Disability Studies Quarterly Blog

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Review by Yvonne Wechuli, University 
of Cologne, Email: yvonne.wechuli@smail.uni-koeln.de

Keywords: education; chronic illness

Nicole Brown and Jennifer Leigh’s open access publication is inspired by the 2018 conference under the same name that received much attention, not least under the twitter handle #AIA2018. Still, the edited volume does not merely consist of conference proceedings but newly collects accounts of lived experiences – mostly from the British context – alongside more theoretical accounts. This book is interesting to all academics with either experience of or interest in disability. After all, the many people who do Disability Studies somehow depend on and/or shape academia, be it as staff members, in student roles, or even as independent researchers with varying degrees of involvement in the academy. The editors target researchers and students from higher education research, Studies in Ableism, Disability Studies and Sociological Studies as well as academic and non-academic staff members.

This edited volume contributes to a timely debate as it continues the emerging discourse on ableism in higher education. In the last decade, there has been a growing body of literature focusing on academic staff in anglophone contexts of the United States or the United Kingdom – claiming access and an acknowledgement of difference, e.g., neurodiversity (Dolmage 2017; Inckle 2018; Kerschbaum, Eisenman and Jones 2017; Osborne 2019; Price 2011; Price 2021).

I found a few themes to recur across this volume: 

Ableism in academia is positioned as endemic (introduction & chapter 12) due to normalised overwork (chapters 6, 8 & 10) where any achievement is “(almost instantly) reframed as the new baseline” (Griffiths 2020:137), which makes us “less and less understanding towards others with different needs” (Finesilver, Leigh and Brown 2020:154). Further, several contributions criticize a culture of perfectionism (chapters 7 & 10) and the “inevitable experience of failure such an environment produces” (Andrews 2020:113). Unsurprisingly, many academics begin to doubt themselves, which has been described as imposter syndrome (chapters 9 & 10).

The matter is further complicated by the strong emphasis on cognitive work while bodies are ignored (chapters 3, 6 & 8). The editors trace how embodiment reappears in their research (chapter 3) and the publishing process of this very volume (concluding thoughts) when study subjects and researchers respectively contributors and editors drift in and out of illness. As the editors state, “[u]ltimately, the practical reality of putting together this edited book is an accurate representation of what ableism in academia is and feels like” (Brown and Leigh 2020:227).

Many contributions also carve out the dilemma of disclosure (chapters 3,4, 5, 7 & 8) and the constant cost-benefit analyses attached to it. For many academics, risks like career disadvantages or challenging interactions informed by a widespread disbelief and a lack of understanding, outweigh potential gains like allyship or the (insufficient) accommodations offered to disabled staff (chapter 3). Hence, the reader can veritably share Fiona Kumari Campell’s (2020) conclusion that it is not surprising so few disabled academics disclose (chapter 12). Reservations to disclose further limit disabled academics’ activism against ableism: “What do we do when we feel a moral imperative to stand up and act as a role model, and yet are not ready to do so on a personal level?” (Leigh and Brown 2020:176).

Several contributions further address normalized and, thus, built-up microaggressions (chapters 8, 11 & 12). Fiona Kumari Campbell (2020) discusses inaccessibility as a form of microaggression as it implies the possibility of humiliation. Academic institutions counterfactually claim to have put accessibility measures in place to ensure accessibility. Places that are in fact inaccessible are assessed to be accessible through “technicist mentalities that govern our academic day” (Campbell 2020:220) – framing disabled people as a problem. Processes to claim accommodations are characterized by a “codification of need” (Campbell 2020:215) instead of fitting accommodations while complaint procedures have a silencing effect.

The contributors share “a desire for alternative ways of producing academic work” (Andrews 2020:118) and several contributions spell out such alternative ways (chapters 6, 8,10 & concluding thoughts). A changed academic culture should be more empathetic (chapter 8) and take the lived experiences of disabled academics seriously (concluding thoughts). Academia should take more interest in work processes rather than only its end products (chapter 10) and assume diversity rather than homogeneity (chapter 8). Disability can further be used as an epistemological tool to challenge demands of higher education institutions. Sharing ubiquitous experiences of failure allows us to explore different and interdependent ways of working together (chapter 6). The editors call for overarching strategies, Universal Design, ambassadors, the promotion of best practices and adequate funding for implementation while they acknowledge higher education institutions as role models in society (concluding thoughts). 

As this volume reflects an emerging discourse, it is not as structured as, for example, a student textbook. The chapters are not organized into thematic parts, which would have been helpful for researchers as well. The thirteen chapters are framed by an introduction and concluding thoughts as well as a preface and an afterword. The introduction and concluding thoughts could be employed in the classroom. The introduction contextualizes ableism in academia as endemic against the background of elitist ivory towers and corporate universities. It further briefly introduces several discourses, such as on Studies in Ableism, Ableism in Academia, emotion work, and stigma. The conclusion reflects on the contributor’s (e.g., exclusively female) positionality as well as the publishing process and synthesizes contributions by theories and methodologies used.

