Kay Inckle – Britain: Gas-lighting, discrimination and humiliation: the day-to-day experience of a disabled academic

We don’t often publish personal stories, but the experiences of Kay Inckle as a disabled person just trying to do her job make sobering reading.

By Kay Inckle, Lecturer in Sociology at Liverpool University

“The university might deem it reasonable for you to go downstairs on your bottom in some situations rather than schedule you into fully wheelchair accessible rooms.”

 “It is reasonable to wait nine months to be provided with a wheelchair accessible toilet.”

 “You cannot participate in the academic procession at graduation.”

 “You can either teach your lectures twice or teach after 5pm.”

 “You cannot use a fire evacuation lift for emergency egress until I have seen you helped downstairs in your wheelchair [in public].”

 “We cannot afford to pay an access consultant to ensure the [£30 million] new building is compliant with the Equality Act.”

“It is not our responsibility to book wheelchair accessible rooms for meetings.”

 “I do not share your interpretation of these events [as discriminatory].”

 “Please can you tell me why you feel the university has fallen short in regards to supporting you.”

All of these statements, or words to very similar effect, have been made to me during the last year-and-a-half of my employment as a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Liverpool. These are all responses to my requests for simple “reasonable adjustments” to be put in place, such as, being scheduled into teaching and meeting rooms which are wheelchair-accessible, or where I have wished to participate in university activities such as the graduation ceremony – an event which (able-bodied) academic staff are widely encouraged to take part in. Following such incidents (and many more like them), the person who told me that the university might deem it reasonable for me to go down stairs on my bottom was tasked with delivering training on disability, equality and reasonable adjustments. Most recently my reports of disability discrimination were investigated by two members of university staff who could not confirm that they had read the Equality Act or agree the provisions for disabled people stipulated within it.

In a further feat of double-think that would make even the architects of newspeak blush, all of this has taken place within a School of Law & Social Justice and in an institution where the Vice Chancellor has a damehood and a number of honorary degrees for services to equality. The University of Liverpool is also accredited by the government’s “disability confident” employer scheme which recognises it “as going the extra mile to make sure disabled people get a fair chance”. These vacuous labels, honours and commendations are essential capital in the neo-liberal university where a marketable corporate image has much more value than basic legal compliance or the rights of disabled staff.

When I describe my experiences of disability-discrimination to people outside academia they are genuinely shocked that a disabled person would be treated like this and especially by a university. People imagine that universities are progressive places where diversity is welcomed and everyone is treated equality.

However, my experiences at Liverpool University are certainly not unique in my career, nor among disabled academics. That said, the level of discrimination and contempt I encounter at Liverpool University is certainly the worst I have ever experienced and it has had a devastating impact on my mental health, my confidence and my career.

The direct discrimination is also accompanied by a sinister form of gas-lighting, which I presume is intended to crush my resistance and shame me into silence. The strategies employed by the university are very similar to the tactics which have been widely used to humiliate and discredit women who speak out about sexual violence. For example, I have endured multiple meetings where I am not only required  to recount in detail experiences which are humiliating, discriminatory and enraging, but where I also have to explain to the university why it is unacceptable that they have occurred at all. I am also subjected to similar challenges to my credibility: I am asked about my body, I am described as being in need of “support” and I am challenged to demonstrate how I (not the discriminator) attempted to take responsibility for rectifying the situation. This strategy not only functions to undermine my own legally-grounded knowledge and evidence but also imposes a very specific and draining emotional burden on me. And, because I explicitly articulate my anger and distress, I am further discredited by a university which only values those who act as “dispassionate” disembodied automatons, ready to implement and defend any practice regardless of how discriminatory or inhuman it is.

Even my research, which focuses on disability, mental health and self-harm, suffers the same discriminatory fate – it is not considered of academic merit, and it is only when I co-author with able bodied men that I receive positive feedback.

Sadly, for me, despite the chronic levels of discrimination I am experiencing, this has now become a norm. I approach my workplace with my chest tightening with anxiety, I often wake in the night my head racing and my heart pounding, every day I am exhausted, angry and paranoid. I am primed to fight against insult, obstruction and prejudice just to get through a day at work. My expectations are low, and my morale – and my mental health – are much lower. My career is ruined. I used to love teaching and research, I had a passion for knowledge and education which challenges, provokes, inspires, critiques and makes our world a better place to be. I have cherished my engagements with students, research participants, colleagues and collaborators along with the discoveries that we have made together. Academia felt like my vocation, but now it is over. My energy and confidence are gone and I find it difficult to face going to work.

I am not sure what will happen next. I may well be “managed out” of my position. [A recent parliamentary committee found that every year 36-48,000 disabled people are managed out of their jobs after requesting a reasonable adjustment]. Or I may well quit before then. Either way I will be leaving because of disability discrimination which, nearly ten years after the Equality Act, is an epidemic in British Universities.

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