I am shocked by the number of levels on which this problem exists. Diversity is as, well, diverse, as the number of labels you might use to describe yourself. Gender. Political affiliation. Religion. Sexual identity. Race. And less obvious boxes/categories: Artist. Chronically ill. Tall or short. Ethnicity. West coast or East coast. Introvert or Extrovert. Pop music or Heavy Metal. A brain, a beauty, a jock, a rebel, and a recluse.
If we look around, we all can agree that our world is full of problems, even if we may not agree on what those problems are.
So how could it ever be possible that one kind of person could solve all of the diverse problems we face? To name a (very) few: war. hunger. poverty. discrimination. sexual abuse/harassment. violence, more generally. pollution.
While science*, out of all the fields and disciplines, should best understand the need for multiple views, it is shocking to see how under-represented various identities are at the grad-student level (and higher). This is not always intentional, but academia seems to attract a somewhat narrow profile of people. It is even more disturbing that, when some identities are present, they are often compelled to hide their unique point of view. When did we come to value sameness?
It’s a growing problem. As a mentor for the Women in Science and Engineering program at my own institution, the problem of welcoming and sustaining diverse identities in the sciences is fairly clear to me, but my own experiences as a PhD student so far have opened my eyes to the many identities that are not-so-welcome in academia. I speak specifically about the sciences, because it is more of what I have seen up close, and, from what I gather, the humanities are a bit more forgiving for those of different or multiple identities (although feel free to correct me in the comments!).
An article in National Geographic recently pointed out the problem rather eloquently in an article on women in the maths and sciences: “Involving more qualified women, as well as additional ‘social identities’—gay people, African Americans and Latinos, those with physical disabilities, and others—can enrich the creativity and insight of research projects and increase the chances for true innovation, says Scott Page, a professor at the University of Michigan who studies diversity in complex systems.”
Specifically, besides gender, I have become interested in religion and disability in graduate school (and higher). There seems to have been a rise in chronic illnesses in recent years (the “invisible” illnesses). These include things like arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, food allergies, asthma, autism, bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, and various other physical and mental illnesses. This, along with an overhaul of how the educational system seems to work. In just a generation or two, going from college as recommended to college as expected-- and moving towards graduate school being a necessity for most job seekers.
These two things do not seem to be being addressed together. Although accommodations in elementary through high school are becoming common (although, not always easy to come by), college and graduate school are harsher on those affected by disability or chronic illness. Most campuses in higher education have an office devoted to disability services, but in my experience, it is typically under-utilized. Students are not always aware of how much disability services can help, where the offices are located on campus, or what diagnoses are covered under these policies. And professors don’t always want to juggle accommodations for students, and when they are willing, out of a necessity for privacy or fairness, the disability office cannot always make recommendations specific enough to be useful and give the professor the documentation and leverage necessary to help the student.
In graduate school, these problems are intensified further. As an individual with more than one chronic illness, and unsure how to handle it given the rigorous program I’m enrolled in, I was thankful to find Sarcozona’s post which I was relieved to find echoed my own private concerns: “Do we really want to prevent people from contributing to our fields because they can’t (or won’t) work incredibly long hours?”** This is a much broader question that is also relevant for those who may have other family commitments, passions, or goals, but it is particularly critical for people with disabilities.
And then there’s sites like PhDisabled, which is devoted to discussing disability in academia. I’ve only recently discovered the site myself, but the fact that it exists gives me an enormous amount of hope and I wish I’d found it sooner.
People with disabilities of any kind have much to offer, just as those without disabilities. In addition, the unique experience of certain conditions may offer insights that those without similar experiences could never imagine. I'm picturing here engineering-like innovations based on a necessity, but the simple fact is that different experiences allow us to think about things differently. It is what makes us all unique as people. It is also a key ingredient in innovating in science and technology.*
To Be Continued...
*Although, I might say the same of art…
**This post is part of a larger blog project called Tenure, She Wrote. I highly recommend it as an excellent source of advice and insight on women in academia, in addition to their specific attempt to represent diversity.