CRED blog series - Can we perform like “super-cripples” during this challenging pandemic? Opportunities for Disabled People working in Academia
Centre for Research in Equality and Diversity, School of Business and Management
Queen Mary, University of London
Despite the overwhelming grey clouds of anxiety due to the Coronavirus pandemic, this could be a golden opportunity for disabled academics like myself working under self-isolation. I have recently completed a PhD research regarding the experience of disabled academics, investigating and discussing the difficulties and hurdles we routinely face in academia. In this short article, I argue that these precarious and challenging times of self-isolation afford great opportunities for disabled academics. I highlight how virtual technology offers the opportunity to level the playing field between disabled and non-disabled, suggesting that we could become future academic heroes.
Disabled academics who are teaching find it particularly arduous dealing with the challenges of the physical classroom. For example, deaf/hard of hearing academics have to be certain that the hearing-loops and the microphone is working properly otherwise the entire teaching session, including the lecture, will go to waste. Wheelchair users like myself may encounter difficulties manoeuvring through the congested layout of table and chairs, frequently placed without being mindful of people using wheelchairs. Once arrived, there is the height of the teaching podium, the operation of the slide projector, the uploading of slides using the provided desktop computer, and the hassle of printing student handouts. For blind/hard of seeing academics, lighting, etc. can be an additional issue in the classroom.
Virtual online teaching removes many physical difficulties such as those mentioned above. We can pre-record lectures on Power Point, or similar programming software, or host live teaching sessions or lectures using Zoom or WizIQ or other software that permits live online teaching within the interactive classrooms. If the lectures are pre-recorded, we get a chance to correct our lectures before submitting them to the university-based web portal, and/or if doing live virtual online teaching sessions with students we do not have to worry about technical problems within the classroom. If the student has queries or issues, they can instantly ask through the live online forum or consult their lecturer via email. In addition, it gives us more intense one-to-one seminar time with each student.
My own personal experience of meeting the challenge of academic work during self-isolation suggests that some of the solution lies in the adoption and mainstreaming of virtual-teaching technology. The role technology plays in benefiting disabled people’s employment is well documented (e.g. Roulstone, 1998) as it gives flexibility, creates less-demanding work schedules, thus decreasing stress, as well as reducing the impact on disability experienced when using other methods of teaching. Technology combined with self-isolation (temporarily) reduces the need to deal face-to-face with academia's admin managers and other non-disabled academic colleagues, which can cause stress and anxiety due to their lack of understanding of our academic potential (Foster and Scott, 2015). Now that technology is mainstream and has rapidly been adopted by campuses worldwide it is no longer viewed as specially enabling disabled academics, who previously were seen as specially favoured through regimes that permitted them to use technology to manage their academic workload (Foster and Wass, 2013). The pandemic has certainly levelled the playing field.
However, this should not be seen as a recommendation that disabled academics should always self-isolate and only work from home. Ongoing adjustments to campus facilities should be implemented in order to make face-to-face teaching more accessible long-term. Additionally, even when physical teaching returns to the campus, disabled academics should be given the opportunity to work from home when needed and provided with the appropriate facilities when required. This would ensure that disabled academics do not fear losing employment and would elevate a sense of care and protection towards the disabled academic staff from their workplace (Burchardt, 2000). Such considerations would greatly reduce the stress when experiencing the limitations of our disability. Furthermore, Oliver and Barnes (1997: 812) argue that 'one of the key features of a disabling society is that disabled workers are expected to perform like super-cripples, in order to hold down a job'. Perhaps this historic COVID-19 crisis may have offered us the opportunity to become super-cripples in academia!
Burchardt, T. 2000. Enduring economic exclusion: disabled people, income and work. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Foster, D. & Wass, V. 2013. Disability in the Labour Market: An Exploration of Concepts of
the Ideal Worker and Organisational Fit that Disadvantage Employees with Impairments. Sociology, 47, 705-721.
Foster, D. & Scott, P. 2015. Nobody's responsibility: the precarious position of disabled employees in the UK workplace. Industrial Relations Journal, 46, 328-343.
Oliver & Barnes, C. 1997. All We Are Saying is Give Disabled Researchers a Chance. Disability & Society, 12, 811-814.
Roulstone, A. 1998. Society: The Case of Employment and New Technology, in: Shakespeare,
- (ed.) Disability Reader: Social Science Perspectives. London: Continuum.