Disability advocate overcomes health issues to graduate with PhD from Ulster University

18 December 2020

Disability advocate overcomes health issues to graduate with PhD from Ulster University

Jason Olsen graduates this winter with a PhD in social policy.

Jason moved to Northern Ireland from Washington, DC where he had served as a Senior Policy Advisor in the US Government.  Originally planning to stay in NI for a year as a Fulbright Governance and Public Policy Scholar studying the NI Civil Service, Jason and his wife decided to remain here so he could pursue a PhD in Social Policy.

“The work-life balance was much better, the people were friendly, and I truly thought that I could assist disability advocates in NI in their fight for equality.”

Upon moving to Northern Ireland Jason became acutely aware of the imbalance between disabled people and people without disabilities.

“This was noticeable in NI laws, regulations, policies, what I heard from disabled people and what I experienced as a disabled person myself. This partly influenced my decision to have my PhD thesis focused upon the lack of employment of disabled people in the UK. The people who I was lucky enough to interview painted a harrowing picture of what it meant to be a disabled person in the UK, both personally and socially. They saw the UK, and NI in particular, as having a long road to travel before disabled people are regarded as equal citizens both socially and under the law.”

Jason’s PhD journey has not been without its challenges, relocating his young family to a new country and dealing with several health issues on top of a busy study schedule.

“When I started my PhD I had a four-year-old and a one-year-old. We relocated to another side of the world with no familial support or anyone to lean on. From getting them into school, registering us all with a GP, and all the other requirements of relocating to another country there was a lot to do. On top of this, I was also hospitalised numerous times due to complications around the comorbidities that accompany my disability. On two of these occasions, I was severely septic, and the Doctors were surprised I recovered.”

After graduation Jason had initially planned to enter academia in NI as a teacher and researcher but unfortunately COVID-19 has limited opportunities in this area. Ever resilient, Jason launched a new business: Disability Research Specialists (DRS).

“The aim of the business is to bring academic expertise and lived experiences of disabled people to research and policy development in a way that benefits businesses and governments. I am happy to say that DRS is already working on projects that will have a large impact across the UK. We are aiding with developing national activities, policies, and strategies.”

Jason’s wife BJ also graduates from Ulster this winter with an advanced degree.

“I am very proud of her and even though we are now in our 40s we will be graduating together. Our family’s next stop will be Scotland where my wife will be using her newly obtained Master of Nursing in the battle against Covid and I will continue to work for a better, more equal, future for disabled people in the UK.”


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