Asking for Access After Declaring Disabled: An Interview Story

This week I was called to interview for a Research Council funding competition.  The application was part of a last-minute marathon attempt to restart my PhD research this Autumn. This wasn’t my first time at the rodeo. I had recently withdrawn from a funded PhD place nearly a year after interrupting my studies, having failed to secure the conditions necessary for me to be a successful PhD student and be disabled at the same time. I had tried, oh had I tried.   That is, however, a story for another time.

I always suspected that these problems arose, at least in part, because I hadn’t shown up to the PhD being obviously disabled. Back then, I didn’t even identify as a person with disabilities. I had learnt my lesson. This time I was going to be brutally up front. I had no choice: there was no other way to make sense of the withdrawal, or of my year out on interruption not working. I disclosed on the application forms. I used the personal statement as an opportunity to highlight how being a disabled student – housebound, with mobility issues – made me more creative, resourceful, how it had forced me to embrace emerging practices of digital scholarship to keep in contact with the world. This was emotionally taxing, rehashing the pain of the recent past, finding ways of turning it into positives, into assets.

In the UK, prospective PhD students apply to work in particular departments with particular supervisors and once offered a place submit further separate applications to various funding bodies, usually the university itself and at least one national research council.

I applied for both, for all of my places. If shortlisted for one research council competition in particular, I knew I would be called for interview.

I’d known about the possible interview dates for a week or two in advance. I learnt I was shortlisted only on the Friday before the Tuesday interview date.

Behind on some other work due to a bad body week anyway, the email came in on a full Friday lunchtime.

I had been riotously more-unwell-than-usual the week I’d submitted the application, lurching from resting to enforced typing through bleary bodily dysfunction. And thinking. It was awful.

This was excellent news. I was still in the game.

I re-read the email carefully, this time extending my attention beyond those magic words: “We would like to invite you…”

The room number started with a 2. Rooms starting with a 2 are usually on the second floor.

There was no mention of access arrangements. No link to a map outlining disabled parking bays, access routes.

Why would there be?

It was a Friday lunchtime. The interview was the following Tuesday. Those in offices work office hours. I’d need to make the relevant enquiries immediately.

I emailed back, asking if the room was accessible for mobility scooters, whether the lifts would definitely be working (repeated lift failure combined with a tendency to schedule teacher meetings on the second floor had prevented me from attending a number of meetings at my previous institution) and where the nearest disabled car-parking bays were. I explained that I was able to walk short distances. The scooter, my indoor-car, didn’t need to get me all the way, if stairs were few and distances short.

The reply was swift. No, the room wasn’t accessible. Things would need to be rearranged.

The person I dealt with was efficient, no nonsense. In the end, my interview – just mine, I believe – was scheduled in a different room to all the other candidates, and moved to later in the day. The panel would need to walk to and from my interview separately. I was reassured, no bother, no need to worry. They won’t mind the walk.

I was frustrated by the experience. I’ve realised lately that part of the challenge of securing access arrangements as a disabled student in higher education is that it can feel like you need to stick a maximally disabled version of yourself on a pole ten feet in front of you and use it to herald your arrival, to clear the inaccessible brush to create yourself a usable path through the world, through institutions.

In your interactions, especially where practical things like being able to be in the same room as your interview panel are involved, you are forced to foreground your disability. This is the thing that requires adjustments, reminders, sharp nudges in the ribs. It can be tiresome, let alone painful, problematic while trying to maintain an expansive conception of yourself filled with possibilities beyond the small matter of being able to get in the door. Literally.

Despite the prior self-advocation, the setting out my stall as a disabled candidate, I was again needing to self-advocate to be able to get through the door. And the consequence of my disability not being worked into the arrangements as basic was that I would run the risk of being The Disabled Student Who Can’t Get To The Room.

I was now the cause of making senior academics go for a walk. Two walks. There and back. I was mortified.

Everyone seems willing to blame old buildings.  I am never convinced.

