What can funders do to make their funding bodies more accessible?
Based on suggestions from our members, we compiled a list of things funding bodies for academic research can do to become more accessible.
Make it easy to apply for accommodations
Use labels for our community beyond “disabled”: Many people who technically qualify for support do not identify as ”disabled” and hence do not make use of available support. Labels used within our community are very diverse, ranging from “disabled”, to “with a disability”, “with a chronic health condition”, “with a different cognitive style”, “neurodivergent” etc. For example, people who have migraine might not think of themselves as disabled but still profit from health-related accommodations. It is important to respect the language individuals within our community choose to refer to themselves and phrase support offers in a way which speaks to them.
Provide a step-by-step guide to apply for accommodations: Many funders do not share on their website which accommodations (e.g., extensions for deadlines, funding for travel assistance, etc.) are available and how to apply for them. If there is a lack of open policies around accommodations and no clarity whether support is available, this can suggest that there is little to no support for our community and put disabled people off applying in the first place.
Don’t ask for extensive medical evidence: The need to provide extensive medical evidence for a disability to get disability-related support can establish a barrier which puts disabled people off applying for a fellowship in the first place. Obtaining supporting medical evidence for an application for accommodations requires an appointment with a doctor which delays access to accommodations and it is usually also expensive which creates a further barrier. If medical evidence is needed, it is inappropriate for a funding body (or indeed anyone) to ask disabled people to share their diagnosis. A funding body only needs to know which barriers a disabled fellow might face so it can determine what needs to be put in place to enable a disabled fellow to do their work.
Remove barriers from the application process
Rolling deadlines/frequent deadlines/time extensions: A shared sentiment in the disabled community is often that disabilities are a time-eater above all things. Someone might experience an unexpected flare-up and suddenly be unable to work. Even with very conservative time planning, it is almost impossible to account for the range of unexpected events which can derail a disabled person’s schedule. As a result, applicants might struggle to meet deadlines for funding applications. It is important to show flexibility with application deadlines and offer applicants with disabilities to push the deadline for applications or allow applications on a rolling basis.
Remove barriers from application portal: Some applicants might struggle to write large amounts of text. If there is a wide range of possible media formats for applications, it is easier for disabled applicants to choose the format which suits their access requirements best. Text inserted into online application forms should be saved automatically since people who need support software to produce text might easily lose what they wrote if there is a problem with their support software and they do not get around to save their work halfway through their application. Many disabled people struggle to read text walls (e.g., due to fatigue), and therefore information documents needed to apply should be kept short.
Written questions instead of in-person interviews/remote attendance/pre-recorded talks: Some disabled applicants cannot travel or might struggle with speaking in public. This can be a barrier in the application process when disabled individuals need to prepare an interview talk, or respond to questions. It is important for the application process to reduce in-person presence and interview processes which require the applicant to respond in real time. Other options for selecting fellows might be to allow applicants to attend interviews remotely, present a pre-recorded talk, and answer questions in written instead of in person.
Prioritise good ideas
Consider gaps in CV/publications: Disabled applicants often have long gaps on their CVs or in their publication records, e.g., due to medical leave. Many are concerned that they might not be competitive for funding. It is important to prioritise good ideas instead of a seamless track record and remove time and age limits on fellowship applications (e.g. applicants need to be within five years after getting a PhD or be younger than 30).
Talk about considering career breaks: Applicants do not experience encouragement within their institutions because funders appear to prioritise applicants with a seamless publication record. Funders can raise awareness with their fellows to support career breaks and encourage their staff to take them.
Abolish the off-putting person cult and strengthen collaborative science: There is much anxiety among disabled academics about how they are perceived at their institution. Disabled academics worry about not being seen as competitive due to working part-time, career breaks etc. In addition, some are concerned that their success might not speak for itself. Instead, they might be seen as “disabled scientists” rather than just “scientists”. In part, this is due to an overemphasis on individual academics and their research program rather than prioritising ideas. It is important to remove a focus on individual academics and their achievement and focus on collaborative science. This also has the advantage that disabled academics can divide up tasks with other academics in a way that accommodates their condition (e.g., they might not be able to collect data, but they might be able to analyse it, so they could profit from data sharing).
Ask universities to be accessible
Ensure that your fellows don’t discriminate: Disabled academics often encounter bias and misconceptions about their ability to participate in research among other academics. One way to counter this might be to offer fellows leadership training which comprises discrimination training.
Ensure that employers cover basic accommodations: Funders could introduce accessibility as a condition on their grants. This will ensure that universities will train HR to assess disabled people’s needs, make rooms accessible, and create networking opportunities for the disabled community.
Make conferences accessible: Conferences can increase the visibility of disabled academics by increasing the proportion of disabled speakers. To enable this, conferences need to be made accessible for disabled people. For example, disabled individuals should be allowed to present remotely, e.g. by video-streaming or pre-recording their talk.
Introduce grants specifically aimed at us
Part-time fellowships: Flexible hours are a central aspect to improve accessibility. Disability can make it difficult for people to work full-time. Fellowships should accommodate or be made available for academics with restricted hours.
Predoctoral internships: One reason why disabled people might not apply for funding in the first place is that the pipeline on the way to a permanent position in academia starts leaking early. Disabled people might already struggle to get accommodations at highschool and later university. To get a PhD position usually depends on the support of a senior researcher. When a disabled student applies for accommodations (e.g., more time for essays) at university, senior researchers might be hesitant to offer them research assistant positions needed to get a PhD position at least in the sciences out of fear to “burden” these students unnecessarily and withdraw their labour from the degree. It is more likely that a student will be accepted as a research intern if they come with a bursary. Predoctoral internships might enable disabled students to get the research experience necessary for a PhD position.
Recognise and fund diversity efforts by fellows at their uni: Ultimately, the bulk of work to improve the situation of a minority in academia is done by that minority themselves. Such work is little rewarding in terms of career progress. Instead, outreach work and activism to improve diversity takes up time which could otherwise be dedicated to research. As a result, disabled academics are disadvantaged in comparison to their non-disabled peers. Funders and universities should recognise the labour that goes into improving diversity in academia and take it into account in the selection process for fellowships and for promotions.
Support with medical leave: Medical leave for PhD students should be paid. Here it is also important to cover loopholes such as PhD students funded by multiple funding bodies. For senior scientists, there is also a worry that junior scientists who depend on you are left without supervision when you take medical leave. It is therefore important to provide funding for a lab manager who helps manage the lab in the absence of the PI.
Additional travel costs: Funders need to step in to fund additional travel costs e.g. for a travel assistant, or help their fellows negotiate accommodations with conference organisers.
Funding for support devices: Funders should provide additional funds to pay for support devices and software necessary for a disabled academic to do research.