Science Policy & Funding Opinion

Creating Spaces for Geoscientists with Disabilities to Thrive

Flexible fieldwork options and more thoughtful recruitment efforts will better open our community to the diverse talent it needs.

By and Sean Thatcher

This article is part 1 of a series produced in collaboration with AGU’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee to highlight perspectives from underrepresented communities in the geosciences. Read the introduction here along with part 2, part 3, and part 4. Attendees of AGU’s Fall Meeting 2019 can also use this field guide to Ethics, Diversity, and Inclusion events.

Nearly a quarter of the population has some form of disability. In the geosciences, when we fail to account for the policies and cultures that isolate and exclude people with disabilities, we continue to send the message to more than 20% of the population that geoscience careers may not be a welcoming place for them. We need to become more aware of the challenges that people with disabilities face within the geosciences and work to dismantle those barriers in our classrooms, research groups, departments, and the scientific community at large. Disability presents across all demographics, making it an important, yet still often overlooked piece of the diversity puzzle. Creating a better path for participation for disabled geoscientists will open opportunities across all underrepresented groups.

Access for All Versus Cost and Sentimentality

“Of course our building is accessible—there is only one small step to get inside.”

Physical barriers to participation in geoscience activities exist everywhere [Carabajal et al., 2017]. Buildings on campus may include inaccessible laboratories and restrooms, hidden or out-of-the-way ramps, and freight elevators that look like something from a horror movie. These issues are often more common in geoscience departments, which tend to be located in some of the oldest buildings on campus and are often exempt from accessibility requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The access ramp landing up to the front entrance to the Rainbow Forest Museum at the Petrified Forest National Park
The access ramp landing up to the front entrance to the Rainbow Forest Museum at the Petrified Forest National Park was made with natural sandstone to match the original 1931 building. Credit: NPS/Hallie Larsen

Although physical accessibility improvements can be costly and in some cases nearly impossible to fully address, we can make ourselves aware of the numerous barriers in our physical spaces and advocate for changes that can be made. Sometimes access can be greatly improved with small adjustments, such as using wooden blocks to raise table heights or inexpensive transition strips on high-threshold doorways. The National Park Service, which manages numerous historically significant locations in the United States, recognized that in leaving spaces unmodified simply because it was not legally obligated to improve them, it was “losing the opportunity to reach the widest possible audience and share a spectrum of experiences” and has invested significant resources into improving access and usability of indoor and outdoor spaces in a way that blends into the style of historic properties [Jester and Park, 1993]. For example, the recently completed ramp at the Rainbow Forest Museum at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona brings wheelchair access to the main entrance rather than to the backdoor, an important affective change that blends seamlessly with the 1930s architecture.

Decision-makers need to involve the people whom the changes would most benefit. This collaboration is also a good way to build community, so long as the burden is not put on the disabled to do the bulk of the advocacy work themselves. The important thing at the departmental level is to demonstrate a solution-oriented mind-set and a willingness to prioritize inclusion over sentimental desires to keep physical spaces unaltered.

Flexible Fieldwork

“Sorry, but you can’t come on the research trip—you’d be a liability in the field.”

Students with disabilities are often prevented from completing their degree because of the lack of fieldwork opportunities. Many accessibility challenges in field-based learning result not from the physical barriers of the terrain or the task but from needlessly inflexible policies that restrict a student’s participation. Examples include deaf and hard of hearing students being told they are a liability because they won’t be able to hear the instructors or potential hazards and wheelchair users being told that departmental policies bar them from driving their own vehicles. Yet at the same time, departments claim that budgetary reasons prohibit them from providing accessible vans or sign language interpreters. Instead, these students are sent off on independent assignments, which are often less rigorous and far less effective for academic growth and limit the development of the social bonds that promote future success in the discipline [Streule and Craig, 2016; Atchison et al., 2019].

If field experiences are integral to professional preparation, then they must be made equitable for all students. There are a small number of programs with inclusive field opportunities for students with disabilities, such as the University of Arizona’s Accessible Earth and the Enabling Remote Activity (ERA) project at the Open University. Building on the technology-based approach of the ERA project, the University of Florida is developing a lending library of tech tools to improve accessibility of existing field courses. Some geoscience programs are developing alternatives to on-location fieldwork, such as the University of Leeds’s Virtual Landscapes and Western Washington University’s Lab Camp.