The honest truth is that the need to self-advocate came at an incredibly pressured time: between it and other events, I tipped headlong into multiple panic attacks. I’m new at these, but they’re happening more and more. The panic attacks became flu. This, plus my realising that my period was due on the day of the interview. They are a health event in themselves. The pain is excruciating, total body. Existential. I do not know how to exist in those moments. Sometimes all I can do is lie on the ground and hold on. Vomiting happens, often profusely. Thinking is hardest then; other times of the month I can sacrifice bodily functioning to push through with the brain but not then. Then thick fog descends and the only option is to be more motionless and ride it out. It’s got something to do with them setting off a chain reaction with my existing disability. Whatever the cause, for me, these are a real health event. One challenge of academia – of working life as someone with a womb more generally – can be how hard it is to communicate this.

I had nightmare visions of vomiting on the Head of a prominent UK academic department.

This was, non-hyperbolically speaking, the worst time of the body month for this interview. Mix in a dollop of grief to boot: my mother died three months into my PhD interruption last year, suddenly, and after 18 months of supporting me through the worst of the health fluctuations, the academic battles. It was her birthday on Saturday, the first of her own that she missed.

This is, as they say, just life. Everyone has things to deal with. Right?

I was thrown by getting invited to interview, given the delirious marathon-run that had been my application. I was thrown by the realization that I would not be my best self on the day, in all likelihood a grieving, bleeding mess, and by the churning questions about what to do, whether to say something, whether to ask for understanding to be extended to this as well as to my disability. Whether such requests for understanding would be read as “special pleading” and undermine rather than support me.

Celebrating my invitation to interview by having to raise my hand, once more, any more, to assert my disabled self-ness, at that time, did not just throw me: it floored me.

The tilt into anxiety forced my hand. I had to let the panel know, somehow. I was not in state to tell them myself. I know well enough how these things go that a message from an academic would be more credible than an incomprehensible missive sent by me, the candidate. Between Friday night and Monday afternoon I sent emails, made phone calls. Again and again the advice came, well-meaning, supportive, that I should contact the panel directly. Self-advocate. Besides, they already know you have your condition don’t they? Isn’t that enough? Don’t worry, just muster that bit more energy and coherence to send just one more email. No need to worry.

Finally I found one glorious soul who dealt graciously with my tears of under-preparedness and over-exhaustion on the phone.  Within an hour, calls were made; emails were sent, and not by me. This advocating self could finally rest. I spent the rest of the day in bed.

By the time I got to interview, I was already exhausted. I had little energy to prepare. Not much preparation occurred.

It went okay. I can’t really remember much of what I said, but there was some nodding, one or two “excellents”. I don’t know. How do you ever know with these things even when you’re not semi-delirious? At least I managed to avoid the weeping and the vomiting, I do know that.

This experience got me thinking. What could explain what happened here?

One explanation is that I failed to perceive an expectation that if I needed access to the venue, I would have to make further contact directly to the interview panel to request access arrangements.

One wonders what would have happened if I hadn’t.

I reject this expectation.  I had declared my disability. They were inviting me for interview partly because of a document in which I discussed it at length. There was no blink and you’ll miss it here.

What I suspect is going on is that we’re singing from different hymn sheets, me and the Academy. As far as it seems to be concerned, students needing reasonable adjustments should ask for them in every specific instance in which they arise. Self-advocation has become a guiding presumption in academic institutional practice even when declaration – itself, if you like, the ultimate form of self-advocacy – has already occurred.

As one who confronts the consequences of this presumption, whose contact with the academy requires navigating institutional failures to account for the practical realities of disability – especially conditions involving limited energy – I strongly reject any extraneous opportunities to wave the disabled version of myself on a stick ten feet in front.

This fits within what increasingly seems to be the standard model for disabled students seeking access in academia: the onus for securing reasonable adjustments falls on the student. In the UK, disability support services will notify academics of adjustments that a student might employ, but these are rarely framed in terms of proactive ways to help the student, more as indications of things the students might request. Various university websites in the UK and US emphasise the importance of self-advocacy, with some glancing at the distinction between school and higher education, quietly tugging at the idea that self-advocacy is just the adult thing to do. If you need convincing of this, you might consider looking at the #AcademicAbleism conversation on Twitter.

Whatever one’s position on the values of self-advocacy, there’s an argument to be made that this way of thinking places excessive demands on the group of students with least access to the resources needed to navigate academia, precisely because they only receive them if they are willing – able, even – to self-advocate, often at every turn.

