COVID-19, Higher Education and Disability – a series of four blogs on lessons to be learned from the current crisis, Disability Studies, and disabled people.


As suggested in the previous blogs, remarks made on Twitter and Facebook seemed to indicate many disabled people started out with the hope that many non-disabled people would, at last, appreciate something about how the world tends to be for many who are disabled. Key amongst such conversations is the expertise many disabled people possess on how to survive or thrive in self-isolation. For many disabled people this is a permanent, or semi-permanent feature of life, with many of us campaigning for greater recognition of the barriers to our participation in the social world. In addition to ongoing demands for greater accessibility in the physical environment and social/cultural spaces, one of the most important of these has been the appreciation of many disabled people’s needs to work at home when necessary. Many of us have fought many such futile battles of this type within HE. Moreover, universities actively encourage ‘presenteeism’ (Kinman, 2017) and, alongside other disabling practices in teaching and research, tend to view attendance at a multitude of meetings (which are often inaccessible) as fundamental to the job. This is yet another reason to reject disabled people and those with ‘caring’ responsibilities in a milieu which prides itself on meritocracy and diversity.

At worst, on social media, there has been a continuation of academic sniping on such topics as whether it is morally and/or pedagogically sound to conduct teaching and research on the social aspects of COVID-19. Some of the usual values of academic life have been brought into question in order to question the actions of other academics, including moral judgements on the cynical use of the crisis for the promotion of careers (e.g. through new publications on the virus) or arguments about the need for trigger warnings in teaching to avoid the further distress of students. Significantly, apart from rapid forms of medical research, here has been little or no debate visible (on university websites or social media) on perhaps the most pressing  current  academic  issue, the need to expedite ethics and GPDR processes to ensure that crucial research is conducted rapidly as a matter of great urgency, at the time it is needed, e.g. on the multitude of questions which are arising from people on all forms of media. As such, debates are worlds away from the concerns which predominate in disabled people’s spaces, often marked by the value we have placed on interdependency[i] .

Yet, leaving aside the terrible exigencies of the health resourcing crisis, the world of work, retail and essential services has changed rapidly to accommodate the new realities of contagion ensuring that many can continue to work.  It turns out that adjustments to working practices are as easy as we always said they were with virtual classrooms and meetings now commonplace.  The crisis has meant the rapid re-skilling or updating of knowledge for many academics, including crash courses in online teaching. However, this has typically been as a last-minute ‘band-aid’ consideration for institutions who could have listened more closely to earlier calls for better digital delivery and working practices, not least from disabled staff, there has been no time to consider the quality of online pedagogy. Indeed, for institutions with ableism and disablism at their core (see Dolmage 2017 for a wider discussion of this) this is likely to prove inadequate for many tutors and students and is a powerful reminder of the cost of ignoring subordinated forms of knowledge within the academy.

Let’s not forget these are the same systems which failed to comply with anti-discrimination legislation in any meaningful manner, leaving many of us struggling for a basic recognition of our needs on the few occasions we are allowed in.  Moreover, questions of alternative ways of working seem to have been used as a primary reason to keep us out, given discussions I have had with many potential disabled academics[ii] .  Similarly, Jane Burton (2020) has shown that the denial of remote working practices in the legal profession has meant the loss of careers for many legal professionals, pushing them into ‘poverty and isolation’. Like many academics, such requests are treated with ‘suspicion’ and can be denied through university policies, with no protection offered by the Equality Act 2010.  It is more than clear that systems will change rapidly and dramatically to protect a range of ‘economic interests’ and to enable staff to continue working in such times of crisis, but will not make minor adjustments for the protection and wellbeing of employees, especially those who are found on the lower steps of the academic hierarchy.  Indeed, without a full consideration of the quality of knowledge production and the needs of staff and students, the sudden switch to online provision seems likely to provide a premise for  further economic rationalisation, e.g. to replace pre-existing provision with fewer staff and the downgrading of face-to-face work, regardless of the human costs.

Dolmage (2017) argues that the ‘polite’ elitism inherent in academia is ‘one of the most pervasive disguises for ableism’ (ibid, 39) and that disability has been constructed as a problem and as the antithesis of HE by those who work within it, ‘valorising’ spurious forms of achievement. It is no shock that universities were unprepared for the problems of illness and disablement that they routinely disavow, through a multitude of individualistic policies, processes and practices which render questions of inclusion as bothersome ‘special needs’. Now, as we move inexorably towards a reorganised model of HE, it is already clear that disabled people, as the smallest and most under-employed group in HE[iii] , and other marginalised groups who tend to predominate in the temporary or casualised HE workforce (AdvanceHE, 2019) are, or will be, the first to be pushed out. Yet more knowledge disappears.

Read next in the series>


AdvanceHE (2019) Equality and Higher Education- Staff statistical report 2019. Advance HE.

Burton, J (2020) Lessons learned that must not be forgotten, in The Law Society Gazette, 6 April 2020 [Accessed 11 April 2020]

HESA (2019) Figure 6 – All staff (excluding atypical) by equality characteristics 2018/19. [Accessed 12 April 2010)

Keyes, S.E., Clark, L. and Gibb, C.E. (2019) Living with dementia, interdependence and citizenship: narratives of everyday decision-making, in Disability and Society, 34, 2

Kinman, G (2017) Career advice: ’presenteeism’ is hurting higher education, in Times Higher Education, 23 March. {Accessed 11 April, 2020]

Wilde, A (2014a) Disability Culture: The story so far, in Swain, J, French, S, Barnes, C and Thomas, C (eds) Disabling barriers- Enabling environments, 3rd Edition. London: SAGE

Wilde, A (2014b) Trust, Uncertainty and Identity in Health-Related Decision-Making: The Role of Key professionals in Disability and Society, 29, 2, 198-212


[i] This is a key value in many domains relating to disability including Disability Arts, health and social care, the strengths of disabled parenting and so on. See Keyes, Clark and Gibb (2019), and Wilde (2014 a and b).

[ii] This would include the failure, for example, to interview Deaf candidates and those with other communication needs due to an inability to reimagine communications

[iii]  Based on statistics on equality characteristics from HESA from 2018/19, at around 4.5% of the workforce. See

Dr Sara Ryan is a Senior Research Lead at the University of Oxford. A sociologist and activist, her work focuses on learning disability, autism and social justice.  Twitter: @sarasiobhan

Dr Alison Wilde is an Independent Researcher and a Tutor for UNICAF. Her work focuses on disability, inclusion, social justice, and culture. She is series editor for ‘Disability, Media, Culture’ with Peter Lang. Twitter: @aliswilde

Dr Sarah Woodin is an Independent Researcher and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Leeds. As an interdisciplinary social scientist her work is concerned with disability equality and social change. Twitter: @sarahwoodin