By Jesse Shanahan
A woman scientist faces unique prejudices in her studies and career that are complex, multifaceted, and well-documented. When that same woman scientist has a disability, the obstacles she faces are not only greater in both magnitude and quantity, but her experience is less frequently recognized. For Megan*, a geophysicist at a prominent U.S. university, the cost of a career in science is keeping her disability a well-kept secret. Her tactic is by no means unusual; many disabled women scientists do not disclose their disabilities for fear of having to face yet another institutional bias.
Struggling to flourish despite widespread sexism is a brutal enough battle for women in science. Add the rampant ableism endemic in the scientific community, and this battle becomes a tortuously prohibitive obstacle to success. Furthermore, disabled scientists are already a rarity—just 1% of doctoral students in STEM are disabled. For many disabled women scientists, the price of disclosing their disability (a prerequisite for any workplace accommodations) is too high.
I already have a bit of a strike against me being a woman in a male-dominated field … I do not wish to have a second strike against me.
Megan fondly remembers her initial excitement and love for geophysics. She recalls first encountering this branch of physics in high school, and when she returned to it in her undergraduate classes, she was certain she had found both her passion and her career. However, she began to struggle in her final years of university as a yet undiagnosed disability revealed an underlying inaccessibility in geophysics, which is erroneously considered necessary aspects of the field. Geophysics, in particular, is perceived as requiring physical strength, endurance, and geophysicists themselves are stereotyped as outdoorsy, physically able men.
Megan acknowledges that fieldwork is a strong component of geophysics, and in regard to her research specifically, she says that “working outside and being able to connect the data … with the survey location and point of interest features leads to a better interpretation.” She further describes the arduous process of trying to meet program requirements without accommodations or answers about the nature of her disability:
"I actually ended up doing mostly computational work prior to being diagnosed as I realized that [my disability] was worse with fieldwork, which often took me weeks to fully recover. I was unable to finish a class trip involving fieldwork, but I refused to give up and got creative in getting through the requirements, getting a lot of rest before hand, and working it out with the professor to make up the trip on a Friday, so I had the weekend to rest and recover."
When she was finally diagnosed, she recalls the negative reactions her coworkers and supervisors had to her initial attempts to disclose. Those who knew of her disability were less likely to work with her, which not only limited her opportunities but inhibited progress in her research as well. She describes being seen as a liability and being unwanted—yet another price to openly being a disabled woman scientist. “I already have a bit of a strike against me being a woman in a male-dominated field that requires quite a bit of heavy lifting,” Megan says. “I do not wish to have a second strike against me...”
The negative responses Megan experienced when sharing her disability are an all-too-common element of disclosure. Unfortunately, the standard practice in the U.S. is to require this disclosure before granting accommodations to a disabled student or employee. As a crucial part of any workplace or educational institution, accommodations aim to remove the exhaustive work Megan describes doing in order to meet her program requirements. Ideally, they are intended to counteract the obstacles to a disabled person’s success by allowing for alternative strategies, assistive devices, and additional, equal ways to participate.
Although Megan describes being lucky in terms of the helpfulness of her professors, many disabled women scientists are not, as they are already predisposed to receive less help due to professorial sexism. Having those alternative strategies declared a right and be legally protected means a disabled woman scientist is not dependent upon the fortuitous helpfulness of her professors.
However, U.S. universities and workplaces require disclosure (and this disclosure requires diagnosis) before any accommodations are made. Due to the stigma of disability and the pervasive medical sexism that inhibits diagnosis, many disabled women scientists forgo disclosure and struggle in silence. When female patients report pain, they are less likely to be believed by doctors, and their symptoms are more likely to be dismissed as psychosomatic. This delays or even completely prevents accurate diagnosis and treatment. Without a diagnosis and explanation of need by a doctor, women academics of all fields are unable to access critical accommodations and support.
Yet, Megan staunchly asserts that her disability does not inherently prevent her from being a geophysicist. Her disability should not be an automatic disqualification, as her peers seem to think. Rather, she reiterates the importance of her own expertise in managing and accommodating her disability:
"What is often not considered is that I know my limits and, while I often need more rest and to be more careful than others without [my disability], I can manage myself with medication and extra rest before and after fieldwork with no impact on the timeline or quality of the fieldwork being done. Anyone with [this disability] can do work outside, they just need to be aware of the sun and wear hats, breathable clothing that covers up their skin, and sunblock.”
And counter to everything her peers and professors believe, “being diagnosed with [this disability] is not the end of all outdoor activities."
This common misperception of geophysics as a field where physical ableness is necessary is not only false but a wholly unneeded hindrance to disabled women scientists. From simple changes like offering gluten free options while camping to more complex steps like better representation in professional societies, Megan effortlessly lists numerous ways that her field could become more accessible, and it all begins with awareness. She explains, “this awareness comes with the broader community realizing that disabled scientists exist in these fields and that we need to work to create a better community of support for them.”
She closes her interview with words of encouragement for other disabled women with a passion for geophysics: “Don’t let anyone tell you what you can or can’t do. Do what you can and come to a balance where you can be happy, healthy and successful. Don’t give up on your dreams…”
Just as Megan rightfully states, the beginning of accessibility for disabled women scientists begins with awareness. The next critical step is dismantling this dangerous assumption that science is done by neurotypical, able-bodied white men. The reality is critically different: scientific research is driven forward by women with learning disabilities, chronic pain, and both physical and mental disabilities. Not only does their experience deserve awareness and recognition, but it is living proof that depriving disabled women of opportunities in science is a devastating loss for science as well.
* Name and identifying details withheld to protect identity.
Shanahan, Jesse. “Disability is not a Disqualification.” Science, January 22, 2016, 418.
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Jesse Shanahan is an astrophysicist and science communicator, specializing in outreach and accessibility.
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