Open Access Journal

ISSN: 2183-2803

Article | Open Access

Silent Processes in Higher Education: Examining Ableism Through an Ability‐Critical Lens

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Abstract:  Universities are regarded as critical institutions that shape society, which on the one hand have a great influence on (successful) social processes, but on the other, are traditionally very privileged and exclusive places of education. Despite various demands to open up to plural perspectives, they are still strongly characterized by powerful, meritocratic, and discriminatory structures, cultures, and orders. (Social) inclusion efforts are always linked to the need to analyze processes of exclusion. This article therefore examines the question: Which ableist practices and culture of silence are revealed in the context of higher education and how can these be linked to the findings of postcolonial studies on the topic of silence? On the one hand, established perspectives (lecturers and students), but above all the perspectives of marginalized and unheard (groups of) people (lecturers with (learning) disabilities) are involved. The results from two group discussions (N = 9) with perspectives from these three different positions are presented to work out implicit and explicit processes of silence. The (power) theoretical reference is the concept of ableism, which is linked with (postcolonial) perspectives on the ideas of “silence” according to Brunner (2017a). This article emphasizes that, in addition to formal access restrictions to university education, there are also implicit barriers oriented towards non‐transparent ableist expectations of ability, which in turn (re‐)produce processes of silence. The case study concerns one German university and shows that formal access to higher education is only one aspect of reducing ableism; above all, it is the creation of transparent structures with regard to set ability expectations, critical‐reflective spaces, and a culture of “unlearning” biographically characterized ableist notions of normality. This article therefore focuses on the connection between ableist experiences and the findings of postcolonial discourses of silencing.

Keywords:  academic ableism; exclusion; inclusive university development; silencing


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© Nico Leonhardt. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (, which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.