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Between a rock and a workplace

Working spaces and cultures in the geosciences need to change in order to attract, safeguard and retain people with disabilities.

The one billion or so people living with disabilities represents one of the planet’s largest minorities, making up 15% of the global population1. Physical, learning, sensory and unseen disabilities are present throughout societies regardless of race, ethnicity, age, religion, gender or sexual orientation. Students, staff and researchers who identify as disabled, however, remain sorely under-represented in academia, and the geosciences are no exception2.

Field-based disciplines like the geosciences present well-established challenges to those with disabilities. As such, over the past decade, increasing emphasis has been placed on making fieldwork more accessible and also on promoting office- or laboratory-based careers within the geosciences that do not involve a fieldwork component3. Yet, for disabled geoscientists, fieldwork isn’t the whole story. The institutional workplace and its cultures can prove just as inaccessible and exclusionary as the most rugged and inhospitable environs.

Exclusion from the outset

When one has a disability, starting out in academic geoscience can feel like an impossible task. Workplaces often present a host of physical and sensory issues ranging from a lack of accessible bathrooms to laboratories with flickering lights to lecture halls that are unable to accommodate wheelchair users4.

While it’s easy to assume that home-based working, which has proliferated during the COVID-19 pandemic, could augment all accessibility problems, this is not necessarily the case. Geoscientists often require access to specialist equipment and facilities to carry out their research; one cannot readily run rock powders through an XRF spectrometer, take CT scans of fossils or conduct thermogravimetric analyses of clay minerals at home.

It follows that many disabled geoscientists face a dilemma from the outset. Staying at home offers more flexibility in work patterns and control over the working environment, but substantially constrains the scope of one’s research. In contrast, at the institutional workplace the research possibilities can be almost limitless but one has to endure being in an environment that often wasn’t built with disability in mind — a feat that requires great emotional labour and resilience on the disabled individual’s part5.

Falling flat when ‘fitting in’

As well as the inaccessibility of the physical workplace, departmental attitudes can be a source of exclusion for disabled people. Outward indications of disabilities can draw negative responses; inability to verbalize or give eye contact may be perceived as disinterest or, worse, incompetence6, and similarly academic ability may be judged on the basis of physical appearance alone7.

Furthermore, workplace cultures aren’t always inclusive. For example, the ubiquitous morning coffee break, often perceived to promote wellbeing, good conversation and networking amongst staff, can actually present an anxiety-provoking test of endurance to those with sensory or neurological disabilities rather than something to look forward to.

It is in such seemingly simple situations as these that disabled people must make the most difficult decisions. Trying to fit in with the normative departmental culture risks one’s mental and physical health but bears the allure of potential social acceptance and inclusion. Likewise, playing it safe and staying away can lead to being typecast as the office recluse and forever met with fear, suspicion and pity (or combinations thereof) from one’s able colleagues8.

Ableist academic systems

Many of the building blocks of academic systems are inherently ableist. The requirement to continuously produce research makes little allowance for those who need more time to process information9 or need to pace their work to manage chronic pain and fatigue. Pressure to disseminate research through seminars, conferences and public outreach talks (in both virtual and face-to-face formats) automatically excludes those who are non-verbal or verbally limited from making positive contributions.

It can thus be seen that the sustained demonstration of ‘excellence’ that modern academia incessantly demands10 is at odds with disabled people whose very appearance, communication style or work patterns defy notions of convention and normality.

Gaining ground

In recent years, especially during the pandemic, there has been much looking-inwards from the geoscience community regarding systemic barriers to inclusion for disabled people and other marginalized groups. However, while it’s important to discuss problems pertaining to diversity, action is needed to gain ground in addressing these issues. The time has come for looking outwards, as so often solutions already exist; it’s just knowing where to find them and how they can be recontextualised.

Embedding inclusion in the workplace is by no means a novel idea; numerous social enterprises and consultancy firms can offer bespoke guidance, assessments and coaching to help organizations, including multinational corporations like Microsoft and JPMorgan Chase and Co., to create and maintain working environments and practices that accommodate those with disabilities11. Therefore, while bold disability statements are a start, realizing these ambitions will depend on institutional leaders seeking and listening to the readily available advice from outside agencies and following the examples of best practice in other sectors.

Alongside institution-wide change, funding bodies and departmental managers specifically involved with the geosciences must also make visible commitments to disability-hiring initiatives12. More managerial positions need to be filled by disabled people, who have personal insight into the everyday realities of being ‘other’. In this way, those with lived experience are actively involved in decision-making and can help create respectful cultures and welcoming spaces within departments where disabled scholars can thrive.

We, as geoscientists, can also learn much from our colleagues in the humanities and social sciences who are increasingly exploring collaborative research involving mixed groups of disabled and non-disabled academics, in which the strengths of different members are used to make up for the challenges experienced by other individuals within the group13.

Finally, in the geosciences, we are well-versed in time — after all, we have even managed to categorize the entire history of Earth into comprehensible intervals, each marked by key events. It is therefore essential that, starting today, we make meaningful changes so that the systemic exclusion of disabled people from the geosciences doesn’t become the lasting legacy of the Anthropocene.

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Correspondence to Anya Lawrence.

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Lawrence, A. Between a rock and a workplace. Nat. Geosci. 14, 454–455 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-021-00775-4

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