Special coverage: General Assembly and Annual Conference - The MCAA Social Impact Award 2021


Alexandra wishes to thank Mostafa Moonir Shawrav for the continuous support in the creation and evolution of the RA initiative from the very first moment when the idea was born during a chat over lunch at the ESOF conference in Toulouse (2018).

Disability inclusion and diversity advocate Alexandra Nothnagel received the Social Impact award during the MCAA 2022 Annual Conference. A biochemist by training, a disability prevented her from pursuing a career in neurobiology. She turned this barrier into a driving force for leading transformation towards accessibility and inclusion.

In 2018, Alexandra founded ResearchAbility (RA), a multi-association initiative she has been leading since then to support the careers of students and researchers with disabilities and to promote research and awareness on disability, accessibility and inclusive culture in academia and beyond. Through RA, Alexandra implemented a working group to provide training sessions at the French national student federation 100% Handinamique so that young people with disabilities can succeed.

In 2019, RA became a subgroup of the Diversity & Inclusivity Task Force within the MCAA Genders, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Working Group thanks to the key support of Mostafa Moonir Shawrav, former MCAA Chair.

“The overall aim is to support the careers of students and researchers with disabilities and assist in making their professional ecosystem accessible and inclusive,” explains Alexandra. RA is grounded on four pillars: provide individual support; educate the research ecosystem; promote research and expertise; and drive change by networking and policymaking.

Workshop on disability awareness during the MCAA conference in Vienna (2019) with trainers from the RA team: (l to r) Ibrahim Khalil Hamzaoui, Alexandra Nothnagel, Madina Karsakpayeva.

Alexandra aims to change the culture and policy framing to achieve an inclusive society and accessible work environment for researchers with impairments. This will break down attitudinal, procedural and environmental barriers that limit their activities and hinder full and effective participation on an equal basis with their colleagues. “Change is a tedious and slow process paved by challenges,” Alexandra says. Her vision for furthering this process is using best practices of change management and organisational transformation based on policy, in combination with continuous accessibility and inclusion training.

2022 promises to be busy for RA with a dedicated webpage, a conference on universal accessibility and inclusion for university studies and careers, as well as external conference participation at a UNESCO side event in Barcelona.

In addition, RA is concentrating on two long-term actions focused on policy. The principle of free movement of workers is enshrined in Article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. The legal recognition of disability can’t be easily transferred from one European country to another – if at all. That’s because in some countries such administrative recognition is considered discriminatory in and of itself. The non-continuity in administrative recognition is linked to risks of interruption in financial support and of workplace adjustments and reasonable accommodation. This causes insecurity and extra financial burden for the mobility of European students and workers. RA will promote the development of mechanisms to transfer such norms among European countries, thus allowing non-discrimination based on impairments and health conditions between students and workers of Member States.

RA is lobbying to have accessibility and disability inclusion policies as part of national and European education and research policies, as well as institutional policies. Policies are the basis of accessibility and disability inclusion programmes that aim for universal design and breaking down administrative barriers for people with disabilities where possible. In this context, RA will continue to evaluate and support improvements to the Special Needs Allowance (SNA) within Horizon Europe and other European research funding frameworks. SNA is a separate funding programme for MSCA grant holders to cover the high mobility costs (up to EUR 60 000) of students, researchers and staff members with disabilities. One recommendation is to rename SNA to Accessibility & Inclusion Allowance, taking into consideration the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities definition of disability. This places at the centre the interaction with attitudinal and environmental barriers that disable a person’s activity. It also takes into account the wishes of people with disabilities to be seen as humans like everyone else with needs, not using any euphemistic terms that present them as heroes and their needs as special.

“The Social Impact award will provide my work with the visibility needed to reach new goals for RA,” comments Alexandra. “I hope that more researchers will be motivated to be open about their experiences, start making a change and join the RA.”

Dr Michael Fembeck (Zero Project), Beatriz González Mellídez (Atos), Alexandra Nothnagel with Zero Project award, Neil Milliken (Atos), Martin Essl (Essl Foundation).

Working tirelessly to creating even greater impact

Alexandra’s passion for consultancy in digital accessibility and her civil society work on disability inclusion have impacted her career. Since 2021, she has successfully been implementing a structured transversal transformation programme for accessibility and digital inclusion in her daily work as Global Programme Manager for Accessibility and Digital Inclusion at Atos in France, a multinational IT and digital transformation company with about 109 000 employees in 71 countries. Her efforts earned her an Atos award from the Zero Project by Essl Foundation in February 2022.

For over 15 years, Alexandra has been striving to connect activists, politicians, diverse associations and institutions working towards the same goals aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and to federate their activities beyond their conventional networks. She does this by initiating new collaborations between these actors. Collectively, these endeavours have created valuable impact.

Alexandra also leads networking initiatives and works with knowledge communities such as experts and scientists to foster inclusive innovations. For example, in addition to her daily role, she was project manager of the Atos GIZ joint ICT 4 Inclusion Challenge Africa edition to scale solutions for inclusive education for people with disabilities in Africa. She conceived and organised the first Innovation in Disability Inclusion, a major Atos event for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

Jerry Stamatelos
MCAA Editorial Team

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