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Every now and then I see a post on the representation of minorities in science or in university staff. In the USA, they’re mainly talking about blacks and hispanics. In New Zealand, were we to talk about it, it’d be Maori and in Australia, it’d be Australian Aborigines.

These posts rarely talk about disabilities as being a minority. I’m reminded of that as while in common-language terms a minority is (correctly) usually thought of in terms of skin colour or race, in the minority employment programs disability is often included as a minority element. (For the picky, the Shorter OED defines minority as “3. A small group of people differing from the rest of a community in ethnic origin, religion, language, or culture; a member of such a group”.)

Imagine getting around campus with a pair of these? (Source: Worlds Biggest Hearing Aids at deafjoke.tv)

Imagine getting around campus with a pair of these? (Source: 'Worlds Biggest Hearing Aids at deafjoke.tv)

As I wrote in a comment on Isis’ post ‘White Men on ScienceBlogs and What to Do With Your Privilege’, which from it’s title is very obviously about race, that perhaps “the “real” essence of [the] thing is being disadvantaged or discriminated against? Or is that being all too-PC and inclusive? :-)”

It seems to me that’s what these recruitment policies have aimed at.

So what of disabilities and a science career?

The discussion over at Isis’ blog would point to a post on why disabilities are poorly represented at universities in general, but I’d like to leave that for another time, partly as it’s not completely true in my experience, at least at universities I’ve been at. I think for the most part universities and research institutes are forgiving places for those with disabilities.

What I’d like to do is look at a couple issues that have some subtlety: that people tend to treat disabilities as implying “all the time” with unexpected consequences and the visibility of disabilities. I’m going to write mostly about it from the point of view of someone who is hard of hearing (HoH), but the general issue has parallels in other disabilities.

By disability, I’m very inclusive, disabilities don’t have to be physically visible. On-going neurological conditions count, for example.

Deafness is often not visible either. After all the “injury” in internal and modern hearing aids are very small and discrete compared to the “box” aids I wore as a kid. This was before the Walkman era, when having a cord dangling out your ear was odd, and the distinct bulge of the aid in your shirt pocket was very noticeable.

As I write this, I’m thinking it’s a good thing that modern aids sit on or in the ear which suits modern fashions. Box hearing aids were limited to shirt pockets or clipped into your belt! Or sometimes informally clipped onto the top of a T shirt or skivvy. (For those in the USA, a skivvy is a turtle-neck top, like the guys on Big Bang Theory wear sometimes… You felt like a nerd wearing those old ‘box’ aids, alright.)

These days, most of the time you have to point out that you have a hearing loss or people wouldn’t know. (Those who work with or have grown up with deaf are able to pick up subtle clues and check to see if the person is wearing aids.)

I think one reason some types of disabilities are overlooked is simply that they’re not immediately visible in the way that, say, dark skin in an otherwise pale-skinned crowd is.

Another is probably that some people treat disabilities as awkward, as something that they–the “abled”–are supposed to compensate for somehow.

Bell hop ears. What else could you call them? (Source: Useless Japanese Inventions at deafjoke.tv)

Pot ears. What else could you call them? (Source: 'Useless Japanese Inventions' at deafjoke.tv)

The text reads:

Ear Extender

* Forget batteries and wires, hear a crisp new sound

Who says that the humble, hand-crafted Art of Chindogu can’t compete with the mass-produced technological wonders being churned out by those electronic manufacturing giants? The Ear Extender is a sturdily built, water-resistant, battery-free hearing aid that’s virtually fool-proof and guaranteed to work whatever the circumstances. No transistors to fiddle with, no cells to charge, and you’ll never have to worry about losing these down the drain!

(Original from the book 99 More Useless Japanese Inventions.)

Before diving in further, let’s get my qualifications for talking about this this out of the way.

I’m deaf or hard of hearing, depending on where you draw the line. With modern aids I do well except in noisy environments or with people’s whose accents I find too challenging.

