Animmersion: Heriot-Watt University uses immersive digital technology to tackle disability bias.

Animmersion: Heriot-Watt University uses immersive digital technology to tackle disability bias.

simulation of open-plan offices that can cause difficulties for disabled employees’

A major two-and-a-half-year project using immersive technology to improve the recruitment and retention of disabled scientists has been completed by Heriot-Watt University.

Digital visualisation specialists Animmersion have created two engaging and thought-provoking experiences which form a key part of an extensive training programme that aims to change perceptions of academic managers and key stakeholders.

The Interactive experiences are designed to highlight both unintended and blatant bias around the issue of disability within the academic recruitment and decision-making process.

The first activity simulates a job interview involving a disabled candidate that takes place within a dynamic video conferencing scenario, while the second uses virtual reality to recreate the effect of working in a busy, open plan office for someone living with auditory hypersensitivity.

Various levels and types of responses are explored in each thought-provoking scenario to highlight differing levels of discrimination, responses, and actions – giving decision makers an insight into the largely unintended bias encountered by disabled colleagues within the academic sector.

Both immersive experiences form part of the ground-breaking initiative, Disability Inclusive Science Careers (DISC), which aims to improve the recruitment, retention, and progression of postdoctoral disabled scientists.

Heriot Watt University is leading the initiative, supported by the University of Edinburgh, University and Colleges Union Scotland and the National Association of Disabled Staff.

It has carried out extensive research and many of the immersive encounters use the real-life experiences of disabled staff.

The project was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), as part of the Inclusion Matters initiative. It funded 11 projects through Inclusion Matters to accelerate culture change in the wider engineering and physical sciences community with respect to equality, diversity and inclusion.

Previous studies funded by EPSRC concluded that disabled researchers are leaving the profession at the postdoctoral research stage due to specific challenges. These included working in shared offices and labs and the attitudes of line managers and supervisors.

The training programme, due to be launched in August, is designed to ensure that the best scientists remain in the sector and to encourage a more inclusive and sustainable career progression.

Programme Lead, Professor Garry Pender, Heriot Watt University’s Deputy Principal for Research and Innovation said: “The experiential element of the training provided through the immersive reality training has enhanced managers understanding of the challenges facing disabled colleagues. I am sure that this will lead to a positive outcome in the design and implementation of suitable adjustments to the working environment for disabled researchers”

Professor Kate Sang, Professor of Gender and Employment Studies, Director of the Centre for Research on Employment Work and the Professions (CREWS) said: “The immersive virtual reality gaming has added a novel dimension to disability inclusion training, which has excited and engaged managers across all the sectors we have delivered the training in. Managers have been able to experience the real-world scenarios experienced by disabled people and learned about how easily some of the barriers can be removed’

Sam Harrison, Managing Director of Teesside-headquartered Animmersion, said: “It’s certainly a novel approach to use immersive gaming technologies to raise awareness of real-life workplace bias experienced by disabled researchers.

“We are experts in transforming academic material and making it engaging and accessible to wider audiences and our team is proud of its contribution to DISC. We hope it represents a leap forward in promoting a greater understanding of issues surrounding disability in academia.”