Understanding that one in five of the working age population have a disability, this blog asks – what is the social model of disability? Is the geochemistry community disability inclusive? How can we improve our culture and systems?
Writing for change (again)
I’m a geochemist and planetary scientist. Why am I (again!) writing about matters that are not directly reporting major, minor, trace element and high-precision isotopic systematics for a new discovery? If not me, who? If not now, then when? It is 2022 yet there remain persisting and unjust inequities in academia and wider sciences that are concerning, present an ethical imperative, and that we have not solved [e.g., 1-18], not over mere decades but across centuries. Geochemistry must change and progress!
People and their full range of ideas are our foundation.
Without all kinds of people in all forms of roles and leadership positions we lack many exciting ways of thinking that challenge and overturn persisting but perhaps flawed hypotheses, and/or deliver unexpected but important and lasting new methods and/or irrefutable findings! We know that significant absences remain among our talent, and attainment gaps and differential losses persist not only in higher education but in academic and, we infer, geochemistry workforces too. Progressing to reach our full potential as a community needs everyone to bring their time and energy to be part of the solution. Join in!
As I write, July means that it is disability pride month!
This is a good time to celebrate all who are differently abled and to have conversations that help raise awareness to benefit disability inclusion. As every month should be, July stands out for those of us who are ‘disabled’ in reminding us to continue to be our authentic selves without hiding for the comfort of others. As a planetary scientist, a petrologist, and a geochemist I love the quiet hum of extraction in temperature-controlled clean laboratories, am a woman of STEM, and have forever been too short for the basketball life dreamt of in my teens, plus I enjoy quiet crafts, access to woodlands and flower-filled gardens whenever possible, and I have a ‘disability’ – all traits of a many layered person and facets that I take pride in.
Of course, disability – often a term arising from a country’s laws – can refer to many types of neurodiversity, physical and/or mental health differences that are visible or invisible, and may be current or might link to past or dynamic attributes. Sometimes such differences are termed impairments. Yet, we must be mindful that ableism is a huge problem across the world, where it can be responsible for stereotyping, stigma, and victimisation against disabled people and give rise to otherwise unnecessary barriers for the everyday lives of 15% or more of the global population . That’s over one billion people!
Closer to home, more than one in five among the UK’s working age population have a disability  and of those 83 % were not born with their disability . In 2019/20 just over 17% of home students at universities in England, a proxy for the wider UK, have one or more disability . Yet among academic staff of UK universities only ~5% declare a disability  so evidencing marked underrepresentation in the academy (~four × less than representative levels). What about geochemists? We have not yet published on the levels of disabled people among the UK’s doctoral students and academic geochemists, but the first data of this type will arise from the E-DIAL project funded by our country’s Natural Environmental Research Council.
As far as I’m aware my disability (I prefer the term ‘difference’) arose as an adult and due to events that were experienced as traumatising. Plus, those developments coincided with awareness of unscrupulous and deeply troubling occurrences impacting upon other people who should have been safe – occurrences that are seemingly all too widespread [e.g., 24-30]. I’ve been severely unwell, unable to sleep, and unhappy at times. Have we all? Should we all? No! Holidays, or yoga - nothing like basketball! - are not enough to be ‘the answer’ in such circumstances. In my case, it took counselling, medication (helpful, but be aware of possible side effects!), a different personal ‘fit’, exceptional and liberating mentors, and quiet time to process unhappy matters during what I considered a very private state of mind. Where we wish for quiet space and privacy that should be respected as part of treating people with dignity. In consequence, such kind conduct adheres to the UK’s Equality Act, the public sector Equality Duty, as well as the principles of- and specific guidance for opt-in disability confident schemes of levels 1 (‘committed’), 2 (‘employer), and 3 (‘leader’) [31-39]. Will the much spoken of UK Employment Bill prove relevant and progressive too ? I still haven’t discussed my unhappy time(s) with close family. But they recognised when I was ‘not right’, and now I’m stronger, feisty (‘difficult’), but politely measured and simply feeling safe as myself; a fanatic of extraterrestrial geoscience who enjoys nature, reading for fun, and knitting too. My type of adult history is common and having a bumpy spot is not something we should be made to feel we must hide or down play.
Talking about mental health and disability
There are a range of estimates for many nations - and rates at times of global emergencies or financial crisis will be higher - but in any given year around a quarter of all people experience mental ill health and most people have periods of challenge to their mental wellness during their lifetimes. Do we talk about these matters with sensitivity and relative ease? Are we comfortable doing so? Do the systems that we work in properly recognise and allow for our potentially good and bad times in life? Do these structures and cultures permit or - better still - give wrap around support to potentially circuitous paths / swathes of time to queue and find ‘the right’ medic, counsellor, or other for diagnoses and/or treatment plans? Including for those of us who have moved around internationally, and/or have been employed in differing places and held a range of job types in those countries? Do we reflect on how disability / neurodiversity help us in our work? Neurodiversity brings the strengths of unusual thinking (41, Fig. 3), and some people report occasionally taking advantage of ‘hyper focus’ not otherwise possible. Others draw on their difference and unique perspectives in alternative ways to achieve the unusual and remarkable in their work.
is important for us all to remember that trivialising and/or failing to adequately support those with disabilities or transient illness has consequences. In extreme cases of systemic failures avoidable hospitalisations and suicide are known to have occurred. Are such tragedies and other types of personal and professional repercussions preventable? Do we need improved understanding, training, guidance, careful workload management, and other empathetic pre-emptive actions? What more can we do for one another as individuals and collectively right now, today?
