More than accessibility – navigating the supervision relationship with students with disability


This post is co-written by Dr Annmaree Watharow and Dr Sarah Wayland (photograph and biographies below), from the Australian Centre for Population and Public Health, University of Technology Sydney.  They discuss their experiences navigating the supervision relationship with students with disability, from the unique perspectives of the supervisee (Annmaree) and supervisor (Sarah). 

Supervision whisperer headshot

Like most supervisory relationships, the path to being invited to co-supervise a PhD student was sudden and somewhat accidental – a sense of being in the right place at the right time. My first meeting with Annmaree was a whirlwind of energy and excitement; a sharing of minds about how to embark upon a PhD study, understanding why the health care experiences of the deaf blind communities was a topic that would sustain my student throughout her candidature, and acknowledging the lived experience of Annmaree who is, as well as a researcher in training, deafblind. Three months in,  we are slowly beginning to navigate how to work alongside each other as Annmaree begins to research communication issues for the deafblind community when accessing emergency health care, here are our reflections.

Perspective One: The supervisee – Annmaree

What are the unique issues you think a PhD supervisor needs to understand when working with students who have disability? I think I present as much less disabled than I actually am. It would have helped to have everyone fully aware of the significant communication disabilities I brought with me.

One of the things I should have done early on would have been to meet with both the disability support team and my supervisors. In order to look at just how my combined severe sensory impairments would impact on all areas of research, writing, reading , field work, accessing seminars and workshops as well as engaging with staff and fellow students.

What has been most helpful to you in supervision? I am lucky to have a co-supervisor who is quick from the very outset to respond to the practical issues arising from the significant communication and access difficulties. This means more frequent contact and advocacy work as well as the occasional morale boosting pep talk. All this has to take place alongside trying to get ahead with the PhD in a timely manner. Tricky sometimes, tricky!

What would you suggest to others when choosing a supervisor or beginning working with one? You must have a supervisor who has the time to help you get set up for your work, is willing to liaise with the university disability support team and who can engage in some creative problem solving.

I would also suggest that you start planning six months before you are due to start to map out your accessibility needs, funding and looking at potential pitfalls. Expect delays; expect some kind but essentially unhelpful staff. Expect to have to justify every small thing that you need. Expect to expend much time on red tape, procedures, application filling in, meetings and the like, none of which has anything to do with your research but just your access.

Your supervisor needs to recognise early when things are not progressing and help you to get back on track. In my case getting fifteen hours a week of human assistance to bridge the gap between software and assistive devices, and the research work I am trying to do was, essential. My supervisor advocated for me on this point and that meant I could move from a serious case of arrested development to getting on with the literature review.


Perspective Two: The supervisor – Sarah

 What are the unique issues you think a PhD supervisor needs to understand when working with students who have disability? Coming from an advocacy background, my role has always been to work from a strengths based perspective. I see that Annmaree has as much to learn from me, as I from her. The disability is just one additional layer of the relationship and I have learnt to respect the space it occupies whilst not focussing entirely on its inclusion.

Annmaree is an incredible advocate for herself and for others that will come after her, so I see my role as a facilitator and cheerleader of the change she is creating. I do this by asking her what she needs from me, not just assuming that each week’s needs are the same. Our relationship has also forced me to see the university space through her eyes – choosing locations for meetings that are accessible, where the light is appropriate, communicating via text and offering to come to her rather than vice versa.

What has been most helpful to you in supervision as a new PhD supervisor?  The biggest learning curve for me has not been related to Annmaree’s disability but my own lens about what is required in the supervision space. Having supervised students in the honours and masters stream before, and combining that experience with my own relationship with PhD supervisors, has been helpful in working with Annmaree. I have to be careful not to associate my own experiences, as being ones that she will also experience.

Providing Annmaree with the space to push back, to say no, to tell me what is working and what isn’t is a reminder that this is her race. My job is to be on the sidelines and to step on the field at different times when she needs me.

What would you suggest to others when choosing a supervisor or beginning working with one? Understand that the supervisory relationship exists in the liminal space between the supervisor’s expertise and the student’s picture as to what they want from their research. Some days there will be synchronicity other days you need to pull back and let people work through it themselves.

In terms of Annmaree’s needs, I’ve also identified that relationship building has also been enhanced through connecting with others on her team. Her primary supervisor, her accessibility assistants and her journal club (who all take turns reading and reflecting on the literature as she prepared for confirmation of candidature) are part of fabric of her research. I’m also heartened by the fact that we can have laugh, explore higher order concepts, plan world domination and somewhat clumsily navigate our way through PhD life. It’s a learning experience for us both.

Some sites that might help include: and



Annmaree Watharow is a former general practitioner with special interests in mental health and complex case management. The experiences of some of her patients in the health care system have led her to believe it can and should be done better, hence the late in life PhD project . She likes her tea in an antique china cup and saucer, and is very partial to trips to Paris. She can be contacted at

Sarah Wayland is a qualitative research methodologist with an interest in vulnerable and marginalised populations. Alongside her early career academic post she also works as a health writer and clinical supervisor supporting people working in the trauma field. She is passionate about the narratives of people’s lives and is happiest with her nose in a book and a big pot of tea by her side. She can be contacted at

Images: One is the post authors; the second is trees in sunlight




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