Intersectional spaces of disabled people of colour in academia
2018 | 23.11.2018
Two innocuous words that have embedded within them a summation, a decision, a judgement of finality, a presumption.
As I write this, on the heels of Mental Health Week at various educational institutions, I’m reflecting on the structures and cultures of workplace environments in terms of the accommodation of neurodiverse people and those with “hidden” disabilities. We live in a neurotypical world, where those who have different frameworks, experiences, patterns of thinking and ways of engaging are labelled as “deviant” or “problematic”. We’re told “it’s time to talk”- yet who is listening? We seek to normalise difference, by stating the importance of adjustments and accommodation; yet, it is often those who require these adjustments who are stonewalled or labelled as “problems”. Whilst there is substantial literature showcasing the underemployment of those with disabilities (Powell, 2018; Hendricks, 2010; Roux et al., 2013; Redman et al., 2009; NAS, 2016) it is particularly striking that this exclusionary environment is perpetuated within our institutions of higher education – where we ostensibly value the ability to challenge contemporary discourse, change assumptions, shatter barriers, and advance knowledge. However, evidence abounds that these same institutions replicate these exclusionary practices. For example, the work of Kalwant Bhopal (2015), Alexander and Arday (2015) and statistics from the ECE (2011) demonstrate that there are lower attainment and educational outcomes amongst BME individuals and poorer experiences of BME staff in UK higher education. Additionally, we increasingly hear stories of students and academics with disabilities fighting to get workplace adjustments, despite it being accorded to by law, due to the ignorance or otherwise of certain staff (Brown & Leigh, 2018).
The debate regarding hidden disabilities is highly problematized. Are diagnostic labels helpful? Do they risk “labelling” or pathologising non-culturally normative behaviours? Why do certain conditions appear to be patterned amongst certain demographic groups? Through Kimberlé Crenshaw’s (1989) work on intersectionality, we are now familiar with discussing intersectional spaces and the influence of multiple identities, positionalities, and subjectivities on an individual.
This can compound a negative experience on an individual who occupies multiple marginalised spaces and through efforts such as “mad pride” (Schrader, Jones, & Shattell, 2013) we can see that there are elements of label reclamation – in which disparaging and negative terms are reclaimed and incorporated as part of one’s identity. Alas, whilst there is movement “on-the-ground”, it pushes against a strong stonewall and intransigent culture in the ivory tower of academia. We’re told to disclose conditions to those more senior so that adjustments can be implemented, as per the Equalities Act and legislation that “reasonable adjustments” can be implemented. Imagine then, when disclosing a diagnosed condition, to be told “Now, did you know about this beforehand?” What is the implicit message being stated by this question – that supposedly if you had a diagnosis you should not be occupying that space? That you are not welcome? Or perhaps the unstated message that if you did know and had told us we would not have accepted you? As a personal tutor and research supervisor myself, I know that statements such as these are unacceptable, that my students come from different backgrounds, with different strengths, and whether they are abled or differently abled my job is to help them to reach their full potential and be supportive of whatever adjustments they require to perform to the best of their ability. Why then do we permit older (mostly white) academics to make comments such as the above with distinct able-ist undertones?
I love my work. I enjoy working in mental health research, engaging with vulnerable populations and communities, hearing personal insights and trying to make some addition to the evidence base through examining personal experience and encounters with distress. Nonetheless, I’ve also seen how this work can be politicised and how scholars with no training in social work, psychology, psychiatry and the like can feel they have the expertise to make judgements and pronouncements on matters outwith their area of expertise. When middle-class able-bodied (usually white, male) academics make pronouncements and decisions related to the BME experience it perpetuates the narrative and discourse of what is called “whiteness”, using the defence of “academic judgement”. Whilst this term appears to be the catch-all to justify questionable activity on the part of academics, it is concerning when this is used against those in more vulnerable and marginalised spaces. For example, issues of patient safeguarding in health research is not an “academic judgement”. Matters of research ethics, confidentiality, data protection, Caldicott principles, patient risk and benefits are not “academic judgements”. There are guidelines in human-based research, of working with clinical and vulnerable populations, of statutory frameworks and procedures which must be legally followed. It is not an “academic judgement” to ignore them, nor should the discourse be shifted to the disabled academic to be a “problem” for stating that these principles must be followed.
