Thinking Beyond ADA Compliance: How to Make Astronomy Accessible

Title: Accessible Astronomy: Policies, Practices, and Strategies to Increase Participation of Astronomers with Disabilities

Authors: Alicia Aarnio et al.

First author’s institution: University of North Carolina, Greensboro

Journal: arXiv, white paper (open access)

Imagine that you’re a graduate student, with work being thrown at you from all directions: your advisor pressuring you to make progress on a research project, demanding time-consuming classwork for each of the multiple classes you need to take, and teaching responsibilities required so you can get paid and make rent. On top of this, the academic community is pressuring you to work every waking hour so that you can be one of the small fraction of PhDs that eventually gets the coveted, prestigious professor title. 

Surviving graduate school is already a nearly Herculean task. How much more difficult would this all be if you had to squeeze multiple doctor’s visits into your already packed week? What if some days you just couldn’t go to work because you were sick again, or if you were physically unable to get into antiquated, ADA non-compliant meeting spaces in your workplace? Academia is notorious for being a high pressure, high stress environment — an environment that is even harder, sometimes even impossible, to endure if you have a disability.

A Brief History of Accessibility Efforts 

In the past few decades, with the landmark passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, our society has taken the first steps towards preventing discrimination based on disability, and making the world a more accessible place. These laws tend to be the bare minimum, though; just because a space is physically accessible (e.g. through ramps near stairs, or curb cuts on sidewalks), doesn’t mean that it’s practically accessible. These minimum accommodations still leave disabled graduate students and academics at a serious disadvantage, often having to choose between their health and their career. The statistics tell the story: far more students with disabilities (physical or psychiatric) leave their degree programs before completion according to today’s paper. Students with disabilities also face barriers to entering the field at the start; although around 20% of the general population has a disability, this percentage is significantly less in STEM fields. If we truly want a diverse, thriving community, we need to consider the causes and effects of our inattention to accessibility, and how we can better support all of our colleagues. This is in accordance with the social model of disability: the concept that disability is a result of society not offering appropriate accommodations to empower participation.

Some work has already been done to analyze the shortcomings of the astronomy/astrophysics community in creating an accessible environment. At the American Astronomical Society, the working group on accessibility and disability (WGAD) has been tasked with “promoting inclusion of and equity of opportunity for disabled astronomers at all career stages.” The Inclusive Astronomy conference in 2015 resulted in the Nashville Recommendations, a set of concrete actions that can be taken to better inclusion efforts in astronomy. Now, scientists are preparing for the Astro2020 decadal survey (a discussion that will set priorities for the field in the next 10 years) by writing white papers, articles meant to persuade people that their topic is deserving of the field’s attention and resources. Although there are countless white papers arguing for various observatories and science priorities, this post focuses on a unique paper: “Accessible Astronomy: Policies, Practices, and Strategies to Increase Participation of Astronomers with Disabilities.” This white paper focuses on the state of astronomy’s accessibility efforts, and how we can (and must) do better in the next decade.

Where exactly are we going wrong?

This paper defines disability as anything that “disables an individual from participating in astronomy as fully as someone who is able-bodied, neurotypical, and in good mental health.” Although it may not be apparent if it’s not part of your experience, astronomers with disabilities face many barriers to accommodation. From material concerns, such as lack of school resources and funding, to more elusive issues of toxic academic culture, navigating an academic space can be a seemingly endless race through obstacles. In academia, an overreliance on testing (for reference, the GRE), stigma around disability, and a spirit of competitiveness can prevent someone from getting the resources and accommodations they need to be healthy and successful.

Much-needed accommodations range from flexible schedules/allowed class absences to accommodate medical care, to additional time on tests, to removing the literal physical barriers to participation, such as captioning on talks for hearing-impaired audiences. This paper points out that currently, the astronomical literature is extremely inaccessible to many disabled audiences, as the International Astronomical Union only recently recognized the validity and usefulness of other sensory modes in data analysis (such as sonification). This lack of accessibility in the general field, from publications to conferences, excludes and discriminates against disabled astronomers.

Academic hiring is also seriously subject to bias. As this paper explains, “current metrics and models of productivity feed into expectations that are unrealistic for all, but even more so for astronomers who may need more time to complete work, require rest, or experience periodic hospitalization or flare-ups related to their conditions.” To reach that prized professorship, it feels implied that you need to give everything, and taking time for yourself means you’re less serious about your career. If you are required to take time for your health, such as those with chronic conditions, it’s currently a worry that a funding agency will see you as a liability. As the paper states, “in an inclusive field, astronomers with disabilities would be able to trust that an unsuccessful job or funding application was based upon a fair evaluation and not because we may be considered a burden.”

These unrealistic expectations also feed into worsening mental health, since success is often prioritized over all else, celebrating and normalizing “80-100 hour work weeks, loss of sleep, lack of eating, or poor self-care.” Multiple studies have shown that mental illness rates are exceptionally high in graduate students, more than three times the national average for anxiety and depression. This paper expresses that the toxic culture manifests in other ways as well, such as the stigma against seeking accommodations, where professors may view disability accommodations as an attempt to gain an unfair advantage. The paper also identifies a stark and discouraging inequity in the experience of disabled astronomers: poor mentoring, harassment, bullying, exclusion, negative workplace climate, ableism, and disparaging remarks/attitudes from peers.

So, what can we do?

As with most issues of equality, the actions you take depend on knowing what power you currently hold. This white paper categorizes actions based on the level of leadership and influence in the field, starting at the top: funding agencies. Since science is driven by money (or the lack thereof), rules set by funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation can greatly influence the field. Some recommendations for these governing bodies are to incentivize accessibility work beyond the minimum ADA compliance, implement a thorough demographic analysis (to quantify the state of the field, and losses due to inaccessibility), and include and reward accessibility efforts in funding proposal reviews.

In the next layer, professional societies (such as the AAS and APS) have a unique responsibility for creating the broader astronomical community and its culture and standards. The authors recommend that these organizations firstly provide recourse and protection for victims of discrimination, and establish inclusion groups, such as the WGAD. They also need to establish accessibility guidelines, such as for academic journals and databases, and recognize and reward the importance of inclusion work. Also, since these groups organize influential conferences, they must adopt meeting best practices (e.g. always use ESL/captioning for talks instead of by request, gather anonymous feedback from meeting participants) to ensure that these spaces are accessible for all.

Closer to home, there are also changes we can lobby for in our own academic departments. We should encourage 100% ADA compliance, recognizing that this is a minimum and not the end of accessibility efforts. We need to create accessible learning and working environments, using multiple modes of communication, closed captions, and alt-text. We need to respect disability accommodation requests and lessen the stigma surrounding them. 

So, what can you do, right now? First off, educate yourself on the issues, and listen to the experiences of marginalized community members. For example, if you teach, understand how to support your students with disabilities. If you manage any online content (like a department webpage), consider its accessibility and the idea of universal design. If you are able, start the conversation surrounding accessibility at your own institution, bringing in peers, faculty, and more. Whether it’s simply a word of support for a peer for seeking accommodation, assisting a friend with finding the resources they need, or lobbying for change at an institutional level, your actions matter. We are all part of some community, whether inside of academia or not, and we can be the first step in creating a culture of access.

Header photo: An example of a 3D-printed galaxy intended to open astronomy to vision-impaired audiences, from Tactile Universe.

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