Persons with disabilities represent 15% of the world population (over 80 million in Europe) from which 30% are at risk of poverty. This is set to increase given population ageing, which may result in disability. Although there is no specific data on Early Career Researchers (ECRs) with disabilities in Europe, advocacy from persons with disabilities’ and ECRs’ organizations raised awareness of ECRs with disabilities in academia and research institutions.
A study conducted in the UK among disabled ECRs found that many still face considerable barriers that hinder their full participation in academic life in various ways. A widespread lack of awareness exists amongst line managers, trade union representatives and employers, and it is combined with ableism within academia. Moreover, ECRs face a lack of access at work and in their accommodation, whilst experiencing difficulties in navigating institutional systems and accessing information on organizational policies and practices. Respondents also highlighted rigid policies and practices concerning research funding and promotion requirements. These obstacles can prove sufficiently fatiguing for ECRs with disabilities that some give up research as a career path.
The pandemic: new struggles and chances for change
The uncertainty brought by the pandemic created much anxiety among ECRs with disabilities. As we wrote in a previous article, all ECRs have been highly impacted during this period, but there are unique stressors that could worsen the mental health of ECRs with disabilities during the COVID-19 crisis. These include additional difficulties with accessing medical supplies due to rationing policies, and increased fears of becoming infected. Moreover, ECRs with disabilities may need extra time to cope with contract requirements: at the height of the pandemic, whilst ECRs worried over much needed funding and employment extensions, ECRs with disabilities felt an even greater pressure to catch up with academic and research commitments, as reported in this interview.
At present, there is no data on how many ECRs with disabilities have had contracts terminated or suspended as result of COVID-19. This is both a symptom and a cause of discrimination against people with disabilities inside academia and research institutions, which must be addressed.
On the other hand, ECRs with disabilities are seizing the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to call for a fundamental transformation in all domains of life, including employment. Shifting working practices during the COVID-19 crisis proves that similar adjustments can be made to include workers with disabilities, potentially creating an opportunity to include over 1 billion people with disabilities in the work market, and generate about $ 8 trillion (in OECD countries alone).
In Higher Education, as institutions shift to long-term remote learning, it is important to ensure ECRs with disabilities have full access to online platforms and ongoing support, such as family and caregiver support. Furthermore, since ECRs with disabilities usually encounter disability-related expenses, they may need additional support to acquire computers, specific research softwares and relevant assistive devices. Many may also require training to facilitate access to new forms of participation, such as e-meetings on an equal basis with others.
We want to stress that ECRs with disabilities must be involved and meaningfully consulted when considering measures that will affect them. Any solutions offered must be as bespoke as possible, with a participatory assessment of their own situation and specific disability issues, since every individual lives their disability differently.
More data needed
As Eurodoc, we believe that a full inclusion of ECRs with disabilities and a more balanced composition of the scientific community can greatly benefit our society, enriching research with new perspectives. To support each human being to find a satisfactory career path is a kickstarter for building a more efficient society for all.
This pandemic has shown that much work is still to do: we need more data about ECRs with disabilities to make them visible, and we need to understand which strategies implemented in the last months can be used and further developed to improve the working life of European ECRs beyond the pandemic. In this, we need your help: please tell us which strategies your university developed for supporting your remote work, if they proved efficient and any suggestions for further improvement you want to share, writing at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eurodoc Equality Working Group