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We Need to Talk About Ableism in Academia

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It was only during the extensive university application process did I begin to consider the ethics of one particular section. Like most applications, references are an invaluable part of post-graduate applications, putting a professional perspective of an individual onto what can be a fairly empty and faceless application. However, it was here that I came across a particular issue that I felt in my bones was not fair, nor ethical.

Completing my assignments in a blur of COVID-19 and lockdown, I began launching post-graduate applications. During which, a personal tutor who knew all about my experiences asked me if they were permitted to include my mental health difficulties in my reference. Taken aback and at the mercy of the process, I said yes. However, upon reflection, I saw that I was not in a position to say anything else. I needed the reference just to be considered for a place, and I could not afford to say no. Yet, it did not sit well with me, the feeling that future universities were being forewarned of my troublesome mental health and poor attendance as though it were somehow my fault.

I must stress that I was assured this was due to my tutor not wanting to give a reference that misleads a university; however, it still did not seem right. I by no means blame my tutor, as I recognize they are part of an unfair system.

I now sit here with complex trauma and dissociative issues, both of which play havoc with a person’s ability to meet deadlines or present oneself in an interview. Yet I was being asked to prove that these would not get in the way of my study. I felt this was the wrong question. The question is not “what can I do to protect my university’s interests,”  the question should be “what a university can do to help safeguard and accommodate their students.” When so many of the mental health industry’s staff and contributors have their own burdens and reasons for wanting to make a change, how can we simultaneously be so callous in dismissing those whose lived experiences and mental health interfere with a university’s grand plan. We as psychologists owe it to ourselves and society to challenge ableism and lead the way in advocating for fair and equitable opportunities for all.

Some within academic culture feel this fierce competition improves the quality of academic works which better the lived experiences of those in need. Yet, this view limits employment opportunities for these vulnerable people, furthering a modern-day equivalent of institutionalization whereby such individuals are forced to be the recipients of support without the possibility of escaping this role. Furthermore, works such as these lack the very voices and perspectives of those that live with these conditions or alternative experiences day-to-day. The literature would be enriched from the inclusion of diverse lived experiences and opportunities for all.

Interviews with fellow psychology students highlighted how this academic culture in which students are expected to produce high-quality work while meeting multiple deadlines becomes harmful for the vulnerable among them. Furthermore, despite being — at least in part — responsible for worsening students’ mental health, universities place strong precedence on the expectations on students, and the consequences for missing deadlines, with far less emphasis placed on how to access the right help if mental health issues arise. Furthermore, when help is sought after, it appears this help is limited in its reach, sway and power, while simultaneously being overstretched.

In response to this gloomy picture of support available, a request was made at my local university to shed some light on the matter of accessing support. In line with the Freedom of Information Act (2000), the response outlined the support options available to those with and those without a medically recognized diagnosis. Support for those without did exist and came in the form of drop-ins, self-help resources, virtual workshops, well-being advisors and links to community projects outside the confines of the university, such as the group anxiety sessions I was offered. Though these often had waiting lists of up to six weeks. Meanwhile, those with a medical diagnosis were entitled to disability allowance (funded by the government, not universities) and personalized academic study support plans.

Unfortunately, many individuals dealing with complex mental health issues such as those relating to trauma, dissociation or psychoses are often left without a diagnosis for weeks if not months. In fact, I am currently 12 weeks into my expected 18 weeks wait to see a psychiatrist to receive a formal diagnosis for something other than “anxiety issues.” Furthermore, the DSM-5 (Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – 5th Edition), includes a caveat that disorders must create a significant disruption to everyday life. However, this is harmful as it almost sets up individuals onto a course of total destruction in order for them to be taken seriously, while simultaneously running the risk of tarnishing their regard in the eyes of employers and peers if they seek support. What do universities expect their most vulnerable and in need to do during this time when deadlines and windows for support have come and gone?

The mental health of mental health professionals within clinical settings is a multifaceted issue that is growing in pertinence in recent understanding, with a growing regard for burnout (Maslach & Leiter., 2006; Morse, Salyers, Rollins, Monroe-DeVita, & Pfahler.,2012) and emotional or compassion fatigue (Figley., 1995), however, something I have heard far less about are the trials and tribulations of academic staff within a university. Brown & Leigh (2018) outline the deeply complex nature of ableism and hidden disabilities, thoroughly examining the social, occupational and cultural elements that are involved. The detail and scope of their assessment far exceed that of this current article, so I recommend strongly to all interested to look at their paper. One area that they picked up on was the harmful and even toxic cultural issues within academia which place exceedingly high standards on productivity, even at the detriment to staff and students alike, concluding that ableism was an internalized, normalized and ingrained aspect of the culture, even insisting that the culture is inappropriate even for those without a recognized disability, let alone for those that do.

As previously referenced, this is worsened by reliance on diagnoses. Long waits coupled with the DSM-5 criteria demanding individuals display significant disruption to day-to-day life. By this definition, I would be deemed fit to function and not in need of support because I manage to do what is needed of me. What remains overlooked is the quality-of-life individuals are managing to achieve. I am certain many academics with hidden disabilities manage to scrape by and tick the boxes needed to keep things together. By the standards represented by education and clinical assessment in psychology would say we are functioning. Though, I ask, what other choice do we have?

The matter of choice touches upon when, or even if, to disclose hidden disabilities to employers or universities. A matter all too often oversimplified into a dichotomous decision can lead some to argue that individuals should simply reach out for the support they can get while waiting for their much-needed diagnosis. Yet as outlined by Brown & Leigh (2018) this is easier said than done and cannot be done in full certainty that this admission will not negatively impact one’s career opportunities. This is a particular issue for those in the early stages of their academic career due to the increased uncertainty around their employment opportunities, many working in arrangements akin to freelance or short-term. Starkly contrasting the secure tenure positions available for those further into their career. Problems accessing the support available is further exemplified for those with the aforementioned dissociative, trauma-related and/or psychotic mental issues, when so much of the support on offer is catered to the more socially acceptable and palatable issues which condense all of the human experience through the lens of either anxiety or depression. This brings us back to my dilemma; do I allow my tutor to share my mental health issues with future universities, or do I go without a reference?

It is my absolute view that if universities are to make stipulations around a person’s well-being based on their diagnostic status, then universities should step-up and adequately fund measures to ensure all students and staff can receive such diagnoses in a timely and consciences manner.

My hope is that one day nobody will have to divulge their health information in any kind of application. We are not a burden, we deserve to be heard.


  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.
  • Brown, N., & Leigh, J. (2018). Ableism in academia: where are the disabled and ill academics?. Disability & Society, 33(6), 985-989.
  • Burnout among mental health staff – Morse, G., Salyers, M. P., Rollins, A. L., Monroe-DeVita, M., & Pfahler, C. (2012).
  • Burnout in mental health services: A review of the problem and its remediation. Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, 39(5), 341-352.
  • Figley, C. R. (1995). Compassion fatigue: Toward a new understanding of the costs of caring.
  • Flanagan, C., Berry, D., Liddle, R., & Jarvis, M. (2015). AQA Psychology for A level Year 1 & AS – Student Book (1st Edition, Vol. 1). Van Haren Publishing.
  • Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2006). Burnout. Stress and Quality of Working Life: Current Perspectives in Occupational Health, 37, 42-49.

Getty image by ViktorCap

Originally published: September 29, 2021
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