Disability Matters: Thinking critically about Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) has become a widespread feature of contemporary discourse. With this in mind, Professor Dan Goodley and Dr Kirsty Liddiard discuss the need to remain critical.

As members of iHuman at the University of Sheffield, we are lucky enough to work with a broad community of scholars that span the medical humanities, medical sociology, science and technology studies and critical disability studies. iHuman is an interdisciplinary research centre that brings together social sciences & humanities with psychological & biological sciences to understand what it means to be human like never before. We are a diverse research community, valuing different knowledges with a disruptive and critical intellectual agenda. We share a lot with other folk in the health, science and research sectors; not least the desire to make our research environments more inclusive and welcoming. We write this article in the midst of a contemporary cultural moment when many universities and other research contexts are grappling with questions of EDI: equality, diversity and inclusion.

There is much to be celebrated about this EDI turn. Lord knows, many of us have been impatiently waiting many years for equity to finally be part of the public consciousness of universities. And yet, we feel, we need to proceed with caution.

An optimistic reading of EDI’s move to the centre of contemporary discourse is that at last universities are taking seriously – and proactively addressing – systemic racism, ageism, heterosexism, classism, transphobia and ableism. There is no doubt that widespread cultural change is required. We know, for example, that Disabled and Black researchers experience a sense of dislocation in our research environments (see Brown and Leigh, 2020; Ball, 2022). Universities are deeply implicated in intertwining histories of colonialism, racism, ableism and disablism. Consequently, many Black and Disabled researchers do not share a sense of belonging in our universities.

Universities were not designed to include Disabled and Black researchers and the continuing existence of physically inaccessible buildings – and those that honor colonial figures – are stark reminders of how unwelcoming our research environments continue to be. We know too that these researchers are impacted by a lack of diversity in the portfolios of funders, heightened unemployment inequality and increased job insecurities. Moreover, we need to acknowledge a pipeline problem; where the number of Black and Disabled academics remains low and under-represented due to years of educational exclusion.

By turning to the critical and political work of Black and Disabled Scholars, the EDI turn has the potential to truly collaborate in order to challenge disablism and racism within our academies.


Disability Matters logo. White background with black text: Disability Matters.

A more pessimistic reading emerges when we find that EDI has become yet another agenda item on the ‘task and finish’ groups and policy making focus groups of universities. As Lett et al (2022: 1) observe:

‘Diversity. Equity. Inclusion. Anti-Racism. Intersectionality. These are words with rich meanings, theoretical traditions, and scholarly legacies that are meant to inform the practice of pursuing cross-disciplinary justice, grassroots organizing, political advocacy, and scientific inquiry. Recently, they have also become buzzwords that have been shuffled into seemingly meaningless acronyms at healthcare institutions and research organizations’.

Currently, Lett et al (2022: 1) argue that research environments are in danger of being taken over by what they call ‘health equity tourists’: bureaucrats who risk polluting equity landscapes with ineffectual and harmful studies and diluting the more radical elements of health equity contexts by outnumbering the community members who have built their critical epistemologies, ontologies and methodologies. Real transformations of our research cultures can only ever be enacted when these community members are driving these changes: truly informing the work and priorities of university leaders.

A new research programme based in iHuman – Disability Matters – seeks to work with disabled researchers, disabled people’s organisations, universities and their researchers to change the ways in which we theorise, prioritise, study, support and represent disability. By focusing on the science and health sector, our aims are to recentre disability as the driving subject of inquiry; pulling it in from its usual peripheral position on the edges of our research environments.

Rather than replicating some form of health equity tourism we want to foreground disability as the phenomenon through which to consider wider questions of equality, diversity and inclusion. And we know that any true engagement with EDI has to be an intersectional one; engaging our Queer, Trans, Working Class, Black, Indigenous and Disabled communities. The EDI agenda should be celebrated; but the associated work has to be critical, scholarly and political.

About the authors

Dan Goodley is Professor of Disability Studies and Education, University of Sheffield and co-director of iHuman. More details of Dan’s research and scholarship can be found here. He can also be found on Twitter @DanGoodley

Kirsty Liddiard is a Senior Research Fellow in the School of Education and iHuman at the University of Sheffield. Her research interests explore the impacts of disablism and ableism in the everyday lives of disabled people and their families. You can learn more about her work here. She tweets @kirstyliddiard


Ball, Philip. (2022). UK institutions confront shadows of imperialism. Nature, 610, page 593 – 596. 20 October 2022. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-03253-y

Brown, Nicole. & Leigh, Jennifer. (2020) Ableism in Academia: Theorising experiences of disabilities and chronic illnesses in higher education. London: UCL Press

Lett, Elle, Dalí Adekunle, Patrick McMurray, Emmanuella Ngozi Asabor, Whitney Irie, Melissa A. Simon, Rachel Hardeman, and Monica R. McLemore. “Health Equity Tourism: Ravaging the Justice Landscape.” Journal of Medical Systems 46.3 (2022): 17. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35150324/


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