference, then, we need to do more than support individuals to get around the system; we need to change the system itself. In our panel of papers for the ECU conference, we will discuss these issues further. We maintain that to change that system, we need to get behind the way disabling practices are talked into being, are justified and perpetuated. ‘We are on a hill’ is no longer used as an excuse, but we still have a long way to go for disabled members of the university to really be valued and celebrated.

Val Williams and colleagues
University of Bristol

The views and opinions in this blog post reflect those of the authors and not Equality Challenge Unit.