I Quit

I’ve been bullied out of my PhD.

In March 2014 I blogged about the inaccessibility of study spaces at the University of Bristol. I concluded that:

the extreme inaccessibility of the Graduate School of Arts and Humanities building tells me that my University does not think myself and other students with access needs are deserving members of the academic community. It implies that our thoughts and ideas are not worth sharing with other students. Indeed, it potentially implies that they think we lack the skills needed in order to pursue postgraduate study.

Oh to have been proved wrong!

I’ve used every official opportunity possible to pass on these comments to the graduate school management. I was not met with any useful response. Rather, I was asked “Are you well enough to be doing this?”

The most positive response I ever got was a promise of feedback from the facilities team about precisely why there are no lifts and no plans to install lifts in the bulk of university building. This feedback never materialised. As far as I know, the management never even brought it up with facilities. They refuse to even consider installing lifts as (management claim) it would be too much money and too much trouble. How about this trouble it causes us not to have lifts? I never said this would be solved immediately, but if we never get started it will never be solved.

Even small requests like being allowed to use a kitchen on the same floor as study rooms which is usually reserved for staff have been ignored and rejected, whether expressed through disability services or by other means. It is simply pathetic.

And the attitudes from staff – well, the question “Are you well enough to be doing this?” quoted above says a lot. There’s been a total refusal to listen to my clear and reasonable appraisals and suggestions of how the research environment can be made more accessible for me. As a result of both the physical barriers and these attitudes, the environment has been made extremely unhealthy for me, so I decided to take time off for the sake of my health, giving the university time to get its act together, rather than the time and energy I was supposed to be spending on research (and indeed paying for) being taken up and me never finishing in time because of all the extra balls to juggle. I sent in the suspension request early January 2015.

The graduate school management refused my request. This despite it being backed up by my head of department. (She had already requested and had a meeting with me to discuss it. When I said that having this extra hoop was problematic she accepted that criticism and endeavoured from then on to make the process of suspending easier for me, which I see as a constructive response.) I received an email grossly misrepresenting the detailed and clear reasoning I had given for the suspension, demanding further meetings, and threatening to kick me off my course if I did not comply. I responded with calm corrections to the inaccuracies, as I thought were these meetings to happen – and I had reluctantly said I would attend – it was important that myself and the other attendees started on the same page. (Among those other attendees were my supervisors. The management had morphed all of my problems on the supervisor-supervisee relationship, in a way which if anything would damage that very relationship.)

I set to arranging support from my Students’ Union, and informed other attendees that I would have an SU representative with me at the meetings.

It so happened that (as happens with meetings with lots of participants) we were not all available at the same time. I eventually received a passive-aggressive email informing me that we would not be able to meet until late April. The implication being that I should not have other commitments, maybe even that I can’t actually be disabled if I can have commitments.

On the day of the meeting, I received an email from my rep saying he was ill. As such, I cancelled the meeting, to be rearranged for another time. Bearing in mind the tone of our previous correspondences and the threats that had been made to my research, I was careful to note that this was in line with Union laws, requiring the university to postpone if a rep is not available.

I received a somewhat slimy reply, mocking me for my inclusion of the legal reference, and claiming that I was missing a meeting which had been organised for my own benefit – a totally different representation of what was going on to all previous. I read this as obfuscating, trying to trip me up and making it look like I was making things hard for myself. As such, I ignored it and went on holiday as I’d planned.

After I returned – so, early May – I found another email. Once again, this threatened to kick me out of the university. This time, the Graduate School management claimed that I had been absent without permission. This despite the fact that I had applied for a suspension – and suspensions can be backdated. As such this email made it clear to me that as well as flouting equalities law, the management were willing to flout their own processes if it suited them. (The adding of more and more hoops to the suspension process already showed this, but I think this accusation of unauthorised absence redoubled it.) Furthermore, it referred to my union rep in quotation marks – as my “representative” – as if I made him up as an excuse not to attend. It was abundantly clear that they did not take the situation seriously. Any small hope I had that I might make some useful progress for myself or other disabled students through university processes – the suspension process, the complaints process – was lost.

This is not the end. I still plan to hold the university to account. This blog is one step in doing so. I have been subjected to a campaign of discrimination. Those in positions of power have refused to grant me the reasonable adjustments required of them by law. When I politely pressed the matter I was roundly ignored or rejected, and questioned as if it is not right of me to be in the university as a disabled person. Then when I requested through the proper official channels time off, with clear and small pointers how the university could make itself less inaccessible on my return, the management took the opportunity to push me out. They’ve not even done it above board, but through adding to the already toxic atmosphere with threats and outright bullying.

I always said I wouldn’t go quietly; I may have jumped before I was pushed, but I’m still making noise.