National Teaching Fellows

Disability and Higher Education: the glass box

Laura Duncan, University of Southampton, Member of ‘In It Together’ Working Group 

We are familiar with the idea of the glass ceiling, but I wonder if a glass box would be a more complete analogy to help us explore why disabled colleagues are underrepresented in leadership and the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme. 

Glass ceiling 

It is evident that there is a glass ceiling affecting disabled staff in higher education (Brewster et al 2017).   Three major themes in this are:  

  1. Lack of mentoring and development programmes 

There is a lack of development programmes for aspiring disabled leaders, and standard training programmes may be inappropriate (Martin 2017).  

In recent years, there have been specific leadership programmes for other underrepresented groups, such as the Diversifying Leadership programme for HE staff and academics from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.  Is there an opportunity to develop similar bespoke leadership programmes for disabled colleagues?  

  1. Cultural incongruence of leadership and disability 

Although disabled individuals can be extremely effective leaders (Martin 2017), the typical social construct of leadership and disability seem incongruent (Brewster et al 2017).  These “subtle attitudinal barriers” can be harmful (Martin 2011). 

I recently enjoyed listening to Dr Jessica Boland deliver the University of Oxford’s 2023 Disability Lecture.  The session combined the opportunity for Dr Boland to speak about her excellent research as well as her lived experiences as a hard-of-hearing/deaf academic.  I found this a very powerful combination. 

  1. Lack of role models 

There is a lack of disabled leaders in higher education, resulting in a lack of role models (Brewster et al 2017).  

Valuing a diverse community and putting in place schemes such as NTFS allyship are welcome and important developments. However, individuals also need the resources (time, energy, support) and self-belief (individual and collective) in their current position to enable them to take up these opportunities.   

For barriers in the present sphere, we need to look at the glass walls. 

Glass walls 

Glass walls limit or drain an individual’s current opportunities, resources, or identity, and in doing so disempower or distract an individual from aspiring to tackle the glass ceiling. 

The glass walls include: 

  1. Barriers to current opportunities 

Disabled individuals often face barriers to activities and opportunities others would take for granted.  

These might be barriers resulting from active decisions such as hosting a conference in a way that is not accessible to all, and therefore limits access to professional development and networking opportunities (Olsen et al 2020).   

Alternatively, barriers can also be created by inaction.  This is when all parties are aware of barriers, but the result is passivity; for example, when requests for adjustments are neither accepted nor rejected; they are left hanging.  Chasing up drains time and emotional energy (Brewster et al 2017), and may also result in the individual giving up and not attending an event or remaining unsupported. 

  1. Drains on time and energy 

Applying for promotion or leadership opportunities takes time and energy.  However, disabled colleagues often already have considerable unrecognised drains on time and energy just to maintain the current position.  If we want more disabled leaders and NTFS award winners, we need to recognise these drains and understand our part in exacerbating or minimising them. 

The “exhausting nature” of someone’s medical condition itself is “poorly understood, underestimated and in need of recognition” (Brewster 2017:1036).  Moreover, the lived experience may have knock-on “shadow barriers [which] are invisible to non-disabled people but are ever-present in disabled people’s lives” such as inaccessible transportation (Olsen et al 2020:266). 

This underlines the importance of appropriate support.  However, the process of applying for support can be emotionally draining (Brewster 2017, Equality Challenge Unit 2011) and results may not be meaningful:   

Reasonable adjustments were imposed [on me] and not discussed or agreed upon.  Assumptions were made … hence reasonable adjustments were useless (Equality Challenge Unit 2011:30). 

Similarly, well-intended actions by colleagues who assume they know what a disabled colleague needs without asking them can also have a disabling effect (Martin 2017).  Without agency, an individual can be left to navigate inadvertently placed barriers or an unnecessarily reduced role.   

  1. Deficit identity 

To apply for promotion, leadership roles or NTF awards, individuals need to believe they are valued.  This is a social construct.   

The feeling of isolation—not belonging, and not fitting in both academically and socially—has been damaging and destructive to my self-esteem, resulting in years of trying to constantly prove myself, yet feeling inadequate and uncertain in the academic sphere and in other areas, despite clear proven successes. (Soorenian in Olsen et al 2020:269) 

A deficit identity can be fuelled through ‘counter-mentoring’.  Counter-mentoring is found in the formal and informal interactions with managers, colleagues or occupational health that consciously or unconsciously frames an individual as a problem to be managed, and ‘thrusts’ (Williams-Findlay in Brewster 2017) an individual into a collective of dis-abled staff.   

Recognising glass walls that might be invisible to the majority, but real to other members of our community, is important.  

Glass floor 

The glass walls also matter because of where they fix the individual and collective attention.   

When an individual’s current position and identity feels under threat, their attention is pulled down (through the glass floor) to what they might lose, rather than aspiring or planning career progression: 

I am no longer considered for promotion and initially, when I was ill, my job was stripped back to support my return to work, but the duties have not been returned to me following approval from my doctor and occupational health. Positive discrimination has turned into negative discrimination (Equality Challenge Unit 2011:24). 

Recognising the glass box 

The box I have described is glass, which represents both a challenge and an opportunity.   

Being glass, an individual cannot be completely certain the walls are there.  They might notice a change in behaviour, but they cannot be certain of the cause.  The transparency of the walls can make them hard to challenge:  

We are often told our perceptions are incorrect or ‘all in our head’. However, when discussing these issues with other disabled academics, we often find that we have a shared lived experience of exclusion and a collective phenomenology of inequality (Olsen et al 2020:267). 

However, glass can also be broken.  If we can create safe opportunities for individuals to share lived experiences, we can start to recognise barriers we may not be able see ourselves.  In doing so, we can identify individual and collective structures, attitudes and behaviour that need to change. Freeing up the capacity and culture to aspire is an important part of gaining a more representative make up in leadership and awards.  This benefits the whole higher education community. 


Brewster, S, Duncan, N, Emira, M, Clifford, A, 2017, Personal sacrifice and corporate cultures: career progression for disabled staff in higher education.  Disability and Society. 32:7, 1027-1042.  Available from:  Accessed on 31 July 2023 

Equality Challenge Unit, 2011, Enabling equality: furthering disability equality for staff in higher education.  Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.  Available from:  Accessed on 31 July 2023 

Martin, N, 2011, Brief Reflections on Disability Theory, Language, Identity, Equality and Inclusion.  Equality and Diversity LSE. Available from: Accessed on 11 September 2023 

Martin, N, 2017, Encouraging Disabled leaders in higher education: recognising hidden talents.  Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.  Available from: Accessed on 31 July 2023 

Olsen, J, Griffiths, M, Soorenian, A, Porter, R, 2020, Reporting from the Margins: Disabled Academics Reflections on Higher Education.  Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 22(1), pp265-274.  Available from:  Accessed on 31 July 2023