Monday, August 8, 2016

Access Astronomy and the Working Group on Accessibility and Disability

The American Astronomical Society's Working Group on Accessibility and Disability (WGAD) has started a blog: Access Astronomy.  Below is cross-posted (with permission) from Access Astronomy:


Disabilities are common in America today, with 19% of the American population having a disability, and half of those reported as “severe” (2010 US Census). Approximately 18-26% of American adults experience mental illness in a given year, and mental illnesses generally have high co-morbidity with other medical conditions.

In an academic context, representation of students with disabilities decreases over the course of academic preparation (Moon et al. 2012): 
Figure description: three pie charts illustrating the percentage of students with disabilities pursuing STEM degrees/studies. The pies show undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral level studies, with the slices representing students with disabilities becoming vanishingly small: 9-10% at the undergraduate level, 5% at the graduate level, and 1% at the doctorate level.
In a survey of the 2013 AAS membership, 2% or fewer respondents identified as having a disability (hearing, vision, or mobility impairment; note that this does not include cognitive, developmental, or mental health disabilities). Persons with disabilities are dramatically underrepresented in STEM fields and astronomy in particular.

Image description: 3-column table showing responses of AAS membership in a 2013 survey. First line: I am deaf or have serious difficulty hearing: 1% of membership, 21 respondents, answered yes.  Second line: I am blind or have serious difficulty seeing even when wearing glasses: 0% of membership, or 2 respondents, answered yes.  Third line: I have serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs: 1% of membership, or 14 respondents, answered yes.  Fourth line: None of the above: 96% of membership, or 1,472 respondents, answered yes.  Fifth line: 2% of membership, or 26 respondents, preferred not to respond.
Disability is a common experience, but stigma against disability is rife. Mental illness and other “invisible” disabilities are especially stigmatized and often ignored in conversations about access. Astronomy, as a subset of our society, contains this stigma against disability. Our field, which often sees itself as pushing the limits, can offer an environment for enhanced stigmatization and discrimination based on disability. This environment typifies ableism: discrimination, prejudice, and stereotyping against disabled people on the basis of their actual or presumed disability.

In 1990, the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) went into effect. This legal protection was revolutionary civil rights legislation, but in many situations is used as a box to check or as a shield rather than a guideline to improve overall accessibility. Many of us work at institutions that have policies in our departments and classrooms shaped by the ADA. This step is necessary but not sufficient. A great deal of work remains to reach a truly accessible future.

There have always been astronomers with disabilities, both visible and invisible. Celebrated classifier of stellar spectra Annie Jump Cannon was deaf from the middle of childhood onward, but many of us familiar with her work had never known that. It is important to remember that we are not making special exceptions when we focus on accessibility, we are honoring a tradition of our field. In some ways, the fields of physics and astrophysics have long been disciplines that celebrated scientists who were non-neurotypical in particular ways. However, there is a broad spectrum of neuro-diversity and current classroom and professional environments rarely recognize this.

Systems exist in many of our institutions that are meant to provide some measure of accessibility. Unfortunately these systems often place an undue burden on those who require access, assistance, or services. A compliance-based system does not go far enough. We aspire to a way of working together that does not require disclosure of disability, and where diverse needs are being met with each of our interactions and activities. A mindset of diverse access makes the experience of learning, working, and collaborating stronger for all.

Working Group Charge

WGAD is tasked with promoting inclusion of and equity of opportunity for disabled astronomers at all career stages. Ableism is discrimination in favor of able-bodied or neurotypical people; it is an entire system of thinking and doing that hurts disabled people and is a form of structural oppression. Disability is defined as any mental, cognitive, or physical condition that, due to society’s structure, results in a significant barrier to engaging with society. Disabilities may be invisible or visible, and diagnosed or undiagnosed. Disablement occurs when biological and neurological realities collide with society and culture; it is not a problem located in someone’s mind or body, but in society. 
Astronomy exists in the context of this society and is based in ableism. To that end, WGAD will work to:

  • Identify, document, and eliminate the barriers to access (including access to information) that impact disabled astronomers and students;
  • Actively address the intersections of ableism with racism, sexism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, and classism;
  • Increase accessibility for disabled astronomers and students;
  • Support the current professional astronomy community to bring people with disabilities into the workforce;
  • Recognize disability by teaching disability history, specifically including the disability history of astronomy;
  • Work to discourage the erasure of disability in astronomy;
  • Promoting knowledge of the roots of ableism and the effects in our classrooms and workplaces to change it;
  • Change the culture within astronomy to remove the stigma associated with disability and to value accessibility as a human right;
  • Promote the development and use of access tools and software; and
  • Build community among disabled astronomers and students.

The WGAD coordinating committee and access-astronomy group look forward to hearing from astronomers and serving to make our field more accessible for all.