A reflective piece on disability training

Olugbenga [Abraham] Babajide

Given that disability is a sensitive topic, I’m curious about how well disability training can be successfully delivered to foster a positive change that we all want for more inclusivity and accessibility of disabled academics or scientists in universities. In this short blog, I discuss my reflection of the Disability Inclusive Science Careers [DISC] disability training on delivering a change-driven training, visible and nonvisible engagement of attendees in the training, and my thoughts on the notion of ‘safe’ and ‘brave’ space in disability training, using the D-I-E-P reflective model.

Image by TA online via http://taonline.org/v2/index.php/disability-awareness-training-2/

We know that disabled academics are unintentionally marginalised due to poor understanding and awareness of disability which reflects in a poor policy framework that constitutes an obstacle to disabled academics for guidance and support in British universities. As a non-disabled research student (ally) researching disability, it’s disheartening for me to see disabled academics at the detriment of universities poor disability management, even though it’s often unintentional. This is problematic, unfair, and requires drastic attention and a progressive positive change.  Since I’ve commenced my doctoral research, I’m continuously surprised that little to none is known about disability let alone of understanding the lived experience of disabled academics in universities where knowledge is frequently produced and monetised. That said, it is understandable that ignorance (not as an insult but merely as a lack of information or knowledge) is inevitable at any level and the importance of learning is knowing what we don’t know to continuously fill in the gaps in our knowledge. To improve disability management for disabled academics in our universities, we need to embrace research-led disability training. Through the lens of the social model of disability (SM), the DISC disability training (funded by EPSRC) has been receiving positive attention and request from different institutions such as universities, including private and public organisations who are keen to learn more about making the workplace more accessible and inclusive for disabled academics or employees. In my view, educational disability training or workshops is useful for yielding positive changes in attitudes towards disabled people.

Delivering a change-driven training

The DISC disability training educates disability inclusion and accessibility to attendees such as senior managers in universities, managers in public and private sector organisations as well as members of the University and College Union(UCU), etc. For a positive change, DISC is delivering change-driven disability training through an online portal platform designed to support employers with disability inclusion to improve the recruitment, retention and progression of disabled academics/scientists. I couldn’t agree more with UPIAS that Disability should be understood as the “disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes no account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from mainstream social activities” (p. 208). In other words, the message for positive change with the DISC training is for all employers to always remember and understand that people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference, according to the social model. With research-led disability training such as DISC, I believe there will be a progressive positive change when society becomes more responsible and accountable (#ThinkDisabilty) to enable rather than disabling people with our heuristic decisions making that negatively impact the lives of disabled people in the environment.

Moreover, I hope after the DISC training that universities would devise a proactively inclusive policy that will not only mandate accessibility and inclusivity but also eradicate the oppressive experience of disabled academics or employees in universities. However, hoping for a change is not pragmatic which is why the DISC training includes an ethically approved feedback survey that will be sent to attendees to capture the changes (or no change) that our attendees have implemented or experienced after the DISC training. From this perspective, we can ensure that disabled academics would not have to suffer the consequential effects of institutional ignorance where the thoughtlessness and meta-ignorance  (or unaware ignorance) of an institution creates a systemic structure that not only operate with a lack of knowledge and understanding of a phenomenon but also fail to learn, accommodate and implement positive change for equitable working environment.

Visible and nonvisible virtual engagement in disability training 

During the DSIC online disability training, one thing that I found fascinating is that different group of attendees demonstrates preferences for visible and nonvisible ways of interacting or engaging in the training, especially with the training materials (e.g., vignettes, role-played video). Most people in some groups of attendees prefer to put their cameras on during the discussion while some choose not to. In my view, this personal preference to have the video on or off during training tend to reflect on how attendees engage within the training. To illustrate, some attendees visibly engaged and expressed their feelings (e.g., anger, empathy), and other groups visibly engage and expressed curiosity with shocking reactions (e.g., using question tags) after discussing the vignettes and watching the scenario. However, I noticed that attendees from some universities as opposed to public or private sector organisations, would rather engage without being visible during the online training and prefer using the chat box to interact with the trainers. What this suggests to me is that there is some level of hesitation that people feel perhaps because disability as a topic is sensitive, especially in a space where disabled and non-disabled are present to learn and unlearn.

