Thursday, July 14, 2016

Black Lives Matter -- In Solidarity

WGAD is in solidarity with our Black colleagues. We view the pain and weight of mourning of the continued taking of Black lives as an accessibility issue that disproportionately impacts our colleagues of color (please read D. N. Lee's piece, "Too Traumatized to Science"). The toll of accumulated loss and continued trauma systemic racism brings as well as the terror renewed and sustained with each new act serves as a barrier to engagement with science and life. May we continue to strive ever harder for a truly inclusive, accessible field for all. Until then, we are with you: Black lives matter.
A letter from WGAD, sent to the AAS council, has been cross-posted on the Astronomy in color blog; we have included it below.

This statement reflects the views of WGAD and its members, and is not an official statement by the AAS.

Cross-post from the Astronomers In Color blog:

Dear fellow astronomers,

The recent extrajudicial killings of two Black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, by the police have shocked, disturbed, and frightened many of us today. We express our unequivocal repulsion to these acts, which are just one manifestation of the underlying systemic racism in our country. These events affect our community directly. Many Black astronomers in this country, especially those in junior positions, are suffering at this moment. We encourage all of you to be mindful as you reach out to our fellow Black astronomers, and be present with them during these difficult times. The undersigned reaffirm our commitment to ensure the inclusion, support, and safety of every Black person in astronomy. 

Black Lives Matter!

Prof. Jorge Moreno
Prof. Kim Coble
Prof. Alyson Brooks
Prof. Aparna Venkatesan
Dr. Jillian Bellovary
Dr. Lia Corrales
Nicole Cabrera Salazar
Prof. John Asher Johnson
Charee Peters
Prof. Adam Burgasser

The above signatories are members of the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA). This statement reflects our own personal views, and is not an official statement by the CSMA nor the AAS.

In your efforts to create a more inclusive community, we encourage you to visit the resources below. Suggestions are welcome.


Letter from WGAD to the AAS Council, dated 11 July, 2016

Dear AAS Council and Executive Committee,

As members of the Working Group on Accessibility and Disability, we implore you to release an AAS Council Resolution that Black lives do matter, in language as strong and unambiguous as possible. The AAS sets the standard for professional behavior within our field and aspires to broaden participation in astronomy by people from underrepresented groups. As such, we believe that failing to publicly denounce recent racist events that strongly affect Black scientists constitutes an abdication of the Society’s responsibility to actively create a supportive community for its members of color.

For the sake of our generation and for the upcoming talent that we are losing, the AAS must unify with its internal committees to stand in support of people of color. The disregard of the humanity of Black people is a national calamity that affects astronomers on a daily basis.  By stating our support, we are refusing to dismiss the suffering of our Black brothers and sisters as if it were unrelated to us.  We must take action so that the astronomical community knows that we care about and will work to ensure the happiness and safety of our Black colleagues and students, and all others who are touched by our scientific endeavors.

The AAS has a history of supporting marginalized groups through issuing responses to ongoing crises. For example, after the revelation of pervasive sexism and sexual harassment within the community, the AAS executive committee approved a statement condemning these actions and affirming the right of every astronomer to a work environment free of harassment and sexism. ( This statement was released during a time when it became apparent that sexism was directly impacting the lives of members of the astronomical community. It is imperative that the Council recognize that the continual (and recent) events involving the deaths of Black people also directly impact the lives of members of the astronomical community.

Therefore, WGAD acknowledges the particular challenges faced by people, including many astronomers, who are members of more than one marginalized group. We understand that among the astronomers with disabilities that our working group serves are Black scientists who face additional daily challenges imposed on them by the continual violence directed at their community. We affirm their right to be the focus of our attention at this critical moment, and we reiterate our commitment to keeping their needs at the forefront of our efforts to make astronomy accessible to all.

We, as a professional society, need to show that we mean what we say at our public outreach events--that we seek to inspire all to become astronomers and that we support all who become astronomers because they are what make our field and this organization great. If we truly wish to create a field that is made stronger by its bonds and networks in the world, then the physical and emotional well-being of the members of our community is the fundamental and necessary starting point.

By refusing to acknowledge that Black lives matter specifically, the AAS implicitly treats the most elementary statement of human worth as controversial or unworthy of response. Whether intentional or not, this omission sends a clear signal that the acute suffering of non-white astronomers simply does not carry enough weight to overcome the inertia of institutional racism. A professional community that cannot make the most basic stand against systemic racism is a community which views a diverse talent pool as a goal but not a priority. It is therefore vital that the AAS demonstrate its commitment by releasing a resolution affirming the value of the Black lives it represents.

We, the undersigned members of WGAD, urge the AAS to continue its efforts on behalf of civil rights by issuing a strong response to the ongoing violence against people of color in the United States.


Jennifer Cash
Wanda Díaz-Merced, co-chair
Beatriz García
Jennifer L. Hoffman
Kristen M. Jones
Karen Knierman
Elisabeth A.C. Mills
Jacqueline Monkiewicz
Nick Murphy, co-chair
Andria C. Schwortz
Jesse Shanahan

On behalf of members of the Working Group on Accessibility and Disability.

