Some thoughts on ableism and ‘objectivity’ in academia

As gentle readers of my prior blog posts know, I make a habit of mentioning how I don’t post as much as I mean to; cue the passing of months, the tumbling of weeds. When I do post something, it’s normally because I have the feeling that I must express something, and yesterday has been one of those inspiring, depressing days that made me think, I need to write this down.

Yesterday the Ableism in Academia conference (@AbleismAcademia, ) organised by the wonderful Nicole Brown (and sorry to others that I am neglecting to mention) took place at UCL Institute of Education. This was something I knew Nicole was organising and had an interest in attending, and then suddenly tickets went like proverbial hotcakes and it was sold out. And then excellently, along with Kent and Manchester (and thanks to Mark Pimm, Sarah Sherman and my colleagues in the Birkbeck AV team), the Bloomsbury Learning Environment hosted a ‘breakout’ live stream of the conference at Birkbeck (where I work), so more people could attend remotely, but together.

And again knowing this was happening, I thought I must go to this, but then of course I worried about all the things I am not doing, if I choose to do something. I should be doing work, whenever I am not doing it I should be doing my PhD, or writing blog posts or occasionally perhaps I should see human beings in my life who are actually nothing to do with any of these activities. You know, that familiar sense of guilt tinged with panic.

Anyway I went along to join the live streamed session ‘for a while’, and then I stayed all day. The stories of the conference speakers were too compelling. They were talking about how much of a disservice we frequently do to our colleagues and students with our unthinking assumptions of able-bodiedness, either in failing to understand problems posed by things like flights of stairs, or the need to work or study remotely, or have a predictable schedule of part-time working. In expecting students to amass volumes of evidence of their disability on multiple occasions. Or in assuming that invisible or intermittent disabilities don’t really exist, or at any rate are not all that serious.

So the conference was about all these things which to some degree I expected it to be, but it was also in many ways also about the grind of working in academia, the depressing sense of how much worse this has gotten, for everyone. Phased returns to work were discussed in terms of the feeling of never doing enough, despite working almost all one’s contracted hours. Also, a speaker mentioned not being able to have travel to the conference funded by his institution, as it was not about his research, only about the lived experience of the human being who does the research, without which of course, there would be no research. There was a deep concern throughout the day, echoing the discussions around the recent strikes that I have seen on Twitter and had with colleagues, for the lack of dignity and decency in the contemporary academic workplace. This is an issue that concerns and that should concern us all, not only in seeking to be decent human beings, but as members of a community that is seeing policy driving us down this superhighway of metrics and markets, powered by the academy’s favourite fossil fuels, overwork and precarity.

The researcher in me was also struck by the frankly flabbergasting discussion of there apparently being a debate over whether disabled people are ‘biased’ regarding the topic of disability, and should not therefore be researchers of it. Are we still having that conversation, academia? Can we move on from pretending that we approach research objectively, as if as researchers, we simply stumble across a research problem we have no real personal interest in, and go, oh look here’s a gap in the literature that needs filling, I will just get my trusty intellectual putty, and I’ll have that sorted out in no time. Instead of pretending to objectivity, could we not aspire to honesty?


Author: leohavemann

Open and digital education specialist and researcher

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