When considering the “social model of disability” we are now encouraged to employ an “asset-based” approach, of looking at how structural factors and adjustments can be made to work with the strengths of the individual, rather than a “deficit-based” approach, of looking at the student’s challenges. Instead, often times middle-aged, middle-class, able-bodied academics employ an “able-ist” mentality to try and portray a student’s/colleague’s disability as a “hindrance”. The notion of “academic judgement” applies to preserve and protect the egos, reputations, and culture of middle-class, able-bodied academes – this then serves to make matters of research methodology be construed as “academic judgement”. For example, it is seen to be okay for scholars with no subject-area background to negate methodologies in other disciplines due to “academic judgement” – so luck help you if, for example, you are a scientist trying to use a computer programming language to interpret old manuscripts and have a literary scholar claim the computer code is incorrect because it is an “academic judgement”. This is further compounded by the power dynamic from positionality and perceived authority which can occur when one considers issues of seniority and race.
Alas, whilst there may be a push towards “unconscious bias” training, which still is not mandatory, there is no requisite training for academics in working with students with diverse learning needs. There is no awareness as to why certain students may need things explained in a certain manner, or why some may need to take sick leave for disability reasons – instead, particularly in the humanities, there is a feeling that the academic knows all and can make judgements overruling clinical decisions, with the awkward experience of having to disclose in detail aspects of a particular condition to academics with no background or training in that condition who can then make pronouncements on what adjustments would be made, if any.
Along with the overt discrimination one can experience, there are the subtle, nuanced, approaches which can’t be quantified or measured directly. This is experienced through exclusionary practises, different standards and expectations, and often implicit academic politics – the not inviting someone on a grant, not co-authoring with the PhD student, not signposting to relevant career development/networks, not collaborating on pieces of work, not including one in conferences/workshop/symposia, etc. There is an irony when, for example, junior (often BME, often working class) academics are overruled in their subject area specialism by administrators or non-subject area experts with differences in approaches being framed as obstinate and difficulties due to the former’s disability, rather than the more reasonable recognition of it simply being outwith one’s speciality. It takes some degree of humility to know one isn’t an expert in all things yet institutional structures promote the concept of the “all-knowing” academic and power dynamics can result in those who can challenge remaining silent.
Part of being an academic is to develop skills in knowledge dissemination through conference attendances and academic publications. How is it then appropriate for able-bodied academics to tell a junior academic with a disability to “Prove you can write”? Should it not be, “how can I help/support you to produce this work?” “What would you need help with in this article/paper/etc”. Why is it okay to “victim-blame” or shift the onus on to the most marginalised? Moreover, how is it acceptable to tell a BME student that their religion/race/culture is a hindrance to their mental health – and then have a pithy apology “if the unfamiliar wording caused you anxiety”? That statement in and of itself is belittling of an individual with a hidden disability and makes judgements on capacity, resilience, and the real concerns of those who may have anxiety-based disorders.
For those who are new to academia, a quick learning curve is anticipated. Yet, for those with hidden disabilities, it is difficult to tease out the nuances, the social norms, and the intricacies of navigating a bureaucratic, idiosyncratic, exclusionary, able-ist environment. Networking and support are vital. For example, providing adjustments so that the individual can do the work and be supported to perform to his or her ability. Having support from the Disability Office or Occupational Health is essential in this matter. What is not okay is for academics to dismiss this by virtue of being an administrator and making a judgement that “quite rightly” support is not required in conducting work in which the administrator themselves have no prior expertise. To have questions asked of “how would this [adjustments] be funded” when actually it is not the student’s/ individual’s responsibility to fund required adjustments, particularly when subject-area experts have suggested multiple means of providing accommodation and adjustments. How interesting, then, it is that it is permitted for academics without the requisite subject-area knowledge to overrule input from subject area experts (often women) (often BME) and that of recommendations from those more clinically qualified. It would be unfathomable for an electrical engineer to advise a literary scholar on aspects of cultural and literary theory– yet it is seen to be okay for area studies academics to dictate empirical research methods and protocols outwith their methodological purview simply because they claim expertise in the area studies of that population. Thus, this is an area where “academic judgement” can be seen to override legal obligations under the Equalities Act.
I feel a sense of irony, that as an academic working/lecturing in mental health research, to have assessments made by those who are unqualified to do so on one’s capacity, research, capability, and research potential. Still, power dynamics abound where able-ism, classism, and racism overpower the voice of the marginalised.
