Monday, November 16, 2015

Accessible Astronomy

Today's guest post is by Jesse Shanahan.  Jesse is a graduate student studying astrophysics at Wesleyan University where she studies supermassive black holes and active galactic nuclei with Dr. Edward Moran. In her spare time, she organizes public outreach events at local schools, specializing in special needs and at-risk classrooms. In her first year of graduate school, she founded an astronomy outreach program for kids, which has received attention from press and remains a popular bi-monthly event at Van Vleck Observatory. She also provides virtual and in-home tutoring for K-12 in math, writing, test preparation, and study skills. Throughout her career, Jesse has advocated staunchly for inclusive equity and is a founding member of the Astronomy Anti-Racism Group (AARG!). She continues to be a dedicated disability rights activist and is currently in the process of forming the first working group on disability justice and accessibility in astronomy.   

The more time I spend in astronomy, the more I realize that the ability to just do science is an incredible privilege. Generally speaking, I’ve never experienced this fully due to being a female-presenting astronomer. However, even setting aside gender discrimination and harassment,  I’ve never experienced the privilege of being able to access my workplace, data, or classroom like my coworkers, advisors, and students can.


Well, I have a disability. My first semester in graduate school, I was unable to use any of the telescopes in the observatory, either for research or for class purposes.  They all required the ability to climb steep stairs. My very first physics class was in a lecture hall dominated by stairs. When I did research at Arecibo Observatory and Green Bank Telescope, I had similar experiences. Everything required the ability to walk distances, climb hills, or climb stairs. My first AAS conference, I had to sit in front of my poster rather than stand, and I was harassed for it. People equated my need for a chair with laziness: a common form of ableism. When I received accommodations from my university (which are my legal right according to section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act), several professors responded with similar assumptions. My need for rest or flexible deadlines was consistently interpreted as laziness rather than an actual physical need.

Furthermore, my experiences are not unique.  Astronomers who are blind or who have vision loss have to combat inaccessible journal and data formats in order to access information. Deaf astronomers attend conferences only to discover the talks, presentations, and networking events are inaccessible as well. Students with learning disabilities that affect reading, for example, may have trouble accessing written material or do poorly in classrooms that make heavy use of timed assessment. Workplace social functions often include some form of physical activity or require drinking alcohol, which may conflict with medications or simply exclude those whose religions prohibit alcohol.  However, all of these obvious barriers are indicative of a deeper problem:  a culture that stigmatizes mental disabilities and illnesses, prioritizes the sacrifice of health for success, and routinely responds to accessibility concerns with hostility.  This culture is so strong that it prevents astronomers with hidden or ‘invisible’ disabilities from seeking accommodations because any request for accommodations necessitates disclosure. It is so strong that it is systematically evicting students with disabilities.

Image 1: An image of three charts that display the percentage of STEM students with disabilities. At the undergraduate level, between 9 and 10% of students have a disability. In contrast, 5% of graduate students have a disability, and just 1% of doctoral students have a disability [1].  In contrast, between 19-20% of the US population has a disability [2].

This sharp decrease in students with disabilities at the graduate and doctoral level is hardly due to an inability to do science. The aforementioned culture is so pervasive that it drives able-bodied students to leave due to mental and physical health concerns (for more examples, see this and this). So, it is no surprise that it prevents people with disabilities from pursuing a career in science.  Stephen Hawking recently spoke at a dinner commemorating his 50th year as a fellow of Gonville and Caius College at the University of Cambridge. He said:

"I wonder whether a young ambitious academic, with my kind of severe condition now, would find the same generosity and support in much of higher education...I fear not [3]."

In addition to Stephen Hawking, our current environment would exclude Annie Jump Cannon, John Goodricke, Henrietta Leavitt, and Gustav Kirchhoff, to name a few. Excluding these great scientists means the exclusion of their discoveries and achievements. After all, what would astronomy be without stellar classification, the period luminosity relation of variable stars, or spectroscopy?

The antithesis of this culture of ableism is the pursuit of multi-modal, universal design in all of the environments astronomers navigate. This means turning the tables on a system that requires people with disabilities to disclose, to have proof, to risk their careers in order to seek accommodations. This means providing to everyone as many different ways to access environments as possible.  For example, in the classroom, this might be providing students with multiple ways to engage with the lecture material; offer recordings or transcriptions, allow use of an e-book instead of just a physical textbook, and provide lecture content that includes visual, auditory, and kinesthetic (e.g. tactile or physical) components. For journal editors, this could be providing screen-reader accessible online formats of articles or printing graphs and charts with colorblind friendly color palettes. Astronomy is an inherently multi-modal discipline, and we are critically limiting the advancement of our field by insisting everyone interacts with the same content in a single, traditional way.  

So, I call upon all professors, administrators, and scientists: ask yourselves if your classroom, laboratory, or observatory is truly accessible! Do not think compliance with ADA means true accessibility (hint: it barely covers the basics!). Try to build flexible environments in which people can engage with the material (e.g., whether classroom lectures, observatory data, or NASA outreach information) in a variety of ways. Challenge yourself to move beyond burdening people with the questionable process of disclosure, and instead provide access without being asked! Speak up and question the culture in astronomy that rewards overwork and sacrifice of well-being. Break down the barriers.

After all, accessibility is a universal human right, so to withhold accessibility is to deny people with disabilities their humanity [4].


[1] Accommodating Students with Disabilities in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM): Findings from Research and Practice for Middle Grades through University Education
[2] U.S. Census Bureau


  1. A few comments about disabilities and ableism (to be honest I've not read much about it), not really in the field of astronomy, because I've not had problems in astronomy. I have disabilities myself, and a few times I felt people thought some special treatments I sometimes had were unfair privileges (they were fortunately not professors as in this blog article!), and in fact the scarcity of these special treatments made them be seen as unfair - if the rest of the time I did not need anything special, why all of a sudden did I "use" my disabilities to have a special treatment? I think these reactions might come from just a lack of imagination from people and a general feeling of injustice, because indeed not only disability can be a hardship in life, and everyone is a bit selfish. Try and explain to people that you put up with a lot of special technical difficulties that make you sometimes feel you're morally allowed to ask for or accept privileges... Many people imagine everyone has the same life as they have, only with added privileges they're jealous of, because they just don't think much.

  2. Journal papers with colour figures that can only be read on a computer monitor, which backlit by LED, emits a peak in the blue of the SED at 450nm. See fig 5 of This blue light is what really messes with the sleep/wake cycle and hence mental health.
    It also makes things hard for accessibility technology unless there is some kind of alt-text or maybe source data for the figure in digital form that could be rendered in a way that the user finds helpful for their needs.
    People with sensory disabilities could have an interesting contribution to make, because they are forced to visualise data in a different way to that which sighted and hearing people do, which may mean they spot things others don't. See, Bearman & Fisher 2011.