Designing a Disabled and Ill Researchers’ Network

(Researcher Mentoring Consultant) and founder members of the University of Sheffield Disabled & Ill Researchers’ Network: Chris Donaldson (PGR in the Medical School), Peter Dory (PGR in English), and Isobel Williams (post-doc in Psychology).

Image of the Disabled & Ill
researchers` Network logo which
is a blue square with the name
of the network and a plus sign on
a black circular background.

Nobody embarks on a PhD thinking it’s going to be easy, but disability and illness can make researching a thesis that little bit more daunting, exhausting or isolating. The Disabled & Ill Researchers’ Network is a group for postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers who are managing PhD study alongside a disability, impairment, injury, or physical, psychological, and/or mental health condition.

“The biggest issue I face in my research is fatigue management. It’s never easy to judge what might send me into a long, unproductive slump. I’m lucky enough to have understanding supervisors, but there’s always the worry that I might slip too far behind.”

The Network launched at the University of Sheffield in March 2018. It’s one of three new peer-networks for researchers at Sheffield (see also: the Emotionally Demanding Research Network and the Parent PGR Network). These new researcher communities are a part of our Researcher Wellbeing strategy, combining lots of initiatives that work across different researcher groups.

At Sheffield we use a ‘Google Community’ website but you could make use of any online space that works for you. A Facebook group, a WordPress site, an email mailing list, a Slack channel or any other intranet or messaging system you prefer. Through our online space, and face to face events, the group aims to provide a forum to discuss problems, share strategies, and campaign for greater awareness of researcher disability and illness and its impact on study.

“I had perhaps naively expected all members of staff at a university to be ‘disability aware’ – particularly those who work in patient-facing departments and therefore work with disability and illness for a living. That was not the case, and I came across some ignorant-bordering-on-discriminatory attitudes. I was, however, lucky to have understanding supervisors and PGR leads who allowed me to work in the way that was right for me, and fought my corner when necessary.”

In our first meeting we started with an open forum to surface some of the big discussions, we compared experiences, how they matched with the expectations for study, and the university processes and systems that support this, or make life more difficult.

Hot topics ranged from the very cultural, to the very practical:

  • Patchy awareness in departments of the needs of disabled and ill researchers to manage their own time and energy — this can lead to overstepped boundaries. e.g. treating disabled researchers as if they are ‘lazy’ if they decline opportunities or say no to them, or using power relationships to force participation, or insist on longer working hours.
  • Awareness of how physical health can impact on mental health. If a disclosed disability is ‘physical’ then a PhD researcher may find themselves are excluded from support for mental health.
  • Low awareness of key contacts who can support Disabled & Ill Researchers’: e.g. Departmental Disability Liaison Officers.
  • Application for support and communication processes can vary between different services, academic departments, health services, and key contacts meaning that they can take a long time and errors can be made, or information lost.
  • The number of Accessible workspaces on campus is not adequate or well mapped.
  • Taking a Leave of Absence (suspending PhD study for a period of time) — which is particularly pertinent to ill and disabled researchers:
    • Financial exclusion from taking a Leave of Absence due to it being an unfunded period of leave.
    • How to best organise and manage a phased return from a Leave of Absence
    • Supervisor(s) awareness of Leave of Absence processes, and their permission or encouragement to use the process.
    • The ‘current climate’ of research (deadlines, submission times, pressure) and the difficulty of taking time out.
    • A Leave of Absence isn’t a ‘cure’ and we shouldn’t expect that researchers will return ‘fixed’ and without ongoing issues to manage.

“I think my biggest issue has been adapting the skills I’ve learnt to a research environment – particularly for students with disabilities and SpLDs, I don’t think your degree prepares you for how to manage your time, how to balance your different responsibilities. I’ve also struggled with a great deal of people not understanding how my disabilities/SpLDs affect my learning and how I carry out my PhD. Finally, when I’ve needed time away, I don’t feel as if I’ve been able to take it – I simply wouldn’t be able to afford to live, as you lose funding for time you take on leave of absence.”

To make sure that the fledgling network would grow and have strategic impact, the group decided that our immediate priorities were to develop:

  • An online space where we can all share information, resources, ask questions and support each other;
  • Partnerships to influence strategic processes and policies related to research staff and students and ensure representation;
  • A series of blogs sharing the stories and experiences of disabled and ill researchers (here’s the link to the growing series) that can be put to good use at researcher inductions and pre-recruitment;
  • A guide for PhD study with a Disability or Illness, my excellent colleague Chris Donaldson has joined me to co-author this study guide;
  • A campaign related to academic and professional services staff disability awareness training;
  • A disability/illness disclosure pledge campaign — encouraging postgraduate researchers to disclose disabilities and illnesses and have open conversations with their supervisors about the best way to manage their health and study.

“Ideally, I’d like to see the initial disclosure be the beginning and end of all bureaucracy surrounding disability and illness for PGR students (well, all students really) – no having to worry about justifying extra provisions or leaves of absence, piling stress onto an already stressful undertaking.”
“The big change I want to see implemented is paid sick leave for PGRs from all funders. It’s not always possible to financially support yourself when you’re unwell, especially if you’re a student from a lower socioeconomic background.”
“The fact that I feel ‘lucky’ to have the support I did, says something about the current state of disability awareness in higher education. Everyone should have the support I did. I think we can get closer to that by training staff around how they should be supporting disabled students. We should also be fostering a culture where students feel they can have open conversations around disability and reasonable adjustments, trusting that the outcomes of those conversations will be routinely actioned by the university.”

We believe that networks, led by researchers, and that respond to the real needs of researchers are the most important way to support self-management, peer-learning and healthy relationships with work and study. These networks must have resources though if they are to create change and build user-centred processes, including support staff time, and senior staff champions who will listen and amplify their voice.

About the Author

This image is a portrait photo of Kay Guccione with various framed artworks in the background.

Dr Kay Guccione

Dr Kay Guccione is a Researcher Developer, with specific interests in the role of mentoring and supervision relationships in enabling doctoral learning. She has recently published two funded pieces of research into Trust Building in the research environment, an empirical study looking at the Value of the Doctorate, and books on Enhancing Researcher Development, and on Thesis Writing. This year she was awarded a National Teaching Fellowship for leadership in doctoral and researcher education.

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