Why isn’t a declaration of disability enough to put the ball in the institution’s court to do at least some of the work to ensure disabled candidates are able to access things like interviews?

And why on earth does the onus of demand seem to rest precisely on the shoulders of those in most need of support?

I confess, I’m baffled. I suspect the Academy is too. Perhaps it’s time to have a conversation about what “self-advocacy” and “declaration” consist in, and what counts as a reasonable share of the heavy lifting and for whom.

If this is just life, it is rubbish. We can do better.

Continue the conversation in the comments or talk to us at @PhDisabled on twitter.  Got a story of your own you’d like to share, or questions that need asking? Email us at team@phdisabled.org.

Image: ‘Equal Access’ by Steve Snodgrass, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 (Generic)

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12 responses to “Asking for Access After Declaring Disabled: An Interview Story

  1. I can absolutely sympathise, and well done for getting through the door – literally and figuratively.

    One of the things that keeps being thrown up on #AcademicAbleism is the university demand for constant repetitive Asking, for proof of disability as well as for adjustments. This isn’t self-advocacy. This is a demand for repetition of the emotionally and physically painful Facts of Life, for us. It is exhausting, demoralising, embarrassing, frustrating, and alienating.

    I think I’m trying to start a new blog about my experiences, so I might write a bit more about that on there at some point. Anyway, well done for making it through, and good luck with it.

  2. This is a completely brilliant article, and I want to quote every bit of it, and it is so exactly my own experience, particularly “a maximally disabled version of yourself on a pole ten feet in front of you and use it to herald your arrival.” Exactly true, and thank you so much for writing this post. I don’t often have the energy to talk about negotiating access to academia, and I’m glad someone is. Thank you, thank you, thank you xx

  3. Thank you for writing this! As someone who has frequently sat on the other side of the academic job interview — in hotel conference rooms, in hotel suites, etc. — I’ve never once thought about how we’d manage someone with a disability. It’s never come up, it’s never been discussed. But because you wrote this, it will be on my mind, and perhaps there’s someone in the future who will not be asked to do what you were asked to do because we’ll anticipate the need to consider these sorts of accomodations, or to ask ahead of time of ALL candidates about mobility issues, etc., so there’s less sense of stigma associated with special accommodation.

    I have two students this semester with significant disabilities — one the result of an accident that caused mobility problems, who has faced numerous physical and psychic roadblocks on the way to her degree — and the other someone with a host of physical and emotional difficulties that we’re all learning more about. It’s hard to navigate the role of being a faculty advocate in many of these situations. Our school’s “accessibility services” tells us that we can only “accommodate” students who have all the necessary paperwork on file, and only in the ways that are stated on the forms we are sent. This has always seemed more juridical than compassionate to me — covering the University’s ass while doing precious little to make accessibility a real thing. Which is why I’ve been checking out the #academicableism posts on twitter, and really thinking about my own assumptions and what I can do to be a better advocate. Essays like this perform a crucial service to someone like me, who wants to know better so I can do better.

  4. Oh ffs I just wrote a long reply and the internet lost it. I’m yet to embark on PG studies, I’m seriously considering it but I’m anxious about coping as well as money. This echoes my UG experiences too as well as earlier struggles in secondary school.
    What annoys me is access provisions are supposed to enable disabled students to compete ‘equally’ with others but why do we have to do extra work non disabled students don’t? On top of struggling with the regular academic/social load of uni we have an extra ton of shit to wade through. I’m not sure how to make it better but ATM it seems few institutions even acknowledge this problem.

    FYI I threw up on my French teach in secondary school, at least they believed I was ill after that … well sort of.

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  7. Slightly confused about the problem here.

    Granted, they could have improved by sending you a map with clear access marked. Although as everyone has different access needs and different circumstances of disability, I can see a situation in which such a map would be equally unsatisfying: ‘assuming’, for example, you would need a special parking bay, or access for a scooter. And you don’t mention accomodation for candidate with vision disabilities. Should all interviews be held in rooms fitted with blackout blinds in case natural sunlight is a problem for an interviewee?

    But based on the story you’ve told, in your dealings with the university, you asked the administrator to accommodate you; s/he did so promptly. A shame you have to turn this into an example of ‘ableism’ when it sounds like your specific needs were met.

