Meet Heena Sobhani, a trailblazing student and disability rights campaigner, helping reshape the narrative surrounding disability in academia through the podcast 'Enabled in Academia.' The podcast was founded by Lienkie Diedericks in 2020. Fueled by her own experiences as a disabled postgraduate researcher at King's, Lienkie wanted to address the gap in conversations around disability in research environments.
The podcast continues to empower disabled, chronically ill, and neurodivergent students and early career researchers through candid conversations with academics and students at various career stages.
Heena, who studies in the Department of European & International Studies, has worked to shed light on both institutional and personal challenges while offering invaluable insights on thriving in academia while navigating disability. In this article, we interviewed Heena on her experiences at King’s and hosting the podcast.
Tell us a bit about yourself and what inspired you to start working on Enabled in Academia?
I’m a visually impaired person at King’s and I’m also albino. I was a listener of the podcast and I asked Lienkie to help with continuing it, as I thought it was an abandoned gem of a project. I had times at university where I felt slightly unmotivated, and I didn’t want any other students to experience that.
I wanted them to feel reassured and to know there are options available to help them. My aim for the podcast is, yes, to be a venting space, a sort of complaint space and a safe space for me to talk to academic researchers. But at the end of it, I want listeners to feel reassured and confident knowing there are solutions out there to help disabled students progress at university.
What are your experiences with disability and inclusion support at King’s?
Well, that’s another motivation for me to start this podcast. I do think King’s has some good facilities that just aren't being publicised enough. King’s disability support can accommodate your disability and help you get note taking support for lectures and seminars via the Disabled Student Allowance.
There’s even sighted guide support for visually impaired students, so someone can help a blind or visually impaired student walk around and find their classes. These are some of the practical supporting measures in place for students who need it, so they’re not left behind in their academic work.
In your journey of hosting the podcast, what have been some of the most enlightening or surprising insights you've gained?
In my recent episode, I interviewed Ameera Ali, an academic researcher from York University in Toronto, Canada. She was talking about representation of disabled parents and about barriers, in general, for disabled people in education. The findings from her 2021 research found that in the West there were only 14 children’s picture books that showed a parent with a disability. Only 14 over several decades which is ridiculous for the West, right?
I was so shocked about that, but it was really interesting and insightful actually. I also got to speak to some other King’s students like Florian Hansen. He’s the founder of KCLSU’s Adjust KCL! campaign who promotes disability rights at King’s too, so I definitely get inspired by other students. Some of my other favourite episodes are:
- Dr Isabelle Hertner - Senior Lecturer at Kings, who shared insights on disability and barriers in government spaces.
- Pauldy Otermans - neuroscience academic specialist and founder of AI educational companies, shared how AI can help marginalised students such as the disabled.
Navigating academia can be a unique challenge for anyone and even more so for those with disabilities. Do you have any advice from your own experiences that could benefit others in similar situations?
I would say for me, what works is having self-advocacy: that confidence to discuss your health issue, your disability and learning to communicate that health issue through writing. Also familiarising yourself with KEATS and student records and other practical stuff like extensions. This can help your department accommodate your timetable, for example, if you need your lessons to be on different days to suit you.
So definitely being confident in speaking up about your needs, but also being friendly too – not like 'hey, give me what I want now'.
What has the response to the podcast been like?
They’re so polite on social media, especially on X. Thankfully the podcast is getting some views from different academic researchers. They sometimes respond to my messages and ask to come on the podcast to talk about their work and experiences. It’s really cool.
The author Lottie Jackson, who published her book See Me Rolling this year, asked me to check out some of her work. The fact she approached me first was so cool. Sometimes it's hard to get people on because of the admin behind the scenes, like setting up the correspondence. I’m sure everyone is really friendly but some people have personal assistants so it can take a while to get episodes recorded.
Is there anyone you’d like to have feature on an episode?
I record all episodes virtually, so I don’t mind anyone coming on it to be honest, anyone that can offer some form of insight. I’m open minded, I don’t want to be elitist and say only academics can come on. If there are students beginning their journey with something to share, that’s fine too. I met this really cool blind PhD student at King’s who’s doing music technology and we spoke about him coming on the podcast.
Anything you’d like to add?
There’s a range of people and their experiences to learn about, so the podcast doesn’t just focus on academia. We discuss opportunities outside of academia that disabled students can accumulate as well. I would say it's like ‘academia and beyond’.
I had an episode where I interviewed a University of Hertfordshire Computer Science student with a disability and she had so much work experience from corporations such as Microsoft, Amazon and Google. I wanted the interview to give some insight on her work experience to help students use their degree and put it into practice in the real world because I thought there was a gap there as well.