Without hearing aids, I’m usually a bit hopeless unless it’s strictly one-on-one, where lip reading and a lack of other noise swings the balance back my way, but I’ll be working hard to get the meaning. I don’t use (nor need) sign language, which puts me in a different class of “deaf” for some. (I know a little sign by choice and I have done some informal study on deafness, both on sign languages and biological aspects of deafness.)

I’m blind in one eye too, but that doesn’t count for much other than occasionally bumping into people…

While I often curse my poor hearing, I don’t consider myself “disabled”. ascientist put this nicely: with disabilities, not disabled.

Those with severe disabilities would consider me a borderline case or even not disabled at all. There’s a weird thing that if you’re not “fully disabled”, you’re sometimes not considered to have a disability by the “fully-disabled”, but not considered “able” by the fully able either!

It’s an common theme if you talk to those at the boundary of the HoH and the “fully” deaf; they feel they fit in with neither the “deaf world” nor the “hearing world”.

There’s no black’n'white line after all, and some tend to view it as how well you do aided (whatever your particular aids are) and it’s a perfectly valid way of looking at it. (Count drugs as aids, if that’s what makes a difference for you.)

But I’d better get to what I wanted to say…

One comment and a previous post about migraines somewhere (I think at Thus spake Zuska, but I can’t find the sodded original) reminded me that considering people “disabled” tends to carry with it the implication “all of the time” in ways that are more subtle than I think most who don’t have a disability realise, as I see them slip up on it quite often.

Take my hearing loss, as it’s easiest for me to give an example using this.

If I know I’ve missed something, there’s a good chance I’ll bluff. Why? Well if you spend a lifetime at it, you learn that people just hate being asked to repeat things, so you try judge if it’s going to matter or not. It’s always a gamble as you never really know until afterwards if it was a good call or not.

Then there are the times I simply haven’t any idea I’ve missed something. Simply “heard” a different word for that spoken and it fitted at that time. I suspect a lot of people have this idea that you’d know when you’ve missed something, not appreciating that because you’ve spent a lifetime “filling in”, you do it subconsciously most of the time and it’s only retrospectively that you pick up that you probably got something wrong as the meanings of the conversation start to not make sense. Sometimes you never get the clue that you misheard.

Remember those lyrics that you totally misheard as a kid and later learnt were saying something completely different? It’s a bit like that, you just haven’t a clue at the time. And you feel really stupid later…

Other disabilities will have the equivalent.

My point is that there is sometimes an assumption that the disability, when it occurs will show itself obviously all the time it is interfering. If only. (Then again there are times you’d rather get away with it.)

There is also a problem of extrapolation. If people mostly or only see someone with a disability coping they tend to forget the times they’d don’t. And vice versa, if they see them not coping, it’s to easy to think that that’s how it always is.

There are lot of other subtleties to this. In the case of deafness, you’re always a little behind in a conversation as you’re working on the meaning. You can’t easily join into a conversation after it’s started until they change subjects. And so on…

I couldn’t know the equivalent “little things” that another person’s disabilities entail without asking them or knowing them for a long time. In that sense all disabilities are all little “invisible” to others.

What you see “visibly”, and how you understand what really happened, affects your perception of the person.

A key thing I’d like to leave you with is that all these little things can mean that people get the wrong idea about someone. Most people I know who have a disability live with the practical side of it. After all they have to anyway. What they can’t stand is when others take away the wrong idea about them, the person.

I imagine that is common to a lot of disabilities. The little misunderstandings that others take away with them.


PS: I am not trying to whinge, I’m trying to give a little insight!

Other posts related to deafness on Code for life:

Automatic video captions for YouTube

Things I didn’t write about today–tinnitus, The Human Genre Project & Press Display

Where’s here? (Hearing with one ear.)

Other posts on universities or university policy on Code for life:

Advice for students heading to university

More inclusive re-entry to encourage departure to businesses?

Study of where academic careers lead

Massey university cutting science budget

Suggestion to mitigate in-fighting over new scientific ventures–?

Universities and (lack of) showcasing use of science degrees

Peter Lawrence’s Kafka tale of research grant funding