20-26 June 2011 is Learning Disability Week. Kelsey Beninger takes this opportunity to speak about her research into the experiences of disabled staff in higher education. Kelsey admits to being surprised at the lack of research and literature in this area and spells out her motivation for and interest in looking ‘behind the scenes’ to find out how people who make student life a reality cope with disabilities.

(c) Crippen/Dave Lupton

Disability is increasingly gaining awareness in the public and academic realm, with advocacy initiatives, mass communication campaigns and critical journals entering the scene. One such example of the greater attention given to disability issues and ideas is this week’s Learning Disability Week.

In regards to education, much has been expressed, researched and analysed about student experiences with impairment and disabling environments. But what of those supporting them, helping guide them through the imposing fresher corridors, through the exciting new freedom of university life and out into the ‘real world’? Disabled staff are highly under-represented in the literature and they have lots to say.

With learning disability week, or what I prefer to think of as 7 days of neurodiversity identity pride, upon us, I would like to informally speak about my experiences conducting research for my MSc dissertation with UK Higher Education (HE) staff who identify themselves as disabled in any way, shape or form. Specifically I’ll reflect on those individuals who mentioned a neurodiverse status.

When I set out to learn more about disabled staff’s experiences, perceptions and insights into the world of higher education and disability, I couldn’t believe how hard it was to find literature or research on the topic. While incredible works are in the process this year and great publications exist to offer guidance and support (produced by organisations like the Equality Challenge Unit, HEFCE, HESA etc), it still seemed so minimal for a population which are the backbone of world class learning institutions.

It was exciting and encouraging receiving much interest from staff from 14 universities across the UK in participating in guided conversations about their experiences. Many positive emotions and anecdotes were shared about existence of network groups, fun and collaborative colleagues, easy induction processes and the likes.

However, what also became apparent was a trend of challenges undermining these staff, impacting on both professional and personal wellbeing. Challenges, while met and coped with in a range of ways, clearly undermined these particular staff’s ability to work optimally. Preliminary findings reveal the ways in which the university context can serve to both disable and enable these staff members.

I’ll leave the real good bits until I have drafted my dissertation but what I can share is just one perspective about this particular area of research. Incredible nuanced detail, creative coping mechanisms, charming as well as sarcastic quips and very clear suggestions for getting the most out of university staff have all resulted from asking the very simple question, ‘What are your experiences as a disabled staff member in UK HE?’ Who would have thought!

Specific to neurodiversity, two respondents mentioned the struggle with maintaining the unrealistic demands of their roles under conditions that did not support them in the way they recognised ideal. In one case plenty of effort was put forward to consult the staff members on what work environment would be ideal for them. But then alternative responses were carried out, undermining the very involvement of the staff members.

The other individual was very positive, emphasising the supportive department and great initiatives put forward in regards to disability and diversity. But still, these supportive conditions were undermined by an unrealistic work load and lack of consistent check in between the manager and the staff member in order to re-evaluate any new developments.

Many factors can play into this but perhaps a good starting point for bringing about improvements is opening up authentic dialogue pathways between staff, management and university officials to consult with and follow up with staff about work conditions, reasonable adjustments and the likes. Even in the stories which spoke positively about institutional communication and interaction regarding acquiring support, it became clear that it is viewed as either a one off event or none at all. What I began to notice is “that [if] people do not express other interests [it] does not mean they do not have them. It simply means that they have no confidence that they can be achieved.” (White, 1996).

Learning disability, neurodiversity, ‘my limits’ or whatever you like to call it are all names for just another identity that an individual has, an individual who could be a mother, athlete, comedian or renaissance enthusiast. Thus it’s also something that is intricately linked to all facets of one’s life and can both be embraced and taken pride in or, in disabling environments, be resented or become frustrating. From this we see that adjustments, both structural and relational, are necessary to protect both the professional and personal wellbeing of staff.

I feel motivated, engaged and more intrigued than ever about behind the scenes happenings of the very people that make my student life a reality. Why is this not the case, consistently, for the institutions employing these staff members?

Kelsey Beninger is pursuing Masters in Health Community and Development at the department of Social Psychology at LSE. She completed her first degree in Psychology at the University of British Columbia. With a personal history as a disabled child, work experience in disability-related positions in Canada and an ongoing interest in disability activism and research, she has chosen to specialize her dissertation on the experiences of disabled staff in UK Higher Education.