Understanding leadership in higher education from a disability perspective

There is considerable evidence of widespread exclusion of disabled people from the labour market generally. Despite recent progress within HE to respond to increasing student diversity (Bebbington 2009), there is still a distinct lack of positive profiling of disabled people as academics. This situation has been described as one of “widespread institutional discrimination against disabled staff” in the lifelong learning sector (Fullick 2008:1). Furthermore, there is a serious lack of disabled people in senior, strategic and leadership positions in the sector; they are disadvantaged in terms of promotion and career aspirations with few role models at senior levels.
This research project, funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, explored how disabled members of staff perceive leadership and whether they consider themselves to be leaders. It also explored the barriers preventing them from taking on a leadership role and how they could be supported to overcome these challenges.
Conducted in one West Midlands university, the project took a mixed method approach. An anonymous online questionnaire was followed by interviews and focus groups with disabled staff. Data was gathered from 66 questionnaire respondents, 12 focus group participants and six interviewees (with some individuals responding in more than one way).
Findings revealed that the majority of disabled participants already held leadership roles (either formal or informal) or aspired to do so. Some participants experienced negative stereotypical conceptions of disability and the misconception that leadership and disability are mutually exclusive/ incompatible. Some individuals identified particular challenges presented by specific additional needs. There was wide consensus regarding inadequate opportunities and support to engage in leadership.
Findings led us to conclude that there is a need for culture change in relation to both leadership – to make it more compatible with the full inclusion of disabled staff in HE- and to disability – such that the disabling barriers are addressed. Only then will disabled people’s unique contributions to the organisation be fully valued.

Bebbington, D (2009) Diversity in Higher Education: Leadership Responsibilities and Challenges. Leadership Foundation for Higher Education; Series 2: Publication 2
Fullick, L (2008) From compliance to culture change; Disabled staff working in lifelong learning. Commission for Disabled Staff in Lifelong Learning, NIACE