In contemporary discourse, there is concern about the voices of the marginalised, the under-employed, those with differing equal opportunities characteristics. As an academic teaching on disabilities, I ask my students if the very spaces in which they are studying in are inclusive and accommodative for those with differing abilities and learning needs. Yet, whilst students readily take on board issues of diversity and inclusion, this same engagement is not felt at a managerial or administrative level where, despite legal obligations to Equalities, administrators can often act as autonomous agents hiding behind the framework of “academic judgement” to justify questionable actions and approaches.
I write this because as a medical school lecturer I teach the future generation of care providers. I am able to impart to them issues of equalities in their clinical practice and everyday environments, discuss aspects of stigma and discrimination, and outline concepts of intersectional spaces and microaggressions. I am quite humbled that the medical school in which I teach is supportive of this work and in promoting equality and diversity. However, it is a shame that oftentimes humanities departments, which seek to examine the human condition and experience, have yet to take this on board and instead promote hostile environments to neurodiverse peoples and are woefully under-represented by those who actually occupy marginalised spaces and backgrounds. I am in a position where I support students through difficult times and experiences, and work with them to get them to demonstrate their potential – yet this concomitant support is lacking from those more senior. When I hear of a mental health crisis amongst students I wonder if we are becoming so caught up in neo-liberal academia, of focusing on metrics, completions, graduations, retentions that we forget that in an era of equal opportunities not everyone comes from a cookie-cutter mould of middle class, white, privileged, able-bodied. Equalities and recognition on diversity is not a tick box exercise but necessitates a culture change where this is embedded into curricula and departmental culture and the behaviour of its staff. Unconscious bias training should be mandatory and people should not be belittled due to protected characteristics. Abuse is not a right of passage.
The summation, decision, judgement, and assumption regarding the support required by neurodiverse people; if departments permit these judgements being made, and reframing struggle as a student’s performative concern rather than due to a negative structural environment, they are complicit in creating exclusionary spaces and environments.
My writing this blog post is both cathartic and also an awareness that if departments and academics can bully and belittle junior scholars simply because matters are outwith their subject area expertise and then blame a student for falling ill, deny leave, and frame any struggle, which is normally part and parcel of the research process, as incapacity and incapability rather than the structural issues of supportive learning environments, then it shows that perhaps there is an uphill struggle for neurodiverse people to fit in exclusionary neurotypical spaces. I write this to show that this culture must change, that neurodiverse people have strengths, and that “quite rightly” I can “prove” I can write.
Alexander, C., & Arday, J. (eds) (2015). Aiming higher: Race, inequality, and diversity in the academy. Runnymede Trust: London.
Bhopal, K. (2015). The experiences of black and minority ethnic academics: A comparative study of the unequal academy. Routledge: London.
Brown, N., & Leigh, J. (2018). Ableism in academia: where are the disabled and ill academics?. Disability & Society, 33(6): 985-989.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé (1989). “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: a Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics“. University of Chicago Legal Forum: 139–168.
Equalities Challenge Unit (2011). The experiences of black and minority ethnic staff in higher education in England. Equalities Challenge Unit: London.
Hendricks, D. (2010). Employment and adults with autism spectrum disorders: Challenges and strategies for success. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 32(2), 125-134.
National Autistic Society (2016b). The autism employment gap: Too much information in the workplace. Retrieved from: https://www.autism.org.uk/get-involved/tmi.aspx
Powell, A (16 August, 2018). People with disabilities in employment. House of Commons Briefing Paper, 7540.
Redman, S, Downie. M, Rennison, R and Batten, A (2009), Don’t Write Me Off: Make the System Fair for People with Autism. The National Autistic Society: London.
Roux, A. M., Shattuck, P. T., Cooper, B. P., Anderson, K. A., Wagner, M., & Narendorf, S. C. (2013). Postsecondary employment experiences among young adults with an autism spectrum disorder. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 52(9), 931-939.
Schrader, S., Jones, N., & Shattell, M. (2013). Mad pride: Reflections on sociopolitical identity and mental diversity in the context of culturally competent psychiatric care. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 34(1), 62-64.
About the Author
Karim Mitha teaches at the Edinburgh Medical School and supervises students on the MPH. With his interdisciplinary background in public health, psychology, and Islamic Studies he focuses on stigma and discrimination, cross cultural mental health, public health, health inequalities, identity and acculturation. Prior to Edinburgh, he was a lecturer in Public Health and Psychology at De Montfort University. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Royal Society of Public Health and is a member of the British Sociological Association and the British Psychological Society. He is also trained in mental health first aid and in counselling skills.
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