Making Visible: Chronic Illness and the Academy

By Anna Ruddock

Chronically ill academics are not invisible. We are everywhere: as students, teachers, and colleagues. And neither are our illnesses invisible. Not really. Not if you come to know us; if you learn what to look for, to listen for, to ask. Less visible, but insidious and disabling, is the ableism that ensures we do our own work to render our illnesses (and therefore large parts of ourselves) as invisible as possible.

Academic ableism celebrates scholarship about difference, while demonstrating little understanding, let alone appreciation, of difference in its own midst. Deeply complicit in late capitalism’s obsession with productivity, pace, and narrow metricised definitions of individual achievement, universities boast of allegiance to diversity and inclusion schemes, while propagating an ethics of precarity and production that has little space for people whose illness or disability inspires a different way of working. The competition among talented early career researchers for short-term contractual positions, and the minimum requirements employers can now demand, has become absurd. Its pursuit jeopardises the wellbeing of the healthiest applicant, but for a chronically ill person whose life is patterned by relapse-recovery-relapse, the potential damage is the stuff of abiding fears. The intersection of illness with race, gender, sexuality, and class dramatically multiplies the structural impediments to human thriving in the academy. For many of its practitioners, existing and aspiring, academia is an inherently harmful enterprise. This is a failure, and given the motivation that we all presumably hope still resides at the heart of the project, should be a matter of collective shame. But it also offers inspiration for change.

In the spirit of rendering all things more visible, and of celebrating different ways of being and working, I am privileged to introduce this collection of blog posts by chronically ill academics. It was inspired by the encouraging response to a piece I wrote in June, and I am grateful to The Sociological Review – and Mark Carrigan in particular – for publishing that post and for hosting this extended section. Above all, I want to express my gratitude to all those who responded to the call for pitches. Sharing personal narratives of illness and disability takes courage in any forum, but to do so within one’s professional realm demands an acquiescence to vulnerability that is to be admired – and without which, this collective project could not exist. But it does exist. Things are astir. Onwards.

Anna Ruddock is a freelance anthropologist and writer, and has recently joined the Wellcome Trust as a part-time global health policy adviser. Her writing is here and she tweets as @annalouruddock.

Originally published 17th October 2017.

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