Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Academic Abelism

If you've been following my tweeting this week you will have seen me using the Academic Abelism hashtag and RTing and talking with the @phdisabled account. I decided to get some of my thoughts down and try to explain why I think this conversation is so important. 

As regular readers of my blog (or twitter followers) will be aware I suffer from a chronic illness. This illness is debilitating and severe. As you will also know, I'm a PhD student. I'm hoping that it's apparent how much I love my research, and my institution (most of the time). But this intersection of graduate study and ill health is HARD. It's hard for many reasons and all of them need to be talked about, because in truth what is needed in academia is a culture shift. A paradigm change. And for those you need pressure. You need evidence and you need someone to make the noise. 

The acadmeic lifestyle nowadays is predicated upon this ideal of the "superhero worker". Someone who works 12 hours a day, 7 days a week minimum. You are supposed to live, eat, breathe and sleep academia. It is not enough now to be a good researcher, you must publish, publish, publish in respectable journals. You must be an exceptional teacher (I mean, students are paying £9K), but you have to do all your prep for this teaching in "your own time" because all of your working hours are taken up with research and grant proposals. 

This lifestyle is unhealthy.  As is evidenced by the high insidence of mental health problems and depression amongst PhD students and academics. God help you if you come to the academy with existing health problems. If you come to the academy unable to put in all the "extra" hours because doing so will exaccerbate your pre-existing condition. In this case, the blame is put on you. You are weak, and cannot cope with the high pressure academic environment. You are found wanting. NO-ONE considers that actually it's academia that has the problem. 

At least no-one did until a few small voices started to make noise: Thesis Whisperer, @JessicaRdctd, @nadinemuller and then @Phdisabled. And suddenly all of those in academia with chronic illness/ disability realised that we are not alone. We started to talk, and realised that our experiences were similar. And we began to join the dots. Realising that the problem isn't us, it's the system. 

Any system that purportes to be built on an intellectual meritocrary, that excludes some intellects because of disability is a broken system. Our intellect is not wanting. We are not lesser minds. We have bodies that betray us: That mean we cannot and SHOULD NOT work ourselves to illness. 

The changes we would make, the issues that we see as needing to be addressed, will not only benefit us. All of academia is exhausted. Isn't it about time we started talking about changing this?!