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Learning-disabled researchers need support from academics

A lack of incentives and pressures on funding are making it more difficult for academics to engage people with learning disabilities in their research, according to Craig Blyth, programme director of the Learning Disability Studies courses at the University of Manchester.

“In the past, funders looked at partnerships with learning-disabled people very positively,” he says. “In more recent years, as we’ve seen funding to research councils being cut, funding for partnership research has proved a real challenge.”

Another obstacle is the publication of research, he says. “If you work with learning-disabled people it is very important that you use accessible language, but if you want to get your article in a top-rated journal that can be a challenge,” he says. 

You can write two versions of a paper, he says, but this does take extra time. In 2012, the Partnership Steering Group, led by Blyth and formed of people with mental disorders such as autism and Downs syndrome, or those with an IQ of less than 70, edited a special edition of the British Journal of Learning Disabilities. This project took about three years to put together, but was worth the effort, Blyth says.

One of the biggest barriers is the attitude of academics to the work. “There is still a perception among clinical health researchers that these people are in need of cure and control, they see them as a set of diagnoses rather than a person,” he says.

The bachelor and masters courses he runs aim to address this. He invites people with learning disabilities to teach the students. “The idea was that learning-disabled people could provide live insights, rather than just having academics preaching about how it is to have a learning disability,” Blyth says. 

But, he says, it’s important that researchers consider their partners’ financial situation: Blyth’s partners get paid as visiting lecturers for the hours they teach, but can’t receive money for any other task as this might affect their long-term benefits. 

Although his courses will not be run next year, having failed to meet the university’s threshold of 30 students, he is hopeful that the spirit of the courses will remain. “We need to challenge academics so that they can really see the value of learning-disabled researchers and the huge range of skills that they have, provided that they are given the right support,” he says.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight