Invisible disabilities: Ableism in education
Education and higher education have always been associated with specific ways of working and presenteeism. Teachers or lecturers needed to be in the room to teach or to attend meetings and training sessions. This ableist educational environment has excluded many individuals. As a term, ableism is difficult to define, but overall it describes experiences ‘of invisible disabilities and chronic illnesses, the “non-normative other”’ (Brown & Leigh, 2020, p. 4).
In educational contexts, rooms and buildings are not always accessible. Stairs, heavy doors, over-bright lights and the placement of furniture can make life challenging for those with sensory issues. The schedules and timetables that determine when individuals need to be ‘in the room’ do not always take into account the needs of teachers or lecturers with disabilities, chronic illnesses and neurodiversities. Those who struggle with fatigue, energy levels and pain may need downtime or rest days between classes or travel to campus. Many conditions that affect teachers and educators are invisible, and, when the work environment is competitive and fast-paced, it can be seen as a sign of weakness to admit to struggling or being other than the able-bodied norm.
‘Many conditions that affect teachers and educators are invisible, and, when the work environment is competitive and fast-paced, it can be seen as a sign of weakness to admit to struggling or being other than the able-bodied norm.’
For many, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated or resulted in precarious working conditions, difficult learning environments and unprecedented challenges for work and homelife. For those who have invisible disabilities, chronic illnesses and neurodiversities, however, the pandemic has also opened new doors. The increased use of technologies to support remote teaching and video-conferencing meetings has resulted in more inclusive practices becoming mainstreamed; and more opportunities to be involved and engaged have opened up for those who previously felt excluded. Suddenly, it is no longer a requirement to be in the room to teach, or to attend conferences or meetings. Of course, online teaching and remote working bring their own challenges. However, these seem to be more evenly distributed, rather than weighted against those with a disability, chronic illness or neurodiversity.
In our book, Ableism in Academia: Theorising Experiences of Disabilities and Chronic Illnesses in Higher Education, we give a theorised and yet personal view of the realities of working with an invisible condition in higher education. This topic is particularly timely with growing numbers of the population suffering from Long Covid and associated syndromes including fatigue and fluctuating energy levels (NIHR, 2020), which are common symptoms and effects of invisible conditions.
‘Remote working has democratised experiences that previously were weighted against those with disabilities and chronic illnesses.’
In discussing non-visible or invisible disabilities, Elisabeth Griffiths and Carla Finesilver highlight how important it is to have one’s limitations recognised and to be treated with empathy, especially as many invisible conditions fluctuate (Brown & Leigh, 2020). Being empathetic means not questioning a person’s wellbeing or condition, even if one day they are able to take the stairs yet need a lift or walking aid the next. Being accepting and empathetic means accepting the labels or descriptions individuals choose to use. This is because, for some individuals, disclosing their conditions or illnesses is as much a political act and statement as it is a personal commitment, as we discuss in the book. It can take a lot of courage to admit to unexplained fatigue or pain, particularly when they work in education and are expected to be whole and hale. Remote working has democratised experiences that previously were weighted against those with disabilities and chronic illnesses. Travel to campus, accessibility of rooms and the availability of real-time captions are not things that need to be battled for with the use of Microsoft Teams, Zoom and the like. There is a danger that post-Covid, with the rush to return to in-person teaching and move away from online and remote working, things will revert to old exclusionary ways. We need to ensure that we learn from the lived experiences of those who have battled against ableism in academia in order to retain the best aspects of remote working as we return to in-person presence.
Brown, N., & Leigh, J. (2020). Ableism in academia: Theorising experiences of disabilities and chronic illnesses in higher education. London: UCL Press.
National Institute for Health Research [NIHR] (2020). Living with Covid19. Retrieved from https://evidence.nihr.ac.uk/themedreview/living-with-covid19