    The rest of your story seems to be about the series of panic attacks that the request you made triggered. But it’s not the university’s fault that your disability makes you anxious, and accommodating you at the interview only takes care of the first of many unavoidable moments at which accommodations would need to be made.

    • “A shame you have to turn this into an example of ‘ableism’”

      To quote the Social Model of Disability: Disability is the discrimination we face as a result of the failure of society to adapt to the needs resulting from our impairments. The Equality Act 2010 (and the DDA 1995 and 2005 before it) places a presumptive duty on organisations to provide for the access needs of staff and customers. This has been the legal requirement for a generation, so if an organisation hasn’t gotten around to having effective access policies yet, how is that not disablism? Remember, this criticism relates to what they did with mobility impairment already openly declared.

      I’ve been in a similar sort of position myself, applying for a job with a large and very well known university spin-off, and arriving to be told ‘We never thought about a disabled person applying’. I hadn’t mentioned my mobility impairment, as I can get most places on my crutches, but their entire building was wheelchair inaccessible, and it was only chance that meant they’d scheduled the interview in their one ground floor office, rather than the ones up two flights of stairs. If I’d turned up using a wheelchair rather than crutches, there would have been major issues. It may seem harsh, but ‘We never thought about a disabled person applying’ and not having access policies IS a form of passive disablism. The intent to actively mistreat us may not be there, but neither is the conscious intent to meet their legal requirements towards us under EA2010.

  8. @ abled: No-one is arguing that every disability should be anticipated and provided for. That is a straw man argument.

    The problem is not that the interviewers didn’t magically anticipate her needs. It’s that she told them about her needs well in advance, and they didn’t do anything with that information.

    It is really not that hard to put a box on the form saying ‘Will you require special accessibility arrangements, should you be invited for interview?’ and then to act on the information given. It shouldn’t have been down to the author to ring them up after the room had been assigned to find out whether or not she would actually be able to use it.

    The second failing was on the part of the academics who knew her, who were unwilling to advocate on her behalf, despite knowing her circumstances in detail. In this case ‘self-advocation’ was not the best option because some things are better coming from a disinterested third party who can vouch for your personal circumstances. In addition, if you have a condition which affects your energy and mood, and self advocation (as it did in this case) involves telling people in detail about incredibly distressing personal circumstances, it can be actively harmful.

    In both cases she should not have had to repeatedly chase people up to get the support she needed to have the interview. She had to spend the majority of the time between being told about the interview and actually having it negotiating accommodations for disability, rather than preparing for it like any able-bodied person could have done. This is obviously unfair, and given that she had disclosed her disability to everyone involved at every opportunity given her, it seems that at some point it ought to have stopped being her responsibility to bludgeon people into helping her, and started being the responsibility of the academics and admin staff involved to say, “What can we do to help?”

    • @abled:

      SM’s points are exactly right: the point of disability support for interview access is to give all candidates an equal playing field. I’d just like to add a few more points.

      You say that the applicant’s anxiety about all of this self-advocacy and intervention – which was so that she could access what is clearly a stressful interview – was her own issue. This situation would not have arisen for a non-disabled candidate. She declared her access needs clearly before the interview, to avoid this stress. Why is this her issue? Is this fair?

      Another problem is that – in having to intervene so that she could get to the interview, let alone perform well – she confronted the university’s clear problems with disability awareness, access and fairness, which would make any disabled candidate, in my experience, worry about their chances of unprejudiced and equal consideration. By having to “make fuss” about the room, she had to bring attention to herself as a “special needs candidate”, and nobody wants to do that.

      You’ll also note that she said the room was only changed for her interview, which meant the panel had to relocate themselves in order to see her. What chance of unprejudiced (in the truest sense of the term) assessment does she have in that situation, when the panel are fully aware of her disability in the context of hiring her?

      Nobody wants to be the “special snowflake” in these situations. Even though I don’t suffer from anxiety, I would worry about how it all “looks”, and stress about the arrangements – because otherwise, and I don’t think you quite understand this, I couldn’t get into the interview room. I sympathise with the OP. All I want, in interviews, is to be able to get in to the room – physically, with a minimum of pain, so that I’m able to talk about my work to my full ability. I hope that you revisit your comments and read a bit more on this blog.

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