I’m A Disabled Academic…Get Me In There!

Tuesday 23rd January, 2018

Stephie Lacey

As a woman who is fairly new to academia and in fact disability (I have been using a wheelchair full time since 2015), I find myself increasingly exposed to, though less surprised by, exclusionary practices in academic spaces. What became evident was that, in some cases, the people I was with had not been forced to consider those issues of access previously. I decided, therefore, that it was imperative for me to document the 48 hours leading up to the conference, to highlight the additional labour I faced in accessing the event as an invited speaker.

As my inbox pinged, I opened an email inviting me to speak at my first academic conference. I was delighted and set to work preparing my paper. As excited as I was to be invited into the academic world, I was acutely aware of the beast that was my ‘imposter syndrome’ rearing its ugly head, I was prepared for the nerves that would descend upon me when the time came to present my work to a room full of people I had admired for so long. What I hadn’t anticipated was the overwhelming weight of burden. I must be careful not to misrepresent myself here: the event’s organiser had gone to great pains to ensure that the event was accessible to me at every juncture, but what ensued was a farcical 48 hours that confirmed to me that ableism is alive and well.

My coping strategy to ableist occurrences such as these (which happen almost daily), is to smile through it and pretend that it does not bother me. I have always been careful not to be seen as a ‘problem’, conscious that I do not want to be perceived as the one that always has something to moan about. I have experienced an internal tussle deciding whether to document my experience, to address the additional pressures faced as a disabled academic speaking at a sociological event. However, I have decided that to sit back in the comfort of my wheelchair and ignore discriminatory practices, both attitudinal and physical, will only contribute to perpetuating them. So here I am, ready to provide you with an insight: 48 hours as a disabled academic.

The day before travelling to the event, packing my bag, I felt a surge of energy. I felt brave and strong. I had spent hours mulling over my work and was confident that it was ready: “hold on academia, I’m coming for you!” But then my phone rang and suddenly I might not be coming at all. It was the train company informing me that despite me booking a wheelchair space weeks in advance, they had resold this and, their apologies, but I could no longer travel. The one available space on the train for me and my chair had been sold from beneath my wheels. I was overcome with emotion, from one of disgust in the lack of accessible service available, disappointment that I would have to miss my first opportunity to speak at a conference, to one of shame that I was going to be letting the event’s organisers down because of an incident that was out of my control. As I explained this to the train company, they reluctantly booked me a space on another service, but not before making sure I knew that this was an inconvenience to their system. When I arrived at the train station the next day I thought that nothing else could phase me, that the worst had already happened. Alas, I was wrong. As I boarded the packed train, disrupting the hordes of people that were gathered in the aisles, I found that once again my space had been given away to another disabled passenger whose train had been cancelled, and I was left to face the journey with my nose pressed against the wall, as they squeezed me into an inadequate space like a Tetris block. You can imagine my relief to arrive at my destination!

The hotel that had been chosen by the organiser to accommodate my needs was quite a way from the train station as there were inadequate facilities for reasonable prices in the city centre. Luckily, an accessible taxi had just pulled up outside the train station, and after some initial confusion over how to get me and my electric chair into the taxi, we arrived at the hotel. I checked in at the front desk and it became apparent that the accessible room that I had booked, was not accessible to me at all, there was a bath that I could not use and a lack of hand rails that I required, despite the detailed requirements being established at the time of booking. This issue, however, was soon rectified by the friendly staff on the front desk who changed the room I would be staying in.

Later that evening I met with some co-convenors to make our way to a dinner that had been arranged. We waited for our pre-booked accessible taxi, and we waited. It didn’t arrive. The taxi company that we had booked with informed us that they were not able to provide us with a vehicle that could transport my wheelchair, despite having taken a deposit. I was once again let down and stranded. The event’s coordinator made contact with several companies and eventually sourced a taxi that could accommodate our needs and we made our way to the restaurant only half an hour late.

As we arrived I felt the jollity of the other attendees and the stress of the journey soon dissipated. I was comfortable in the space that we were in as the event’s coordinator had been in close contact with me to assure me that she had verified that the venue was fully wheelchair accessible, and had emailed them that morning to reiterate that me and my chair would be there. Brilliant. It quickly became apparent, however, that they had not been upfront about their current state of accessibility. Our reserved table was up a very steep step and there was no ramp available. I am able to walk very small distances so could manage the step, but it left me vulnerable and requiring support from a group of people I did not know well, if at all. They also informed us that the disabled toilet had been out of order for 2 weeks and that the outdoor disabled toilets were also closed. They advised that I visit a coffee chain nearby to use their facilities. As the manager walked me to said café, we were faced with several steep steps making the café as inaccessible to me as Mount Everest. We took a tour of the area and eventually found a venue that I could access but not before panic set in! The rest of the evening was peppered with such incidents though it seemed a good time was had by all.

The day of the event, after yet another ‘accessible’ transport disaster, we made our way to the conference. The nerves of speaking had temporarily alleviated the stress of existing in an inaccessible environment and I focused on calming myself and preparing for the day ahead. As we approached the automatic doors at the entrance of the conference venue, my fellow attendees made their way through the revolving doors and I waited for my separate door to open. But it did not. I had to wait for the receptionist to grant me access, another practice that indicated that I was different. The lifts to each floor were too small and I scraped my hands on each use and the accessible toilets were behind doors too heavy for me to open alone, leaving my once again relying on the kindness of strangers to assist me. It turned out that presenting my paper was the least stressful part of the experience.

I initially felt internal pangs of guilt in each instance, though I have come away from this experience understanding that the guilt is not mine to harbour. The environments I found myself in were not accessible to this body of mine and we still have a long way to go to counter these issues. Unless people are aware of the micro exclusions that are faced on a regular basis from experiences such as this, how can we expect things to change? So yes academia, I am here to stay and yes society, I will call out your exclusionary practices, be ready!

Stephie Lacey teaches Research Methods at University Campus Barnsley. Stephie tweets at @StephieLacey.

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