These different ways in which different groups of attendees from different organisations virtually interact or engage in disability training demonstrates to me that disability is not only a sensitive topic but also an emotionally triggered topic that requires some level of confidence underpinned with disability literacy to confidently engage in the training activities. My take is that organisations with more understanding of disability tend to visibly interact and engage during the training (e.g., UCU) while an organisation with less disability literacy tends to be more hesitant to interact in the disability training, probably to avoid offending disabled colleagues who are also in the training. For example, one of the attendees once said, “I don’t want to say something wrong”. In the same space, some of the attendees are disabled colleagues within different groups of the organisation who sometimes visibly expressed their emotions with systemic barriers. That’s said, while most disabled colleagues would prefer to conceal their disabilities, few waited till the end of the training to disclose and express their gratitude to the DISC team for delivering such a research-led training [DISC] and mentioned it means a lot to them. This is the part that humbles me, and words cannot express how I felt when observing such gratitude for the DISC project. Lest I forget, it is important to mention that the DISC research and training is disabled-led which could have helped gain the trust of disabled attendees.

‘Safe’ and ‘brave’ space in disability training 

Besides, interactive training tends to depend on what a phenomenon (i.e., disability) means to people, including how safe and brave they feel to engage.  I remembered a host at a disability conference who stated after my talk on disability issues that “Thanks Abraham, now let move to a more positive topic”. In my view, the host does not come across as rude, and the message was not intentionally uttered to offend anyone. However, the message denotes that disability conversation or as a topic holds a negative connotation and such utterance could elicit a negative emotion for some disabled people in the audience, regardless of the intentionality. I found disability training (virtual or in-person) with the social model of disability as a space where ignorance and knowledge about disability intersect to fill in the unknown gap. Such space requires tolerance to learn, respectful communication, and emotional intelligence, as it’s related to emotions and feelings. Disability training organisers should bear in mind that discussion could trigger emotional reactions when discussing disability discrimination, especially in a research-led training that involves lived experiences of disabled people’s lives. We should note that this is a life living experience of people’s lives in the discussion. It is not a make-up story. I will implore disability training organisers not to promise the attendees in disability training of a ‘safe space’ or ‘brave space’, where uncertainty can become uncontrollable, especially on a virtual platform.

Every time I heard the word ‘safe’ and ‘brave’ space, my gut rumbles for concern, not hunger… and my heart feels as if it’s coming out of my mouth! Then, I’ll start soliloquising with questions such as are you sure about that? What if someone in the training feels ‘brave’ and unintentionally utters an offensive statement that makes others unsafe or result in low psycho-emotional well-being of the victim of the situation. This reminds me of a Yoruba proverb that says, Eyin l’ohun, ti o bati jabo, ko see ko mo! This means that voices are like eggs, once spoken they cannot be unspoken just like eggs, once broken they cannot be made whole. Hence, and if possible, at the start of the training, disability training organisers should provide a statement of content that explicitly expresses warning of sensitive discussion and encourage tolerance, emotional intelligence, learning, and respectful interactive communication where mistakes and correction can be utilised to construct or shape learning.

Overall, I have witnessed the positive and progressive impact of the DISC training as a disability inclusion intervention project that is reassuring disabled academics/scientists of accessibility and inclusivity and ensuring such conversation is at the forefront of universities’ attention. Other than the constructive feedback to deliver our training content in a shorter time, the DISC disability inclusion training has brought light-bulb moments with eye-opening experiences to attendees’ misinformation and enriched their understanding of disability inclusion. To improve disability inclusion and accessibilities in universities, universities and research funders should foster disability inclusion with financial commitment for a project of this nature and be a leading example for change like the EPSRC who have been financially instrumental for the DISC project. Consistently with Brian and colleague’s systematic review work, I will reinstate that disability training organisers should continue their tremendous work in raising disability awareness with change-driven disability training but to prioritise attention for training content, and attendee’s emotions for a successful outcome which the DISC disability training has achieved across organisations. Rather than avoiding, we need to make use of disability training to shed light on our inevitable ignorance that we are aware and unaware of to learn more about the lived experience of others, in this case, disabled academics/scientists. Lastly, learning is a journey, and the DISC online and in-person disability training with simulated scenarios via virtual reality (VR) is open to organisations who are interested. That said, the in-person disability training will be delivered when it’s safe to do so, depending on covid-19 restrictions.

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