Policy talks while the elephants walk! Time for the academy to employ and promote more scholars with disability

Despite universities spruiking disability inclusion mantras the reality is that academic institutions are failing on recruitment of scholars with disability. Based on a recently published paper that draws on the experiences of researchers with disability, lead author Damian Mellifont discusses barriers to university employment of people with disability and ways universities can move forward to institute changes so they can finally start to practice what they preach with regards to disability inclusion.

Nothing about us without us. This is the disability inclusion mantra that is echoed in university policy. Ask any university Chancellor if they support these five words. I would be astonished if any of these highly distinguished persons would reply with anything but a resounding ‘yes’! So, how can it be that Australian universities are tending to fail scholars with disability who are seeking employment in the academy?


It is easy to spruik feel good words about disability inclusion. Clearly, it is quite another thing to put these words in action. The possible risk here is that on the surface, Australian universities might be saying all of the rights things. But do a little digging and you’ll find that they tend to be doing nothing or next to nothing to recruit more academics with disability. If Australian universities practiced what they preached about disability inclusion, scholars with disability would be in high demand in the academy. However, Equal Employment Opportunity data that is publicly available paints a very different picture. And we are left with an outrageous situation whereby research about disability continues to be dominated by non-disabled scholars.


Barriers to the greater employment of scholars with disability in the academy

Some employment barriers confronting academics with disability are physical. These include obstacles such as a lack of wheelchair access. Still, others are insidious in the sense that they are founded in prejudices and ignorance about disability. Under influences of ableism and sanism, the abilities of scholars with lived experience are readily dismissed. These ‘isms’ have potential to contaminate recruitment processes. They might also threaten job retention by refusing to provide reasonable accommodations where these might be needed. 


Ways forward

Research has been conducted that draws upon the personal testimonies of four researchers with disability from The University of Sydney. This study offers valuable insight into the many practical measures that endeavour to get more scholars with disability working and advancing in the academy. Our recently published research recommends that faculties and departments support the following actions:


·         Undertaking independent accessibility and accommodation audits.

·         Promoting the benefits of lived experience led and co-produced research.

·         Adjusting fellowship scheme assessment criteria so that lived experience is recognised and valued.

·         Advancing a culture that welcomes and respects academics with disability.

·         Ensuring that scholars with disability are not exploited.

·         Requiring staff attendance at anti-sanism and anti-ableism workshops.

·         Holding university leaders responsible for shortfalls in disability employment policy performance.

·         Encouraging lawful activism to advance a greater inclusion of employees with disability in the academy.

·         Using language that advances disability pride.


Crucially, our research also reveals another key action that university leaders are challenged to embrace. This is the measure of affirmative action. Properly implemented and monitored, quotas would ensure a greater representation of disability in academic and leadership roles. And while not all will need or desire access to quotas, for those who do, the option should be there. As for any university ‘leader’ who might refuse to consider introducing disability employment quotas, the question becomes – is ableism or sanism influencing their decision? Ethical universities must have zero tolerance for ableists or sanists regardless of the position that they hold or their academic stature.


Time for a more diverse and inclusive academy

The time for actively supporting the recruitment and career development of scholars with disability in Australian universities is now! It is the hypocrite of the worst kind who talks the talk about diversity and inclusion, but who allows the ableism and sanism elephants to walk their destructive walk throughout the academy. In contrast, it is the genuine leader who calls out and rounds up these elephants to allow space to be created for affirmative action and other disability employment support measures. Here is my message to any university leader who might think that they can continue to be dismissive of the recruitment and career development of scholars with disability. Academics with disability will not let you keep pushing them to the employment sidelines. Make no mistake, advocates will act lawfully to ensure that the days of dithering around disability employment in the academy are fast nearing their end. And when change arrives…and it will…history will not look kindly on you.

Damian Mellifont is an Honorary Postdoctoral Fellow at The Centre for Disability Research and Policy, The University of Sydney. This blog post is based on the recently published paper:

Mellifont, D., Smith-Merry, J., Dickinson, H., Llewellyn, G., Clifton, S., Ragen, J., Raffaele., M. & Williamson, P. (2019): The ableism elephant in the academy: a study examining academia as informed by Australian scholars with lived experience, Disability & Society, DOI: 10.1080/09687599.2019.1602510