Understanding the role of human resource management in the workplace experiences of disabled people

Sang, K., Calvard, T. and Remnant, J., 2021. Disability and academic careers: Using the social relational model to reveal the role of human resource management practices in creating disability. Work, Employment and Society

In 2017 I was awarded an EPSRC career acceleration grant which gave me the opportunity to explore the experiences of disabled academics. Supported by match funding from the School of Social Sciences at Heriot Watt University, I spoke to 75 academics across a range of disciplines and career stages to understand how they, as disabled people, experienced universities as employers. The people I spoke to were very open about their working lives and their ‘impairments’ or health conditions. Hearing these stories, some of which were upsetting, has committed me to improving the working conditions of disabled people.  

Working with Dr Thomas Calvard and Dr Jen Remnant, we have analysed the data from these discussions through the lens of the ‘social relational model’ of disability, developed by Carol Thomas (20041). Like the social model of disability, the social relational model draws a distinction between an ‘impairment’ (e.g. a chronic health conditions) and disability, which occurs when a person with an impairment engages with an environment which is not accessible for them. The social relational model advances the social model, by drawing on ‘impairment effects’ (for example pain) and the discursive construction of disability. The discursive construction of disability and the ‘relational’ part also includes ‘barriers to doing’ that limit access and activities for employees with impairments, and ‘barriers to being’ that involve demeaning words or actions that negatively impact the identities and self-esteem of employees with impairments (Cologon, 2016).  

In our recently published paper in Work, Employment and Society, we argue that disabled academics are discursively constructed in opposition to the ideal academic, who has no bodily needs and is excellent at teaching, research and admin at all times. Such was the strength of this construction of disability it was internalised by the participants, many of whom had decided to withdraw from promotion and progression as they argued ‘it’s not possible to be disabled and an academic’. Sadly, several participants had withdrawn from academia entirely as a result.  

In our paper we argue that disability is constructed through the design and implementation of human resource management policies and practices, which are designed to ‘help’ disabled people, but ultimately create disadvantage by othering disabled academics. For example, accessing so-called reasonable adjustments requires considerable extra work from disabled academics, to negotiate bureaucracy and unsympathetic gate keepers. Worryingly all participants in the research had actively avoided the formal human resource management teams within their universities, preferring instead to informally negotiate adjustments with line managers, many of whom had poor levels of understanding of disability and adjustments. The effects of this ignorance were exacerbated by the rotation of departmental heads, which meant disabled academics had to repeatedly disclose their impairment and renegotiate adjustments.  

Our paper has several implications both for universities and for all employers. Human resource policies and practices need to focus on celebrating diversity, rather than positioning disabled workers as problematic digressions from the ideal worker. Line managers require better training which focuses on adjusting working environments for greater inclusion. And finally, the level of distrust and fear of human resource teams must be addressed, to ensure that disclosures are treated appropriately.