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Disability accommodation in academia – what can be expected?

By Ella Bowles

The self-serving question that I would like an answer to is: “what should disability accommodation encompass in academia”? Or, for me more specifically, how can the added time that my visual impairment takes be accommodated – the time that it takes to figure out which accommodations might be best, the time to implement and trouble-shoot those accommodations, and the time to accommodate the fact that I read more slowly due to being visually impaired? These questions surrounding added time nag at me most days as I chip away at my postdoc, trying to get old PhD papers out while simultaneously producing new work and aiming to get that out as quickly as possible, because in this line of work, papers are currency. I am a postdoc at Concordia University in Montreal working on conservation genomics of fishes, and I would really like to be able to continue in science. I worry though about my ability to perform as quickly as is needed to be competitive.

To my knowledge there are no answers to my questions. There is no answer to just how much time the added tasks of sorting out my accommodations take, or how much more slowly I read (making there no absolute number that I can give HR professionals and the like). There is also no answer to how postdocs or new professors should be accommodated by universities – myself and a group of others tried to put together national postdoc accommodation guidelines, but the project failed after our first rejection and we had no more time to invest in it.

There are many accommodations available throughout the educational pathway, all the way from elementary to graduate school, and I used many of these. There are also many resources for accommodation in the workplace. A quick google search for “accommodating disability in the workplace” brings up a host of hits. And there are many people who have disabilities that graduate with PhDs. A relatively recent study by the National Science Foundation shows that hundreds of people who have disabilities graduate with PhDs, and are employed (although these numbers are fewer than those who do not have disabilities). Papers are being written about how to make scientific information accessible, and a book has been written about how to create a culture of accessibility in the sciences.

And yet, I never disclose my disability when I am applying for a postdoc or job for fear of discrimination (a well documented trend, see here), and after graduate school, no grant that I have applied for has provided any space for me to discuss any challenges that I have that may reduce my output. There are several visually impaired scientists in North America (see here for most of them, and I know of a few others), and several of these individuals shared my sentiments. Each have some sort of solution (e.g., extended time to get tenure, needing to read much less once established in the field). However, I found no well-established solutions. I believe that with increased attention to disability and diversity in STEM, the types of questions for which I am searching solutions will be more and more common. In addition, my questions are not only relevant to science, as can be seen in this excellent article written by a CBC staffer who is visually impaired. If you, the reader, have suggestions, I would be glad to receive them.


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Ella Bowles at Meshik Lake, Aniakchak National Monument, AK. One of many PhD field sites. Ella Bowles is a postdoc at Concordia, working with Dylan Fraser and the Cree Nation of Mistissini on community-based fisheries monitoring. She is interested in conservation, and has worked primarily with fish and in the north. Ella did her PhD (evolutionary genomics) with Sean Rogers at the University of Calgary, and her MSc (molecular ecology) with Andrew Trites and Trish Schulte at UBC. Find out more about her work and interests here: ellabowlesphd.wordpress.com.

Post date: March 14, 2018

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