Minorities, disabilities and scientists

By Grant Jacobs 05/12/2009

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

0 Responses to “Minorities, disabilities and scientists”

  • To add perspective from the temporarily (I hope) non-abled female side. I’m a woman PhD who works from home because of a research-related concussion that causes me to have seizures, blackouts, vertigo, and migraines. I can’t have a “regular job” at the moment, and can’t travel anywhere without extensive planning and help. On job interviews, I’ve been treated as the “damsel in distress”, wanting special attention, and one lovely gent told me he was my “chaffeur” because I can’t drive myself around town. I was told I was “high maintenance” for calling a limo (the only thing available at the time) at an airport to drive me an hour to a campus for a talk because the faculty person who was supposed to pick me up backed out because my flight was so late. I didn’t want to tell them that I couldn’t rent a car “like everyone else.” I’ve been low balled on salaries but I’m not sure which game of oppression olympics was played to determine my deficiencies from the gold standard. My current boss says of my “joke salary” that the dudes at the office “do the hard work” with their bachelor’s degrees, while I’m “padding my CV” with research papers. I used to tell people that I have a hard time traveling, but they tell me “I look fine” or they think I want cookies. The Equal Opportunity offices at some universities send out questionaires, but they don’t include disability boxes to check. They have gender and race, and they don’t have anywhere to list on them if a person needs special consideration if they are chosen for an interview. I try to make all my own arrangements and as a last resort, bring it up when something can’t be worked out from my end. It says alot about a department when male faculty look you over either as a sex object or wondering what/where the physical problem is.

    I don’t talk about this stuff on blogs because I don’t want to draw any more attention and I hope that my seizures and blackouts magically go away some day and me getting around will be “back to normal” which is what the doctors think. My close friends see that I get woozy bending over to open the oven and it takes me a few seconds to find the floor after riding in elevators, but they slow down and wait for me. They also don’t think twice when I sit in the back seat of their cars like Miss Daisy to avoid motion sickness and the blinding lights of oncoming cars.

    The assumption is that everyone is privileged until proven otherwise, and I am not too keen on flashing my non-abled cred that lists “giddiness” as a medical condition for paper proof that I need help with something like riding in a car or asking someone on the bus for their seat so I don’t fall down when the bus pulls out. For me, doing science isn’t a problem at all. It’s going back and forth to a workplace, especially with a set schedule because I have to rely on others. Supervisors who care about “face time” and “looking busy” underestimate my ability to crank out papers and be productive using other means of getting in touch with other people, such as skype and email. I’m invisible as a “normal looking” woman in a group of men, but when I talk about my problems, it becomes the topic of conversation for everything and it is very uncomfortable for me. My ethnicity is also a topic of conversation which I will not go into. Everything other than work becomes more important than who I am as a scientist, but those non-work things are seen as liabilities. I’ve been asked if I need special equipment to do a job, and I answered with scientific equipment and got strange looks because they meant medical things like wheelchairs.

    There really is no easy way to handle these issues because having non-privileges do not help you with jobs. Academia is discriminatory against women and minorities, and even if the white dudes in charge hire non-white-dudes, the environment needs to be changed to help accommodate the differences that aren’t immediately visible. Otherwise, it’s just a picture of diversity for brochures and quota counts, not an active support system for those who don’t fit the molds previously carved out by the privileged.

    Thank you for doing a separate post. I’m sincere in my comment which was very hard and exposing for me to write. I know how difficult it was for you to write too. jc

  • jcjc,

    Thanks for the long comment. If got any longer I’d have suggested putting it up as a guest blog post! 😉 (Just joking.)

    I’ve seen a mixture of approaches from ‘Equal Opportunity’ or HR departments with regards to disability in my (rare) applications for jobs overseas. (Rare, since I don’t apply for a job unless I think I’d be a particularly good fit to the job.) Sometimes I’ve seen it asked up front. Other times it’s not there, as seems to be the case where you are. In New Zealand, in my experience there is usually a question of the form “do you have a disability that might affect your carrying out the tasks the job you are applying for”. I generally leave it untouched. After all, my diminished hearing has absolutely no affect on my ability to do research work and with my aids I’m fine in quieter situations like lab seminars, etc. (Modern hearing aids make a huge difference.)

    I know how difficult it was for you to write too.

    That’s kind of you, but it’s not such a big deal for me. I do pretty well with my aids and I guess I accept the limitations of the deal I’ve got. (Most of the time!) Part of this is likely to be having grown up deaf/HoH, rather than acquiring it later. I can’t help but think that this may be part of why you’re finding it particularly hard. In my limited experience people who acquire a disability later in life (as opposed to those who grew up with it), or those with temporary disabilities, find the disability harder to deal with and find it harder to ask for and arrange assistance from others. Just a thought—?

  • […] Part of my interest is probably an empathy of sorts one gets from being “disabled” yourself. (I dislike the term; I never think of myself that way, although my (lack of) hearing frustrates me […]

  • During my career I have taught several deaf students – one who would bring her entourage (two signers and a note taker) to classes and another who had an amplifier (?) which I hung around my neck which linked into a device that she wore.
    (just had to make sure I took it off before I went to the toilet 🙂 )
    I’ve also taught several students with Aspergers, all quite different. One student had “off days” where complex lab instructiosn were difficult to follow. However, he had virtually 100% retention of everything I said, but was oblivious to subtle social ques.
    Teaching students with different disabilities and medical conditions makes you really think about how well you communicate with other people. However, one challenge can be such students getting jobs. Both of the deaf student were quite bright but one lab refused to take one of them for “safety reasons- that they would hear any alarms” (Though most alarms should create enough of a vibration that I think deaf people can sense?
    This has turned into a long comment. My key point is the students with disabilities can take extra time and effort, but as an educator you actually grow by having to deal with the associated issues.

  • oops, can’t believe I spelt cues as ques in the previous message – the problem with writing too early in the morning.

  • Though most alarms should create enough of a vibration that I think deaf people can sense?

    In a student lab situation with lots of other people around it shouldn’t much of an issue as so many other people around them would be reacting in a very obvious way. If they needed to be PC about it, they could have just made the tutor or a work bench neighbour responsible for ensuring that the deaf student was aware of it. A similar thing could be done in a work environment. Maybe they didn’t want to take on that responsibility/liability? (It could also just be an excuse not to consider them; not very PC, but it happens.)

    One thing that can be tricky in job interviews is that in all sorts of silly ways you can come across as being dumb or not quite with the program (as it were) through mistaking what someone has said or conveying a poor impression.

    I very rarely apply for jobs unless I’m a particularly good fit for them. (Purely for myself, I feel it’s a waste of everyone’s time if I’m not an especially good fit. Despite working independently I still look at jobs, esp. research-based ones.) While it’s not usually “that” much of an issue for me, it does add to the strain in interviews, etc. There’s a lot of subtlety to this. It’d take a long blog post to give a range of examples of what I mean!