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Experiences, Health and wellbeing, International

Casualisation, (dis)ability and academia

We’re delighted to welcome new contributors to CASA this week, opening up a conversation about the additional challenges faced by university casuals working with disability and chronic illness. 

This piece was written for us before the Federal budget was announced this week. There has been a lot of commentary on higher education reforms which we’ll be looking at, but many casual university staff will also be affected by health and welfare reforms. 

If you’ve been in this situation and would like to write an additional piece for us on either health or welfare issues, please email casualcasa at gmail dot com — we’d love you to join us.

— Kate and Karina

Casualisation, (dis)ability and academia

by Carla Barrett and Natalie Osborne

Academia can be experienced as a simultaneously supportive and marginalising environment for people with disabilities and chronic illnesses to work in. Increasingly, the experiences and specific needs of academics with disabilities and other long-term health problems are being recognised and discussed. For example, PhDisabled and The New Academic share stories from PhD researchers with disabilities and chronic illnesses in the form of guest posts, and the Twitter hashtag #AcademicAbleism encourages conversation around these topics.

But how do disability or chronic illness and the casualisation of academia intersect? Well, casualisation may be making the sector more hostile for people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, with increasing numbers of academics in part-time or short-term employment. Here we consider some of the ways in which this operates, drawing on both the Australian and British contexts.

Thinking about her own experiences of physical disability, Carla reflects that when she began her studies at the University of Southampton in the UK she undertook a needs assessment with the Disability Support Team. They provided her with access to the Assistive Technology Service, which provides accessible IT facilities to students with disabilities. Casualisation and short-term contracts mean that people with disabilities or chronic illnesses who need to seek similar support structures will have to do so multiple times, at each new institution they work in. They will need to work out new strategies to manage their disability or chronic illness in new environments and new working conditions. Explaining your disability or chronic illness to somebody, or asking for support, can be a difficult or even emotional process. The knowledge that you might have to go through this multiple times as you move between different casual or short-term positions is a daunting prospect.

Another factor to consider is the flexibility of working arrangements. One of the assumed benefits of working in academia is that it allows for flexible working arrangements in terms of how you structure your days or manage your workload. For people with disabilities or other long-term health problems, this might be preferable due to the (sometimes unpredictable) nature of disability or illness.

However, this desire for flexibility does not necessarily equate to a desire for casual work. Permanent full-time or part-time work, which takes account of the specific needs of the employee with a disability or chronic illness, is preferable to casual work with limited job security

We also need to ask, how flexible is casual academia? In Australia, universities typically bundle together class hours with preparation and marking hours, and although there are some good reasons for this there is also a serious drawback: a single missed hour in the classroom may mean missing several hours of pay, yet the prep work and marking may well still have been done. Casual academics who are part of a strong, collaborative teaching team may be able to swap a tutorial with another casual, or the course convenor, and thus avoid losing their wages. This team may also recognise that having to miss or swap a class is not considered an indictment on your value as a worker. Not everyone is so lucky, however.

Casual academics also have no paid sick leave. We’re sure all of us who have worked as casuals (in academia or elsewhere), even those of us who are temporarily able-bodied, have found ourselves going to work despite being ill or in pain, because we couldn’t afford to miss out on those wages, or because there wasn’t anyone we could ask to step in for us, or because we dreaded being considered ‘unreliable’ as this could threaten future shifts and future contracts. These are difficulties all casuals face, but are often exacerbated for people with a disability or chronic illness.

In all, the ‘flexibility’ of time management that may make academia seem more welcoming for people with a disability or chronic illness is being eroded by the ‘flexibility’ of casualisation and other budget cuts. So it turns out that the benefit of flexibility to individuals is one that generally accrues to those with permanent positions—and not to those on the casual or sessional contracts that deliver flexibility to the sector.

We really welcome comments on this post from anyone who has experience of working casually with chronic illness or disability in higher education, and from any permanent staff or administrators who have supported colleagues working casually with illness and disability.


About Carla

PhD geographer at the University of Southampton in the UK. Researching the division of domestic labour in LGBT households.



  1. Pingback: Some links relating to contract faculty | Whiteboard Workout - February 24, 2016

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