Approaching Accommodations as Support, Not a Free Pass

“Your exams must be so much easier with accommodations!”

Accommodations—modifications specified by on-campus disability services to enable equitable treatment—are often the first test of a department’s culture. Despite legal mandates, instances of instructors withholding accommodations or making the process overly difficult continue to occur. Some students will formally push back by filing complaints, but most will choose to exit these situations by dropping the course in question or changing degree tracks entirely, leaving no evidence as to why they left.

On the other hand, faculty who demonstrate an awareness of the importance of accommodations cultivate a sense of trust that enables students to focus on learning rather than on the need to self-advocate. A recent study showed that upon completion of accessibility and inclusion training for geoscience teaching assistants, the number of students approaching instructors with accessibility requests increased, as did students feeling that their instructor had a genuine interest in their success [Fairfax and Brown, 2019]. A single instructor’s actions can be the point on which a student determines his or her sense of belonging, or lack thereof, in the entire discipline.

Recruitment: Proving You Want the Best, Not the Easiest

“Why would a disabled person even want a geology degree? They won’t get a job with it.”

The need for disability-inclusive practices extends into the professional sphere, where geoscience employers may hold significant biases against candidates with disabilities, despite the fact that people with all types of disabilities have had and continue to have successful careers in the geosciences [Atchison and Libarkin, 2016]. Nearly all of the burden for addressing disability in the professional sphere falls to the disabled person. During the job hunt, candidates with disabilities must determine how best to handle hiring committees who are not trained in equitable interview procedures. Once hired, employees with disabilities must constantly consider the balance of personal needs versus cultural stigma when asking for accommodations.

Departments should seek to address this by putting the burden of providing a safe and stable workplace back onto the workplace provider. This effort can start with more inclusive job descriptions, by providing evidence up front that more effort has been given to equitable treatment beyond copying and pasting the university’s diversity and accommodation statement, and by demonstrating that institution-wide support structures are in place to enable their success.

The academic institution may not have purview over some accommodation barriers, but it can still provide guidance that leads to the best chances of success for its students. For example, government-run disability services often vary from state to state, which may greatly affect students’ decisions about which graduate or postdoctoral program they’re able to attend. Medical care and transportation are typically limited to a small geographic area, so individuals relying upon these services as their primary means of transportation are greatly hindered in participating in extracurricular activities such as field trips and professional development opportunities.

In addition, residency requirements and other bureaucratic hurdles may require a person who needs support services to relocate well before financial compensation begins—a gap that for many is simply not feasible. Academic institutions may not be able to change or eliminate these state-level obstacles, but they can certainly provide the best information to their students about what to expect and explore ways to make this transition less of a financial barrier.

Disrupting an Exclusionary Culture

“Do you think you could finish this program with your…limitations?”

Many students declare geoscience majors after taking required college courses or through other outreach events, but disability is rarely considered in the design of such introductory course materials or recruitment activities. As a result, everything from how we advertise our programs (typically to attract adventurous, outdoorsy students) to the lack of disability representation in geoscience course material and a cultural acceptance of condescending comments directed at those who do show an interest sends the message that people with disabilities need not apply [Bush and Mattox, 2019; Hall et al., 2004].

This message is amplified for people already from underrepresented groups who also have a disability. Countering these recruitment barriers requires critically evaluating how we are promoting our departments through advertisements and social media, presenting a more balanced view of the many fields of study and career paths available within the geosciences, and acknowledging that scientists with disabilities already work within our discipline [Sexton et al., 2014; Mol and Atchison, 2019].

Finally, the geoscience community can suffer from the same casual ableism—beliefs or practices that discriminate against people with disabilities—that the rest of society does. Comments that may seem complimentary may, in fact, reinforce a feeling of “otherness.” Most ableist comments can be avoided simply by considering whether the same comment would be made to a person who doesn’t have a disability. More insidious than overt barriers, cultural ableism comes in the form of well-meaning but uninformed viewpoints that erase or blame people with disabilities for societal problems, such as the recent effort to ban plastic straws. Despite being well intended from an environmental perspective, the public shaming of people using straws can be extremely upsetting for a person with a disability who is studying in an environmentally focused discipline and also needs to use plastic straws to live. Exclusive cultures develop when there is a lack of diverse perspectives.

