- Supervisors & managers
- Premia - making research education accessible
- Supervising disabled researchers - Premia
- Building the supervisory relationship with a disabled researcher
Building the supervisory relationship with a disabled researcher
The first meeting of new postgraduate researcher with a supervisor is a significant event. For a disabled researcher there may be some additional factors at play:
- Will my supervisor see my disability first?
- What can I expect in terms of support?
- Will I have to ask for support or will it be offered?
- How much shall I tell them about my requirements?
- Will they know what to ask me?
Below some postgraduate researchers have talked about initial meetings with supervisors.
‘If people had come to me at the beginning and said, ‘We know you have this disability,' which was the tendonitis...and if my supervisor or the graduate tutor or anyone had actually sat down at any point and said to me ‘You've highlighted that you've got this. What can we do to support you? And did you know ...? ‘Not all the onus on me but some of the onus on them as an institution. It would have been good...It's part of the social model of disability; they are disabling me by not asking the right questions and not having the right things in place.'
Part time postgraduate researcher
‘It's important to ask the disabled student what they need because sometimes people make assumptions, they don't link things together. There's very little bother in the School I'm in; they're tuned in to what I need. I'm very happy about that.'
Postgraduate researcher with multiple disabilities
‘It ...took a while for my supervisor to realise just how slowly I could read. This is accentuated by the subject-specific notation which includes a significant number of sub- and super-scripts, symbols etc. These are both difficult to read, even using access technology, and completely impossible for an OCR (scan and read back) system, my preferred method of reading, to handle. Diagrams were also difficult to access, as these were often three-dimensional plots which took a good deal of time to study for the important detailed information that they include.'
Postgraduate researcher who is blind
‘From experience I would say that it is always best to take your cue from the disabled student themselves. This is not to say that the emphasis should be on the student to offer up issues of concern (a trend that is the default position of many staff members I have come into contact with but rather to be in tune with how the student deals with matters and align the solutions you offer to them accordingly. Speaking only for myself, I approach my disability with a sense of scepticism and humour and therefore those who join me in this perspective have been the most help to me.'
Postgraduate researcher with mobility impairment
First meetings with disabled research researchers are no different from initial meetings with non-disabled researchers. The areas for exploration are the same: e.g. the nature of their research; methods; starting points; the purpose of supervision; what is expected of the researcher. But there may need to be additional attention paid to issues relating to disability. It is not beneficial to the supervisory relationship if disability is the prime focus of early meetings. But it might be helpful for the supervisor and the postgraduate researcher if the first few meetings incorporate the following discussions:
- their access requirements within the context of research. What elements of the programme might be problematic?
- whether the researchers are fully aware of research programme requirements, for example to: take up research and generic skills development opportunities, attend conferences, give presentations, teach undergraduates. Are there access issues for those elements?
- find out how the researcher would see the role of the supervisors in relation to reasonable adjustments you may need to make. Is it different from your perspective?
- address the subject of boundaries. Who does what in the researcher's academic life? (supervisor, learning support worker, interpreter, researcher, other supervisors, note taker, proof-reader)
Who else is involved?
There are several people who could be key to the success of the researcher. A dyslexic researcher may have a learning support tutor who could support the researcher how to structure their reading, support the planning of research and thesis and act as a proof reader. A deaf researcher may have an interpreter, a note-taker and a disability adviser who will provide communication and learning support throughout their research. A researcher with mental health difficulties may have access to a mentor and a specialist adviser. A blind researcher may work with a support worker, a technical adviser and a disability adviser.
It is important to find out who does what in the researcher's academic life, the researcher's perception of the supervisor role and how it may diverge from the supervisor's perception. Disabled researchers, as all researchers, need to know what the boundaries of the supervisory role are, what is expected of a researcher and what their responsibilities are. Only then can the supervisor and the researcher negotiate ‘adjustments'.
Not all disabled researchers will require adjustments. For those researchers who do, the supervisor may have already been informed of their support requirements by a disability adviser. But it is good for the supervisor to clarify the situation with the researcher. Many of the researchers who contributed their stories said that they wished people had asked them directly; it takes away the potential for misunderstandings and increases the ease and confidence of staff and researchers. It also allows the supervisor to work out with colleagues what constitute reasonable adjustments and, as the supervisory team, to act with consistency and transparency.