Disability, Research, Research impact

Academic Interview: Dr Hersh

Dr Marion Hersh.
Dr Marion Hersh. © Natasha Hirst

“There should be more support for disabled academics.”

Dr. Hersh has a fascinating interdisciplinary background which includes Mathematics and Control Engineering which she applies to her current research interests of assistive technology and employment for disabled people. In addition to this unusually broad skillset, she also possesses a very enviable capacity for acquiring new languages which makes her well placed for designing and leading on international research projects.

More recent research projects have investigated the use of assistive technology in supporting deafblind people and her future research intentions include exploring techniques developed and utilised by autistic people to provide solutions to addressing barriers in day to day life.

Braille note taking machine in use

© Natasha Hirst

The ability to investigate, compare and contrast experiences and practices of those in other countries can bring valuable lessons to us in the UK and I was surprised by how underrated the research and talents of Dr. Hersh seem to be. With numerous, papers, reports, books and other publications to her name it would seem that if such achievements alone ensured career progression, then Dr. Hersh should be a higher ranking academic. Although working on disability research, being situated in a mainstream Department – School of Engineering – clearly brings it’s challenges.

Current and continuing work includes a project on mobility for blind people and research with autistic women. Dr. Hersh is organising and will be chairing a conference on barriers and enablers to learning maths, scheduled for June 2017 in Glasgow.

As irony would have it, an issue often overlooked in the world of disability research is the fact that disabled researchers themselves may well need reasonable adjustments and support in order to further their careers and realise potential.

Dr. Hersh highlighted a number of barriers that disabled academics, including herself, may face in trying to achieve impact with their research, in addition to other tasks that academics are expected to perform. These include negotiating workload issues and contracts with colleagues who don’t fully appreciate the impact of hidden disabilities; managing and trying to live up to expectations in the academic world that include how to communicate, network and socialise with peers within and across institutions;  and last but not least, promoting oneself and ‘playing the game’ that secures promotions and attracts attention to one’s work.

As with any working environment, the unwritten social codes and cultural nuances of academia may well exclude and hinder disabled researchers who do not perform to an expected ‘norm’. In her interview, Dr Hersh discussed how disabled people have a right to contribute to society, in all aspects of life but are often made dependant in a way that prevents them from contributing. The need to challenge stereotypes and attitudes exists just as much in the world of research as anywhere else.

For further information on Dr Hersh and her research interests, visit her webpage.

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