Don’t Wait Until the Need Arises

Truly inclusive cultures are proactive about creating environments that are welcoming to everyone before an immediate need arises. What we say and do when we assume there are no people with disabilities present can perpetuate an exclusive culture—to the person in the room with a nonapparent disability or to the person who becomes disabled later in life [e.g., see Marshall, 2018]. Inclusive cultures recognize the benefits of diversity and see inclusion not as a burden but as something inherently beneficial.

As AGU celebrates 100 years of scientific innovation, we have a unique opportunity to think critically about the culture of the geosciences. We should examine the exclusionary nature of our past and apply what we’ve learned to build a more inclusive future that recognizes the value of diversity and actively works to break down the barriers to participation. These challenges require a collective will, but in a community that can respond to the challenges of studying deep-sea trenches, Earth’s interior, and the far reaches of space, we are entirely capable of meeting the challenges of accessibility and creating innovative and inclusive scientific environments in which everyone can thrive.

Resources

Resources for accessibility and inclusion training are available from the Supporting and Advancing Geoscience Education at Two-Year Colleges (SAGE 2YC) program, the Center for Universal Design in Education, and the International Association for Geoscience Diversity. Many universities also offer training through their disability resource centers.

Acknowledgments

The authors thank the geoscientists who contributed ideas for this article via Twitter and personal conversations, including Michelle Cook, Krystal Vasquez, and Leah Miller. Thanks to Chris Atchison for his helpful review and to the editors of Eos for giving us the opportunity and support to write about this topic.

References

Atchison, C. L., and J. C. Libarkin (2016), Professionally held perceptions about the accessibility of the geosciences, Geosphere, 12(4), 1,154–1,165, https://doi.org/10.1130/GES01264.1.

Atchison, C. L., A. M. Marshall, and T. D. Collins (2019), A multiple case study of inclusive learning communities enabling active participation in geoscience field courses for students with physical disabilities, J. Geosci. Educ., 67(4), 472–486, https://doi.org/10.1080/10899995.2019.1600962.

Bush, P., and S. Mattox (2019), Decadal review: How gender and race of geoscientists are portrayed in physical geology textbooks, J. Geosci. Educ., https://doi.org/10.1080/10899995.2019.1621715.

Carabajal, I. G., A. M. Marshall, and C. L. Atchison (2017), A synthesis of instructional strategies in geoscience education literature that address barriers to inclusion for students with disabilities, J. Geosci. Educ., 65(4), 531–541, https://doi.org/10.5408/16-211.1.

Fairfax, E., and M. R. M. Brown (2019), Increasing accessibility and inclusion in undergraduate geology labs through scenario-based TA training, J. Geosci. Educ., 67(4), 366–383, https://doi.org/10.1080/10899995.2019.1602463.

Hall, T., M. Healey, and M. Harrison (2004), Fieldwork and disabled students: Discourses of exclusion and inclusion, J. Geosci. Educ., 28(2), 255–280, https://doi.org/10.1080/0309826042000242495.

Jester, T. C., and S. C. Park (1993), Making historic properties accessible, Preserv. Briefs 32, Natl. Park Serv., U.S. Dep. of the Inter., Washington, D.C., www.nps.gov/tps/how-to-preserve/briefs/32-accessibility.htm.

Marshall, A. (2018), Moving forward: Overcoming our ideas about disability in the geosciences, Speaking of Geoscience (blog), 8 Oct., speakingofgeoscience.org/2018/10/08/moving-forward-overcoming-our-ideas-about-disability-in-the-geosciences/.

Mol, L., and C. L. Atchison (2019), Image is everything: Educator awareness of perceived barriers for students with physical disabilities in geoscience degree programs, J. Geogr. Higher Educ., 43(4), 544–567, https://doi.org/10.1080/03098265.2019.1660862.

Sexton, J. M., et al. (2014), Characteristics and culture of geoscience departments as interpreted from their website photographs, J. Women Minorities Sci. Eng., 20(3), https://doi.org/10.1615/JWomenMinorScienEng.2014009751.

Streule, M. J., and L. E. Craig (2016), Social learning theories—An important design consideration for geoscience fieldwork, J. Geosci. Educ., 64(2), 101–107, https://doi.org/10.5408/15-119.1.

Author Information

Anita Marshall ([email protected]), Department of Geology, University of Florida, Gainesville; and Sean Thatcher, Department of Geography, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, Piscataway

Citation: Marshall, A. M., and S. Thatcher (2019), Creating spaces for geoscientists with disabilities to thrive, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO136434. Published on 02 December 2019.
Text © 2019. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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