My academic supervisor bullied me for my disability – and I said nothing

Posted on: 2018-07-06 06:30:00

A friend recently told me about how he had been angry and offensive to a colleague who suffers from ADHD and depression and struggles to maintain concentration: “If nobody puts him back in his place, he will never improve,” he said. I was shocked, and reminded of how difficult managing a disability can be.

The thing is, I’m disabled too. But in a perverse sense I’m lucky, as I can hide my disability. I often wonder if I would struggle to manage my behaviour, too, if I received the same treatment as my colleague with a more visible disability.

I have some experience of this. My disability is a rare type of anxiety disorder where I’m incapable of communicating in certain situations and with certain people. It was severe when I was a child, though now as an adult it manifests rarely.

During an internship at a research institute as part of my master’s, that all changed. I was thrust into a new, unfamiliar situation and my symptoms returned. My disability switched from being hidden, to visible – and all of my colleagues became aware of it. I was terrified that they might discriminate against me, believing my disability would interfere with my work.

Even though my disability in itself didn’t harm my performance, it started to have an impact when my supervisor began bullying me. Initially, he seemed to want to help, but rather than giving me the supportive working environment I needed, he believed he knew better than the medical recommendations. He seemed unable to distinguish between helping and controlling me, and would grow impatient when I was unable to communicate.

When his approach didn’t work, he retaliated: he randomly refused supervision, played unhealthy mind games and accused me of petty things. He said he didn’t care about the perception distortions that my condition brings on, and that he wouldn’t read my master’s thesis, since I was destined to become a technician rather than a scientist. On my very last day, a student that I had met at a conference, who had seen my supervisor’s behaviour, approached me and asked, “How far can he go?”

I ended up suffering from depression. When my supervisor became aware of this, his communication style became ambiguous and avoidant, full of denial. He blocked interactions, used intimidating behaviour, and bragged about the fact that he didn’t read my emails. 

As a visiting researcher, I didn’t have access to the associated university’s counselling services. In my view, there needs to be a more proactive approach to support – especially for people with disabilities. We are four to ten times more likely to be abused, and we are less likely to report it, believing our abuse to be deserved. 

It might also be helpful to provide supervision guidelines to students and researchers, to make pastoral responsibilities clearer. The timeframe for formal complaints could be extended, too, so that students can submit them after the supervisory relationship is over, to avoid fear of retaliation. And more soft skills training for professors is key, so that they can understand that helping people manage their disabilities isn’t about “curing” them. 

What struck me during my MA was the amount of power that was concentrated in my supervisor’s hands. In other organisations, there’s usually several layers of management above you, limiting individuals’ power. But in academic research, there is no specific body looking out for researchers’ interests.

It was only when I found a job in industry that I reported my supervisor’s behaviour. I had never had the confidence to escalate things to a formal level during my internship; instead I waited for the “misunderstandings” to clarify. But this never happened.

To get myself through the course, I trained myself to be impervious to his toxic behaviour. But most importantly I maintained close contact with my friends, who reminded me of who I used to be before I started working with my supervisor. I was lucky to have this support network – but not everyone shares the same. 

Source: The Guardian

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