Some remarks on mobility, stability, and fulfilment
In moving around for our work, as is a relatively common expectation for academic geochemists, we might gain in various ways, enjoy the adventure, and broaden our cultural experiences and contacts. We will also face disruption and relocation expenses for ourselves and any accompanying family and/or partner. We can sometimes spend excessive amounts of time seeking an affordable place to live that – in reality – falls woefully short of advertising pictures and marketing text. When we are mobile over great distances it can take months to figure out how to navigate new systems, places, and identify which shops sell what items. Plus, every one of us naturally changes through the passage of time and cumulative experience.
Where we have a disability ourselves, or someone we have caring responsibilities for does, forward planning may be more important to us than for other people (but not in every case!). For example, our potentially specialist needs may mean we wish to- or must be sure of affordable access to medications and medical care and/or compatibility of enabling equipment and spaces from place to place (e.g., hearing aids, powered wheelchairs, safe spaces and practices for the immunosuppressed, and/or homes, social, and workplaces where sensory breaks are at hand). Similarly, access to support that we trust or have built relationships with might be our first priority (e.g., counsellors, shared-interest, community, and advocacy groups). Or we – as for the majority  – of course have freedom of choice to simply put stability in secure employ ahead of precarious alternatives that can negatively impact wellbeing and job satisfaction [43,44], restrict our wider lives, and can be infantilising and dehumanising .
Each of us is an individual human-being shaped by all kinds of experiences, contemporary career routes [e.g., 46], and personal reflections – whether we have a difference classifying as a disability or not. No two disabilities are exactly the same nor will they be managed identically by people of differing character, life stage, personal preference, circumstances, or priorities. Yet, service to- and conversations with the community make it clear that if we are relatively untouched by (recent) mobility, precarity, or unaware of varying needs among people and families, that lifelong calling to learn must extend to our duties to gain a better understanding of the lives that we do not ourselves live. For example, the privilege of being white [47-50] and having English as a first language is something I carry, and so must be conscious of the affinity biases and other factors embedded in this part of my identity that others do not all experience.
Affluence is not part of my background, and because no member of my large extended family attended university prior to me I’m a firstgen woman ; intersectional characteristics that have been linked with social segregation and elevated emotional labour in UK academia . Plus, it is well recognised that – due to the UK having one of the most stratified pre-university school systems in the world resulting in our country’s long-known and pronounced educational inequity [e.g., 53,54] – less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds can have a significant bearing and/or account for people facing cumulative hurdles to their inclusion and retention in university settings. Hence, these are areas that I watch for and am sensitive to. Disability has its own impacts as well as an accompanying social model that is presently part of geochemistry and a factor in people’s sense of belonging, fulfilment, and attainment of full potential in higher education and the academy [55-60].
What is the social model of disability?
While there are medical models of disability, the social model of disability considers that people with impairments or difference are disabled by barriers resulting from the way that society is run and organised and that exclude and discriminate against them (Fig. 6). Such barriers can be systemic, and can include conscious or unconscious derogatory attitudes, perceptions, and deficit thinking. In consequence, these factors impose challenges and potential cumulative disadvantage on disabled people that slow or prevent them from attaining their full potential and valued functioning.
Further, the burdens of evidencing disability or justifying reasonable accommodations can be enormously time consuming and – for example – medical letters are issued at expense (yes, including with the UK’s NHS!) so cumulative costs can and do impact disabled people. If we have moved a number of times our medical and/or counselling records can be fragmented and even more complex to track down and put together, if or when needed, than would be the case with lesser geographic mobility.
Because the social model of disability is pervasive, and can be experienced in sometimes frightening ways, it is present in geochemistry in the UK and elsewhere. When we consider advancing disability inclusion we have a duty to include but think beyond all aspects of physical work spaces, the design of our conferences and workshops, the operation of our learned societies, and how publishing in geochemistry is run [61-67]. There are myriad things to consider in making geochemistry more welcoming to all [e.g., 68-70], including for those of us with disabilities. Proactive actions can be grassroots or top-down efforts to raise awareness, provide guidance, and to reform attitudes, policies, practice, and work spaces. Some of the areas we consider are more widely relevant. In UK academia, opportunities to work flexibly can be constructive, and it is always paramount to ensure suitable workload allocations and boundaries supportive of work-life balance appropriate for the individual.
