By Anna Wood
I have been housebound with a chronic health condition (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, ME) since 2008.
Yet over the last few years I’ve published three papers and submitted a fourth, given a number of conference talks and reviewed for some top journals. I have even recently started a paid research position, 5 hours per week at the University of Edinburgh in the Centre for Digital Education Research. I’m still 90% housebound, so there have been some significant challenges. Many things have coincided to make this possible: supportive colleagues, the ability to work flexibly and from home, changing research field – I now focus on the use of technology within higher (physics) education, but the most crucial of all has been the wide range of digital tools available.
Digital tools help me in a variety of ways. They help me to communicate with others asynchronously (for example e-mail) and synchronously (for example meetings via Skype). They help me to network, for example through twitter and to give live talks at conferences. They enable me to work with others through collaborative software and to minimise my energy expenditure by using software that converts text to speech and speech to text.
These are some of the technologies that I find most helpful.
The flexibility of studying online (for a part-time MSc in E-learning – now Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh) worked really well for me, as my illness is a fluctuating condition. I could go at my own pace and reread bits easily if I was struggling with concentration. In fact, as I’ve written about in my blog, adapting to the limitations imposed on me by my illness may well have been advantageous for learning.
I discovered that chronic illness did not affect the quality of work I could produce, just the amount of work in a given time.
Twitter was one of a range of digital tools that we were encouraged to explore and critique during the MSc and I remember being quite sceptical of it at first. But since then it has become an important part of my life as a housebound academic. It is essential for networking, and I’ve met people from my field from around the world. I’ve discussed ideas and joined in tweet-chats. I particularly appreciate people tweeting from conferences as I can follow along even if I can’t be there in person. But perhaps the most useful aspect is when people tweet about papers, blogs or events. There are so many new ideas that I would never have come across if I hadn’t seen them on twitter.
Skype is an essential tool for anyone working from home and I use it regularly for multi-way research meetings with colleagues as well as for conducting research interviews. The connection gained from seeing the people you are talking to really helps to create a productive working relationship. I’ve also attended training sessions and seminars that have been presented online using video conferencing software such as Blackboard Collaborate.
Recording Conference Talks
Conferences are one of the biggest challenges for people with disabilities or chronic illness. I did attend one a few years I ago, but it badly affected my health for weeks afterwards, so the following year I arranged with the organisers to present my work remotely, and I also sent a poster with a colleague. I used screencasting software to record the talk in advance and uploaded it to a the video sharing site Vimeo (in case we had network issues on the day), then at the allotted time, I Skyped in so that I had a presence during the talk and to answer questions after it. This worked really well and gave me the chance to share my work on an equal footing. I also made the video public and tweeted it – something that people who couldn’t attend the conference really appreciated.
Speech to Text and Text to Speech
There are many times when typing is too tiring. When this happens I write documents in Google Docs which gives the option of using the speech to text facility. If used in the web-browser Chrome you can also format the document with voice commands, (though this takes a bit of practice). Commercial software such as Dragon is also available (and might be offered through a University Disability Service), which can be trained to recognise your voice, so offers a better level of accuracy than Google Docs.
When reading is difficult I find that text to speech is helpful. Again, there is software available for this. In Firefox, certain webpages have a ‘book’ icon in the address bar which makes the document more readable and also offers a ‘narrate’ option which I find really helpful.
I find Google docs and related software really useful when working collaboratively with colleagues on a paper or report. Document permissions can be set so that only people you invite have access to it, and they can either view, leave comments and/or edit it as required.
Other tools that have been invaluable include: a Kindle so that I can read academic papers while lying down, and a foot pedal for transcription. I also write a blog – rather intermittently – which gives my work a wider audience and has enabled me to connect with other people in the field.
While technology has made it possible for me to be a housebound academic, it isn’t a complete panacea. Working entirely from home means I miss the face to face interactions with colleagues and consequently the informal conversations in the corridor or coffee room that technology can’t quite provide. I don’t feel as part of the group as I might if I had a desk in an office. I also miss out on social events and building the informal relationships that that entails.
While things have worked out for me, much more could be done to support those with chronic illnesses who have been unable to stay in academia or who are struggling to do so. These include supportive colleagues, flexible working and suitable funding avenues. However, technology has helped to level the playing field. It enables me to achieve at the highest possible level, to be an academic who just happens to have a chronic illness, rather an academic achieving things ‘despite chronic illness’. And that is worth celebrating.
Anna Wood is a Research Associate at the University of Edinburgh. She holds a PhD in Physics and is also a graduate from the Digital Education MSc Programme. She blogs at The Science of Scientific Learning and tweets at @annakwood.
Originally posted 17th November 2017.