‘You can’t ignore us any longer’: PhD candidate forming support group for disabled graduate students

Haley Branch, a UBC botany PhD candidate, wants to form a group for disabled graduate students.

While the UBC Centre for Accessibility can assist disabled students with note-taking, alternative exam arrangements and other academic accommodations, these only go so far to help students pursue their research.

“As someone in the sciences, I see this all the time with the way labs are set up. They’re generally not accessible to people using mobility aids or people who might require a little bit more time,” said Branch.

Branch added that academic conferences, which are often intense multi-day events with arduous travel requirements, can be “extremely stressful and disorienting” for disabled students.

“If you don’t like going to them … you are seen as not contributing, not being a part of the community when it’s really the community that isn't accepting you. You are just unable to participate in the way that they think is the correct way to participate.” Stigma, especially around invisible disabilities, can intensify that.

Disabled students who are unable to attend as many conferences or don’t register for the same number of lab courses as their counterparts without disabilities can see significant impacts on their CV and academic career.

A 2008–2018 survey of researchers with disabilities from the National Institute on Health found that funding rates for principal investigators that reported disabilities were “significantly lower” than those that did not report a disability.

The pandemic has been especially difficult for disabled students as many are often the most vulnerable. People with chronic health conditions are at higher risk of developing severe illness from COVID-19, while others are cancelling regularly scheduled appointments due to the increased risk of infection at hospitals.

That’s what led Branch to look for a support group for disabled graduate students.

“I really needed to find the community that was experiencing this as a grad student and that wasn’t a reality. There wasn’t anybody there,” said Branch. “As a disabled student, that got me saying ‘Full force ahead, we have to fix this.’”

She is now in the process of developing a disabled graduate student association to create a community of grad students with disabilities and to advocate on their behalf.

“So many of us are navigating the same things and probably struggling with the same self-advocacy that if we could be in a group, we might actually be able to accomplish more at the university level, in terms of getting things changed,” said Branch.

“I think that it’s so crucial for us to be able to find each other, to be able to support one another, and having this type of association on campus will be a huge step forward in hopefully making UBC more accessible.”

Graduate Student Society (GSS) President Kimani Karangu strongly supported the development of such an organization.

“I am more than happy and willing to help them craft this and see the organization up and running because I am very keen to making sure that all students enjoy the benefits that come with being members of the GSS,” said Karangu.

“We are about 10,000 graduate students, and we try as much as possible to put into consideration the diversity that we have.”

Branch explained that there are many ways instructors can make learning more accessible, such as captioning lectures, using bold contrast in presentations and always using a microphone. But the best way to find out what accommodations someone needs is to simply ask.

Branch hopes that the group will help attract students with disabilities to UBC and create a community.

“We’re here, we’re disabled. You can’t ignore us any longer.”

For more information about the disabled graduate student association, contact Branch at haley.branch@biodiversity.ubc.ca.