As a geochemistry community we need to continue reflecting on how the social model of disability applies within our communities from subtle behaviours and attitudes, administrative processes, communication types and their completeness, through to grant structures and infrastructure form, location, and allocation. For grant systems, we could apply a disability lens (and other lenses) to the criteria and structures around funding where intensively time-pressured (and short notice?) deadlines, or inadequate provisions for the costs of reasonable accommodations by disabled applicants and/or named project members, hamper or exclude disabled geochemists and/or our administrative and technical support colleagues. Plus, established understanding and evidence shows that recognising and prioritising broader forms of contribution and achievement will benefit all underrepresented people . So too, we can and should invite experts in the humanities and psychology to join us in thinking carefully about the consequences of panels or assessors drawn – over many decades – from academic STEM communities with a pre-existing low representation of openly-declared disabled people.
What is the outlook for differently abled (UK) geochemists?
Firm knowledge and understanding of the status of disability inclusion in geochemistry is presently limited, and this blurs planning for a best pathway forward. Hence, the E-DIAL project team will report on this topic and thanks are repeated to the community for their role in supporting the collection of data about the UK’s people of geochemistry and their experiences across our nation’s academic ladder.
Arising from the E-DIAL project are not only observations and new understanding from data specific to the UK’s academic geochemistry community [e.g., 72,73], but also a set of recommended interventions and solutions to be made available for discussion among all members of the community, with institutions, national, regional, or local decision makers, and with NERC and other funding or professional bodies. The intention is to engage with parliament too, where one possible avenue open to the E-DIAL team and the wider community is the Science and Technology Committee’s summer My Science Inquiry call. What challenges we face in geochemistry have differential impacts but are problems for- and the responsibility of every member of this discipline and much more widely; it is collective endeavour that ensures positive progress for our community.
Your continued engagement and activism to make geochemistry accessible, attractive, and equitable for all are vital to everyone’s success, our potential for frontier discoveries, and our influence in key interdisciplinary endeavours. The E-DIAL team hope that you look forward to the next release from this project, and that everyone will share in efforts to go above and beyond in moving the dial forward for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
The author is thankful to community members for encouraging and inspiring this work. This contribution arises from funding for the E-DIAL (Evaluating Diversity and Inclusion within the [geochemistry] Academic Ladder) project of the UK's National Environment Research Council (021EDIE032Anand).
Author: Amy J. V. Riches
Amy is British, of a UK rural working class background, and firstgen at university. She has gained from diverse career experience, and has lived and worked in the UK, USA, and Canada. Amy was a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow, a National Geographic Explorer (now with the Scotland Hub), and was humbled and honoured to be selected as a 2022 Participant for the Royal Society’s [Westminster] Pairing Scheme. She is a Visitor affiliated with the Earth and Planetary Sciences Institute of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Geosciences, an Affiliate Scientist with the SETI Institute, USA, Chair of the 2022 Inaugural Forming and Exploring Habitable Worlds Meeting, and a member of the E-DIAL project. Amy is a Founding Member and Co-Chair to the European Association of Geochemistry’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee that works cooperatively with the equivalent committee of the Geochemical Society. She is a Member of the collective international geoscience societies’ Global Inclusion and Representation Task Team as well as the Earth and Space Sciences Global and Domestic Policies Group (each involving representatives of the IUGG, itself federated to the International Science Council). Plus, Amy is a Member of the Committee on Publication Ethics, the International Association for Geoscience Diversity, as well as other professional bodies. She is also a Fellow of both the Geological Society, London, and the Royal Astronomical Society, and is active in liaising with the Policy Groups of these societies.
Amy enjoys working with impassioned teams in a range of contexts; bringing people together at national and international levels with shared purpose in scientific and interdisciplinary endeavours, and through community building. Key among her contributions is advocating for and assisting the wider community in tackling unjust bias and barriers that impede both marginalised people and excellent science.
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see also tabulation at link
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Interested parties may wish to inform themselves of and engage with the Miscarriage Leave Bill also. https://bills.parliament.uk/bills/2948 Readers may develop a peripheral interest in the UK’s coercive and controlling behaviour offence, its review, and the Domestic Abuse Act.
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> Interested readers may wish to familiarise themselves with legislative work, a White Paper, and an Impact Assessment by the Department of Education that concern the UK Government’s landmark Schools Bill. A parliamentary bill that has been said to be widely criticised in part due to its intentions to create new government powers over schools and how they operate. https://bills.parliament.uk/bills/3156 , www.gov.uk/government/publications/opportunity-for-all-strong-schools-with-great-teachers-for-your-child and www.gov.uk/government/publications/schools-bill-impact-assessment
> Plus, readers should be aware of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (not yet the subject of a section 40 or ‘post-legislative’ review at the time of writing) and the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022. www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2017/29/contents and www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2022/21/contents/enacted
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