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(un)Accessible Astronomy: Ableism in Science

My self-directed, community-supported (re)education about US-American society has fueled my focus on, and pursuit of, social justice. I believe that a just society allows all members to have equal opportunities for success in life, and equal access to social, political and economic opportunities and power. This should be regardless of race, gender, sexuality, religion—and sadly that's where these statements of social justice too often end. What is often missing, even in my own thinking until relatively recently, is an acknowledgement that physical and mental dis ability must be included in this list

Racism is a double standard that breaks along racial lines, while sexism does the same for gender. Heterosexism and transphobia have their own ugly double standards, as does religious intolerance such as Islamophobia and antisemitism. Perhaps more important is that this double standard breaks only one way: badly for those who are not white, male, cisgender, heteronormative, Christians*...who are able-bodied. These are all identities with large collections of unearned privileges: opportunities, access to power, the benefit of the doubt, positive stereotypes and expectations, exceptions from punishment. You know, all the good things, from bonuses to basic human rights. All of these also represent separate axes of privilege on one side, and oppression on the other.

Jesse (top, center) doing astronomy outreach with kids
Enter ableism. Or difficulty of entrance for the disabled, both figuratively and literally. One's physical ability should not be a qualification for gainful employment or access to political action. Specifically within the sciences, "a significant barrier still remains: the erroneous assumption that ableness is a prerequisite for scientific achievement." 

These words are part of the alarm bell eloquently raised by astronomer Jesse Shannahan, who is doing her graduate work at Wesleyan University, splitting her time working on galaxies and protoplanetary disks. I met Jesse last year, first online (@Enceladosaurus) and then IRL when she visited the Center for Astrophysics. We had a wide-ranging discussion about social justice in which I learned that she is a white person who is putting in The Work to separate her white identity from Whiteness and its underlying assumptions of supremacy. Last year I worked with her and her advisor Merideth Hughes to organize an antiracism workshop at Wesleyan last summer in conjunction with the Banneker Institute. The lessons I learned there inform my activism today in very meaningful ways. 

In our conversation last summer I also learned of Jesse's physical disabilities and the myriad ways that institutional and systemic barriers are literally and figuratively placed in her path. It was eye-opening for me. It is this sort of dialog, partnering and community-building across lines of oppression/privilege that are the requisite ingredients for efficacy in our activism. With friends, one is motivated—nay filled with a sense of urgency to self-educate about other axes of oppression in order to help ones sisters and brothers. In my journey, I have much learning to do, including the ways that I have messed up in the past by, e.g., not making my classroom more accessible and doubting the needs of students with disabilities.

Fortunately, people like Jesse—people who happen to have disabilities—are there to speak up and speak out, thereby educating those of us with privileges and inspiring us to action. Here is the rest of Jesse's excellent essay on ableism in the sciences, published in Science Magazine. An excerpt:

When I began my master's program in astronomy, I immediately encountered a substantial—and quite literal—obstacle to my pursuit of the cosmos: a flight of stairs. I have a physical disability, and stairs are a particular source of difficulty. Unfortunately, they lie in front of every entrance to the building where I take classes, teach labs, and conduct research. The four observatories I have visited for my research were all equally inaccessible, mostly because their age and historic significance exempt them from Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. So, besides coping with the stress and workload of graduate school, I must also struggle with architecture. Thankfully, I am mobile enough to make do by climbing slowly or using a cane, but it takes a toll. 
The barriers don't end once I've reached the top of the stairs.
Say it with me, y'all: Disability does not preclude excellent science! 

* While Christians receive huge privileges in larger society, and therefore in most contexts, I recognize that these privileges don't generally extend into academic science, particularly at the interpersonal level. This can be harmful, particularly for Black scientists since church communities often provide much-needed social networks and other coping strategies in otherwise oppressively white spaces (see Holbrook 2012).


Jessica Mink said…
I've been on a couple of panels with Jesse, the latest two weeks ago at the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics at Wesleyan. She and my blind astronomer friend Wanda Diaz Merced are making strong cases that we have to change not just our attitudes, but our physical environments to become inclusive.

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