Jorge Moreno
Alicia Aarnio
Allyson Bierlya
Carolyn Brinkworth
Jennifer Connelly
Buzani  Khumalo
Alan Strauss
Adam Burgasser

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

WGAD: Working for Access for All

Posted below is a slightly edited version of a letter submitted to the American Astronomical Society (AAS) council in November of 2015 petitioning for formation of a working group on accessibility and disability within the AAS.

Disabilities are common in America today, with 19% of the American population having a disability, and half of those reported as “severe” (2010 US Census). Approximately 18-26% of American adults experience mental illness in a given year, and mental illnesses generally have high co-morbidity with other medical conditions.

In an academic context, representation of students with disabilities decreases over the course of academic preparation (Moon et al. 2012): 
Figure description: three pie charts illustrating the percentage of students with disabilities pursuing STEM degrees/studies. The pies show undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral level studies, with the slices representing students with disabilities becoming vanishingly small: 9-10% at the undergraduate level, 5% at the graduate level, and 1% at the doctorate level.
In a survey of the 2013 AAS membership, 2% or fewer respondents identified as having a disability (hearing, vision, or mobility impairment; note that this does not include cognitive, developmental, or mental health disabilities). Persons with disabilities are dramatically underrepresented in STEM fields and astronomy in particular.
Image description: 3-column table showing responses of AAS membership in a 2013 survey. 
First line: I am deaf or have serious difficulty hearing: 1% of membership, 21 respondents, answered yes. 
Second line: I am blind or have serious difficulty seeing even when wearing glasses: 0% of membership, or 2 respondents, answered yes. 
Third line: I have serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs: 1% of membership, or 14 respondents, answered yes. 
Fourth line: None of the above: 96% of membership, or 1,472 respondents, answered yes. 
Fifth line: 2% of membership, or 26 respondents, preferred not to respond.

Disability is a common experience, but stigma against disability is rife. Mental illness and other “invisible” disabilities are especially stigmatized and often ignored in conversations about access. Astronomy, as a subset of our society, contains this stigma against disability. Our field, which often sees itself as pushing the limits, can offer an environment for enhanced stigmatization and discrimination based on disability. This environment typifies ableism: discrimination, prejudice, and stereotyping against disabled people on the basis of their actual or presumed disability.

In 1990, the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) went into effect. This legal protection was revolutionary civil rights legislation, but in many situations is used as a box to check or as a shield rather than a guideline to improve overall accessibility. Many of us work at institutions that have policies in our departments and classrooms shaped by the ADA. This step is necessary but not sufficient. A great deal of work remains to reach a truly accessible future.

There have always been astronomers with disabilities, both visible and invisible. Celebrated classifier of stellar spectra Annie Jump Cannon was deaf from the middle of childhood onward, but many of us familiar with her work had never known that. It is important to remember that we are not making special exceptions when we focus on accessibility, we are honoring a tradition of our field. In some ways, the fields of physics and astrophysics have long been disciplines that celebrated scientists who were non-neurotypical in particular ways. However, there is a broad spectrum of neurodiversity and current classroom and professional environments rarely recognize this.

Systems exist in many of our institutions that are meant to provide some measure of accessibility. Unfortunately these systems often place an undue burden on those who require access, assistance, or services. A compliance-based system does not go far enough. We aspire to a way of working together that does not require disclosure of disability, and where diverse needs are being met with each of our interactions and activities. A mindset of diverse access makes the experience of learning, working, and collaborating stronger for all.

Working group charge

WGAD is tasked with promoting inclusion of and equity of opportunity for disabled astronomers at all career stages. Ableism is discrimination in favor of able-bodied or neurotypical people; it is an entire system of thinking and doing that hurts disabled people and is a form of structural oppression. Disability is defined as any mental, cognitive, or physical condition that, due to society’s structure, results in a significant barrier to engaging with society. Disabilities may be invisible or visible, and diagnosed or undiagnosed. Disablement occurs when biological and neurological realities collide with society and culture; it is not a problem located in someone’s mind or body, but in society.

Astronomy exists in the context of this society and is based in ableism. To that end, WGAD will work to:
  • Identify, document, and eliminate the barriers to access (including access to information) that impact disabled astronomers and students;
  • Actively address the intersections of ableism with racism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, and classism;
  • Increase accessibility for disabled astronomers and students;
  • Support the current professional astronomy community to bring people with disabilities into the workforce;
  • Recognize disability by teaching disability history, specifically including the disability history of astronomy;
  • Work to discourage the erasure of disability in astronomy;
  • Promoting knowledge of the roots of ableism and the effects in our classrooms and workplaces to change it;
  • Change the culture within astronomy to remove the stigma associated with disability and to value accessibility as a human right;
  • Promote the development and use of access tools and software; and
  • Build community among disabled astronomers and students.

The WGAD coordinating committee and access-astronomy group look forward to hearing from astronomers and serving to make our field more accessible for all.