Reasonable adjustments? Disabled research higher degree students’ strategies for managing their candidature in an Australian university

Joshua Spier, Kristin Natalier

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


The number of disabled research higher degree (RHD) candidates in Australia and other countries is slowly increasing. However, little research has examined the experiences and perspectives of disabled RHD candidates. To address this gap, we conducted interviews with six disabled PhD candidates at an Australian university, aiming to understand the experiences and challenges of undertaking postgraduate study while living with disability. We present participants’ experiences of seeking – and commonly being refused – ‘reasonable adjustments’. Our findings invert the expectations of institutional adjustment, highlighting instead the constant adjustments made by the participants: temporal adjustments, workspace and equipment adjustments, supervision adjustments and emotion and body adjustments. We argue that these adjustments are necessitated by, and often reinforce, ableist assumptions about normative academic practices, assumptions that reward those who can conform and punish disabled candidates even as they work to adjust to institutional demands.

Points of interest
Disabled PhD candidates in this study were often denied reasonable adjustments or accommodations over their course of candidature.

The denial of reasonable adjustments was distressing and impacted upon the PhD candidates’ understandings of their research ability and sense of belonging at their university.

In the absence of institutional ajustments, the PhD candidates in this study had to make adjustments to their use of time, where and how they worked, their supervisory relationships and their expectations of their bodies and emotions.

For the PhD candidates in this study, adjustments often came at high financial, time, professional and social costs.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles may offer a more effective framework for making research higher degrees programmes more accessible and welcoming for people living with disability.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1365-1386
Number of pages22
JournalDisability and Society
Issue number8
Early online date8 Nov 2021
Publication statusPublished - 2023


  • Ableism
  • higher education
  • postgraduate students
  • reasonable accommodations
  • research higher degrees
  • universal design for learning


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