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.
I start this discussion of ableism, disabled people, COVID-19, Higher Education (HE), and sociology by focusing on myself, for three main reasons: 1) that it is too difficult to move beyond the subjective experiences of being thrust into such a new and horrifying existence, and I want to be honest about that; 2) that, in the spirit of Donna Haraway’s epistemological position, I value the acknowledgement of ‘situated knowledge’ (Haraway, 1988); and 3) because I find intriguing, if depressing, parallels between my observations of disabled people in the COVID-19 crisis with issues raised by myself, and others, on the topic of disabled people and ableism in HE and sociology – indeed, many of these were reasons which led Sara Ryan and myself to start the Disability Study Group in 2012. Overall, my intention is to question why disabled people ‘count for so little’ (Kittay, 2020) in society and the academy, a rejection which is writ large in the current crisis.
Little did I think that things could get worse at the end of December 2019 when I was made redundant from my second permanent academic job. I was already on the brink of losing my home with little hope of an academic post after thirty-five interviews in the previous few months. As a disabled academic I struggled ceaselessly, against the odds, to get an academic role of any kind. Like many of my esteemed disabled academic colleagues and friends[i], I experienced the discrimination and ableism inherent in the culture and structure of universities, including the recruitment processes which weed most of us out. This is exacerbated by the notion of an academic career remaining firmly premised on normative career trajectories (e.g. ‘upward curves’) and spurious ideas of ‘meritocracy’ which serve to perpetuate hierarchies of class, ‘race’/ethnicity, disability, age, gender and sexuality, and networks of nepotism I faced a worrying and precarious future before the arrival of COVID-19. This outlook is likely to become worse, with no signs of change (Collini, 2020).
But, even with a ‘failed’ career, and diminished hope for further academic positions, COVID-19 has illuminated much about the privilege of my position as an academic, however marginal that may be. As Emily Maitlis highlighted on BBC Newsnight (8th April), there is a chasm between those ‘front line workers’[ii] and the rest of us, with many unprotected and placed at substantial risk in their grossly underpaid and overworked (often zero hours) efforts to keep us all alive, safe, and fed. So, as precarious as my life outside of COVID-19 is, I have the supreme privilege of moving into my fifth week of self-isolation; unless I run out of food, I have the luxury of isolating until mid-June.
And wider context…
Forty-four days into my own self-isolation, any optimism that disabled people expressed[iii] that others would at last understand some of the problems of exclusion or isolation a disabling society imposes on disabled people appears to be grossly mis-placed. The circles I move in (mostly online at the best of times) are as divided as they were before. Conversations about the experiences and fears of disabled people exist almost exclusively within disabled people-led spaces, away from the preoccupations, anxieties and daily lives of many non-disabled people[iv]. While I have seen many non-disabled people embrace the opportunities to value the privileges of working at home and reflect on the joys that can be found, I have seen few, if any, reflections on the security afforded to and enjoyed by those in secure positions[v] . I expected more of academia, especially on Twitter. Many discussions on social and other media, from academics and others, reflect a range of strategies on how to meaningfully use time during lockdown. This generates reflections on practices which constitute ‘normal’ life for us: using time for self-improvement through new or discarded interests (especially baking) or to get/remain ahead at work. For many this has also meant radical renegotiations of our relationships with children as parents and informal educators, and an equally shocking knowledge that most of us will have to take a more active role in our own health care[vi]. Thus, we have seen a flurry of people sharing advice and support for home-schooling, a plethora of advice on exercise and nutrition at home[vii] , and a massive rise in health fears for many[viii] .
Apart from the communications of those who are front line workers, disabled people, those who have had the virus, and the families who have had the tragic experience of death, there is an overwhelming sense of universalism assumed in most discussions of COVID-19, in all forms of media. These communications usually presume an unaffected, yet risk-laden, reader who is positioned as the ethical fulcrum of responsibility for the spread of the virus, and for the successful and productive management of time spent in isolation. A clear example of this can be seen in a segment on ‘Has lockdown left you feeling fit or fat?’ on the Jeremy Vine programme (Channel 5, 12 April 2020). While many of us look for wholesome ways to spend our time well at home, it is becoming painfully apparent that our social structures, inequalities and cultural expectations play a huge part in determining our exposure to risk and society’s ideas about what and who matters most.
Collini, A (2020) Covid-19 shows up UK universities shameful employment practices, in The Guardian, 28 April 2020, [Accessed 29 April 2020]
Durbin, S., Page, M., and Walby, S. (2017) Gender Equality and ‘Austerity’: Vulnerabilities, Resistance and Change, in Gender, Work and Organization 24, 1 January [Accessed 11 April 2020]
Haraway, D. (1988) Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective, in Feminist Studies, 14, 3, Autumn, 575-599.
Kittay, E. F (2020) Personal communication
Raval, P. (2020) Whose life to save? Investigating the ‘do not resuscitate’ coronavirus controversy, in The Bristol Cable, 10 April, 2020, [Accessed 13 April 2020]
Sweney, M. (2020) Calls to NHS 111 soar 400% since start of coronavirus crisis in UK , in The Guardian, 5 April 2020 [Accessed 5 April 2020]
[i] Though this has often been people with impairments, it also includes people without impairments who live in disabled families, e.g. those living with disabled partners and children.
[ii] The military connotations of this phrase, and much of the discourse have not gone unnoticed, which raise many questions of how coronavirus discourse is being ‘weaponised’ to support masculinist ideas of ‘strength of character’; as Maitlis pointed out, this is mainly attributed to Tory politicians. It is equally notable that front line workers are positioned as essential ‘carers’ in a time of adversity – a designation which tends to be feminised and undervalued in most cultural discourses. Additionally, UK Ministers have continued in this vein, despite the criticisms, such as the Matt Hancock’s portrayal of new efforts to provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) as ‘Herculean’; his advice to health workers to use the equipment sparingly bears a striking resemblance to gendered hierarchies of power and inequality within the domestic and employment sphere (see Durbin et al, 2017, for a brief discussion of this in austerity).
[iii] This was a sentiment I witnessed on social media many times at the beginning of the crisis.
[iv] Notwithstanding the wide range of people I interact with, being from a working-class background with a tendency to feel more comfortable with people with similar upbringings, the majority of people I interact with, or observe, online appear to be more middle-class (and highly educated).
[v] Issues such as job security/precarity were discussed on Twitter in February, during the UCU strike, but few tweets related to disabled staff.
[vi] Especially for disabled people who are used to frequent visits to, or from health workers and are often de-pendent on interventions which are now suspended. There are a range of other issues, especially as we will all lack knowledge on interactions between prior conditions and their potential difference from, or interactions with COVID-19.
[vii] It is quite significant that Jack Monroe, a who specializes in food on a low budget has been overwhelmed with interest (see twitter for example), for a much larger constituency who are having to consider cooking in conditions of relative scarcity.
[viii] Personal communications with health care workers at my local hospital, where health professionals often vary a vast array of new – and challenging – questions, and perceived threats to their health/life, often in the absence of evidence of clinical examinations and incomplete knowledge of the virus. This can also be seen in the 400% increase in calls to 111 (Sweney, 2020).
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