Podcast Diagnosis Grad School illuminates experiences of disability in academia

Grad school can be gruelling in the best of times, but for disabled students like Olivia Dreisinger, it can feel designed for them to fail. In her new podcast Diagnosis Grad School, she hopes to connect to those with similar experiences and show that they belong. Dreisinger is a third-year PhD student in the English department, where she focuses on the rhetoric of health and medicine. Her dissertation will focus on the experiences of those with medically-unexplained illnesses. Alongside her dissertation, Dreisinger values public scholarship — an interest that she is pursuing with her podcast.

The podcast explores “the many challenges disabled academics deal with inside academic institutions," according to Dreisinger. Her own experiences of disability in academia are woven into the podcast. In the first episode, she describes how she became sick one month into her master’s degree in Quebec. Struggles with the Québecois health-care system and the university's accommodation process made her grad school experience “really, really hard.”

“I wanted to be there, but there’s just so many factors that were really pushing me out of being a grad student,” Dreisinger said.

These experiences led Dreisinger to want to help “other people who have been going through similar things or who already went through it.”

She created Diagnosis Grad School, where she combines interviews and personal stories with literary analysis, discussing disabled characters who are either educators or students. For Dreisinger, this combination of literature with personal anecdotes allows us to “understand things in a different way.”

Making what can be a challenging topic “more fun and enjoyable” is particularly important for Dreisinger, given that she hopes to make the podcast “accessible to people beyond the university.”

Her project has received support from UBC’s Public Humanities Hub and Public Scholars Initiative, which provides funding for the podcast’s website, artwork and sound editing. Dreisinger has also found a network of other students committed to public scholarship through the Public Scholars Initiative.

“It’s nice finding other students who are also explicitly making work that they want to go out into the community and make a wider impact.”

The goal of public scholarship also motivated Dreisinger to pursue the project as a podcast, as opposed to traditional formats such as scholarly articles.

Such creative work is characteristic for Dreisinger — for her master’s degree, she created a 3D animated film rather than a written thesis.

“Having that experience, and realizing that you can make research that isn’t just academic scholarly articles, was really helpful for me to see how I can use the skills that academia gives you... and transfer it into other formats.”

She admits that the process of creating the podcast — from writing, to research, to sound design — is challenging to balance alongside her other responsibilities. It has regardless proved valuable for listeners, participants and for Dreisinger herself.

Dreisinger said she received an overwhelming response from people who are “newly disabled, currently disabled, preparing themselves for what grad school might look like for them." Her broad audiences allows her to explore “the expansiveness of what disability looks like in higher education.”

Dreisinger said since she herself had not considered using disability services prior to a professor’s suggestion, she is happy to be able to provide support for those in similar positions. In addition to providing a platform for others to share their experiences, Dreisinger said that writing the show allowed her to process her own — particularly those from her her master’s degree, detailed in the first episode.

The podcast’s next episode will focus on university accommodation processes, and how they classify students as accommodatable or not based on their disabilities. Dreisinger hopes that the podcast will not only resonate with listeners but will also empower listeners to seek out institutional support — while simultaneously illuminating the system’s inadequacies and shortcomings.