The greatest strength of this edited volume is equally its biggest weakness: The editors specifically sought to provide an open space to engage with issues concerning academic ableism “that is not confined by or restricted to disciplinary conventions or categories” (Brown 2020:6). Thus, they aspire not to exclude anyone from theorizing their experiences with academic ableism (concluding thoughts). This volume shares lived experiences with ableism in academia written in first-person perspectives – regardless of whether the contributors pursue research within Disability Studies or other fields like Law, Politics or Technology Studies. For Disability Studies this proves interesting as, obviously, disabled academics work, teach, research, and study in every corner of the academy. The volume, thus, compiles diverse perspectives on academic ableism and insights into different disciplinary cultures. Therefore, questions arise that are rarely asked in a Disability Studies context, for instance, questions of disabled academics’ leadership in Higher Education as part of diversity in leadership (chapter 5) or questions of disabled academics’ political responsibility due to their relatively privileged position (chapter 11). Methodology and form are similarly diverse: The contributions are poetic (chapters 4, 9 & 13), theoretical (chapters 2, 6 and 12), autoethnographic (chapters 7 & 11) or based on social scientific research data (chapters 3 & 5).

However, due to disciplinary diversity some of the contributions do not seem to receive the state of the art of related discourses within Disability Studies, for instance, that understandings of disability exist that go beyond medical or social models of disability (chapter 7). There is a certain disconnect between Fiona Kumari Campbell’s deeply theoretical account of ableism in the academic setting (chapter 12) and other contributions that employ an understanding of ableism that Campbell criticizes in her contribution, repeating her critique published elsewhere (Campbell 2019): Ableism tends to lack scrutiny regarding the subject under study when it is conceptualized as discrimination against disabled people – holding onto a binarization of disabled and nondisabled people. The editors claim that contributors theorize and contextualize their own lived experiences, yet some contribution’s disciplinary and methodological perspective, intention and conclusion could have been carved out more clearly by the contributors and editors.

To sum up, readers interested in a broad overview on how ableism plays out in the academic setting as told by disabled academics of different backgrounds will enjoy reading this collection. For researchers keen on theory-building (as the perspective from which I read this book), it can offer a first step towards further reasoning.


Andrews, Alice. 2020. “Autoimmune actions in the ableist academy.” Pp. 103–23, in Ableism in academia: Theorising experiences of disabilities and chronic illnesses in higher education, edited by N. Brown and J. Leigh. London, England: UCL Press.

Brown, Nicole, and Jennifer Leigh. 2020. “Concluding thoughts: Moving forward.” Pp. 226–36, in Ableism in academia: Theorising experiences of disabilities and chronic illnesses in higher education, edited by N. Brown and J. Leigh. London, England: UCL Press.

Brown, Nicole. 2020. “Introduction: Theorising ableism in academia.” Pp. 1–10, in Ableism in academia: Theorising experiences of disabilities and chronic illnesses in higher education, edited by N. Brown and J. Leigh. London, England: UCL Press.

Campbell, Fiona K. 2019. “Precision ableism: A studies in ableism approach to developing histories of disability and abledment.” Rethinking History 23(2):138–56. doi:10.1080/13642529.2019.1607475.

Campbell, Fiona K. 2020. “The violence of technicism: Ableism as humiliation and degrading treatment.” Pp. 202–24, in Ableism in academia: Theorising experiences of disabilities and chronic illnesses in higher education, edited by N. Brown and J. Leigh. London, England: UCL Press.

Dolmage, Jay. 2017. Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Finesilver, Carla, Jennifer Leigh, and Nicole Brown. 2020. “Invisible disability, unacknowledged diversity.” Pp. 143–60, in Ableism in academia: Theorising experiences of disabilities and chronic illnesses in higher education, edited by N. Brown and J. Leigh. London, England: UCL Press.

Griffiths, Elisabeth. 2020. “”But you don’t look disabled”: Non-visible disabilities, disclosure and being an “insider” in disability research and “other” in the disability movement and academia.” Pp. 124–42, in Ableism in academia: Theorising experiences of disabilities and chronic illnesses in higher education, edited by N. Brown and J. Leigh. London, England: UCL Press.

Inckle, Kay. 2018. “Unreasonable adjustments: The additional unpaid labour of academics with disabilities.” Disability & Society 33(8):1372–76. doi:10.1080/09687599.2018.1480263.

Kerschbaum, Stephanie, Laura Eisenman, and James Jones. 2017. Negotiating Disability: Disclosure and Higher Education. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Leigh, Jennifer, and Nicole Brown. 2020. “Internalised ableism: Of the political and the personal.” Pp. 164–81, in Ableism in academia: Theorising experiences of disabilities and chronic illnesses in higher education, edited by N. Brown and J. Leigh. London, England: UCL Press.

Osborne, Tanya. 2019. “Not lazy, not faking: Teaching and learning experiences of university students with disabilities.” Disability & Society 34(2):228–52. doi:10.1080/09687599.2018.1515724.

Price, Margaret. 2011. Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Price, Margaret. 2021. “Time Harms.” South Atlantic Quarterly 120(2):257–77. doi:10.1215/00382876-8915966.

This review was published as part of Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2022.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated.

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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