Marta Russell (1951-2013), the US based writer, activist and leading critical thinker, argued that disability was not a medical condition or impairment, but a ‘socially created category derived from labor relations, a product of the exploitative economic structure of capitalist society’. Disabled bodies are useful only to the extent that they create value. Capitalist social norms both demarcate who is and is not disabled in contemporary society, and at the same time oppress the disabled body. It is productivity and profits that dictate restrictions on the disabled, as well as what limited adjustments may be facilitated for the disabled to better ‘fit’ social structures. Disabled bodies are viewed as a problem. In relation to work, Connor and Coughlin argue that they are often an ‘inevitable part of the “surplus” population, not quite fully human, unable to participate in society, at best a burden and at worst a drain’.
The legacy of Russell’s work was to embed considerations of disability in an analysis centred on capitalist social relations, and to highlight the fundamentally economic and social nature of ideas around ‘impairment’. In a period where disability rights in the academy are dominated by questions of identity and inclusion, stripped of considerations of how society demarcates who can and cannot labour in the pursuit of profit under ‘normal’ conditions, her work is an intellectual high water mark. It remains an essential lens for how we might think about disability in the contemporary period.
After Russell, others working in a materialist tradition developed the ‘social model of disability’. In ‘contrast to the medical or individual model, [the social model] explains disability in relation to social barriers and the organization of society’ — a society that disables the person or, in our research, the worker. Society ‘permits’ some disabled bodies such as ‘supercrips’ — those that ‘overcome’ their disability and make productive contributions — which effectively designates other disabled people as not useful. Society’s (limited) support of disabled people is used to show how progressive and accommodating society is, ignoring that such support is highly inadequate and involves predominantly ‘aesthetic efforts’. Disabled bodies are positioned as useful or not in relation to productivity, thus demonstrating the bounds of acceptable citizenship.
In the contemporary university, academics need to be able to work long hours, continuously conduct and publish research to exacting deadlines, win grants, teach intensively to rigid timeframes, travel and network internationally, and demonstrate professionalism at all times. In Australia, job scarcity and insecure employment, including systemic unpaid work and overwork, also permeate the sector. It is in this context that a multi-institution Australia-based research team of academics with disabilities and their allies commenced a project on ‘Scholarship Disabled’. The findings presented in our two articles to date, and overviewed below, form part of the first stage of this project which took place at a large, multi-site university in an Australian capital city.
Our paper ‘“To prove I’m not incapable, I overcompensate”: disability, ideal workers, the academy’, in Economic and Labour Relations Review, uses the work of Russell and others to argue that the rigid notion of the ideal worker in the contemporary university, and the failure of current legal and institutional policy frameworks, is leading to a profound gap between employer and government disability inclusion frameworks and the workplace experience of academics. We demonstrate how capitalist social relations shape and demarcate an ‘ideal university worker’, how disabled workers find it difficult to meet this norm, and the limited assistance to do so provided by employers and labour relations policy frameworks.
The article overviews the workplace experience of the academics we surveyed and interviewed, focussing on the volume and pace of work, workplace adjustments, workplace flexibility, job security, and the impact of these on wellbeing. Our discussion and findings are presented in relation to three key themes: meeting the ideal worker norm; internalising the ideal worker norm; and the persistence of the ideal worker norm in the policy to practice nexus. Our participants’ stories provide a rich insight into a complex workplace and labour relations experience.
Disabled academics are expected to be ideal workers, but many are not able to or are not supported sufficiently to become such. The research suggests barriers arise for three related reasons. Firstly, and more broadly than just the university setting, capitalism requires a certain type of worker that models an ideal many with disabilities struggle to achieve. At the extreme, meeting the academic worker ideal requires staff to go above and beyond the formal requirements of their role and their limits, impacting their health and wellbeing. Secondly, the processes of neoliberalisation have heightened the work intensity and performance expectations in recent decades, which presents sharp challenges for academics with disabilities. Thirdly, there is a profound tension between well-established objectives of inclusion and equity for academics with disabilities, and the policies that manage labour relations in this regard, and the realities disabled workers face in relying on and mobilising these frameworks to build sustainable careers. The research findings point to the need to develop alternate strategies for workplace inclusion of people with disabilities if there are to be inroads towards equity.
In the second of our papers, ‘Ableism in higher education: the negation of crip temporalities within the neoliberal academy’, published in Higher Education Research & Development, we use a framing of ‘crip time’ to illuminate questions around time. Using a different theoretical framework to the previous paper, centred on crip theory, this paper seeks to recognise a combination of factors influencing experience, and pushes against an able-bodied norm by embracing an oppositional perspective. We argue that the way normative (clock) time is regulated and managed within the academy marginalises disabled academics, and does not allow for the crip temporalities by which disabled academics live their lives.
We identify the ‘exclusionary practices’ in the academy that shape (the absence of) accommodations: practices that impinge role exclusion and career progression, and space exclusion. Examples include: being unable to apply for career progressing roles as they are designated as full time only; being unable to undertake teaching or governance roles because they are perceived to necessitate particular forms of engagement; and being unable to work in particular spaces due to inappropriate built environments. The academy is unable to accommodate individual crip temporalities when they clash with inflexible institutional rules and timeframes.
Further, these exclusionary practices create iatrogenic harm and trauma for our participants. The efforts involved to participate as a valued member of the academy and attempts to manage accommodation processes mean disabled academics feel obliged to work harder and longer to achieve the same outputs as their non-disabled colleagues. Many experience stress and anxiety about employment security, often tied to the progressive linear expectations of promotion, productivity and achieving more. This culminates in exacerbation of disability, physiological and psychological impacts. A common thread in the research, illuminated by both the labour exploitation and crip-time frameworks, is that many disabled academics push harder in the ‘now’ in hope of future security and workload balance, often causing an exacerbation of their disability and new health consequences. This is overwork for a future that often never arrives.
The inability to accommodate the various experiences of crip time in academia can result in resignation by choice or necessity to well being, the issues they raise disappear along with them, and the systemic problems remain unsolved. While we highlight the experiences of disabled academics, the near-universalising construct of normative time inherent to the academy and societies more generally has implications for everyone.
In publishing these two papers, we hope the findings are discussed widely by both disabled and non-disabled workers in the sector. We hope deliberation and debate will help inform the next phase of research, in a national whole of sector study of disablism and workers in universities, as well help facilitate practical action on the problems encountered by disabled colleagues. Current government legislative frameworks and campus-based policies on inclusion, appear to be failing disabled staff. There is little evidence in our studies — or those conducted in similar contexts in the US, UK and Canada — that the current regulatory and campus inclusion policy frameworks are effective for disabled workers. Recourse to accommodations must be pursued individually, creating more work for already overburdened disabled staff. Accommodations are hard to put in place (indeed sometimes impossible), and they are subject to constant review as well as implementation and compliance issues. Again, meaning more work for individuals.
At the same time there has been little focussed effort on the part of the Australian academics’ union to facilitate a more collective approach to these problems. Grassroots networks of disabled university staff are also limited nationally, and the problems faced by disabled academics and professional staff are often hidden from view from their colleagues — invisibilising what is experienced by disabled academics. In a period where there is a crisis of overwork and mental health impacts in the university sector, with significant consequences for the occupational health and safety of all staff, these issues are particularly pointed for disabled workers. Perhaps now is the time to tackle these issues collectively, and prioritise new research, policy making, and industrial and grassroots organising on these challenges.
(with Nicole L Asquith, Ryan Thorneycroft, Peta S Cook, Sally Anne Yaghi and Ashleigh Foulstone)