Navigating Nature and Academia as a Disabled Scientist, a Talk by Dr. Kelsey Byers

January 24th marks International Day of Education, representing education as a human right, a public good, and a public responsibility. The theme for 2024 is "learning under lasting peace" to bring awareness to education's crucial role in countering hate speech. Without inclusive access to academia, many children, youth, and adults will struggle to achieve quality education and opportunities. One such struggle is that of a disabled person navigating the academic field to meet the challenges of receiving quality education and opportunities. 

On December 4, 2023, Dr. Kelsey Byers, group leader at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK, presented a hybrid Community Seminar Series talk for the College of Biological Science at UofG. Her presentation, "Disabled in the Field: Navigating Nature and Academia as a Disabled Scientist," discussed navigating disabilities in the work and academia environment. Madison Harrison, a student working with the Live Work Well Research Centre, attended her talk and wrote the following summary.  

  A pale green background with faded trees, with a person sitting in a wheelchair at a desk looking at a microscope in the bottom left.

Dr. Kelsey Byers is an evolutionary chemical ecologist focused on the evolution and diversification of floral scent. She has previously done presentations about her fieldwork experience as a disabled scientist and continues to advocate for including scientists with disabilities in formal and informal scientific contexts. Kelsey started her talk by discussing the basic concepts and language around disabilities and how legal and standard definitions tend to differ. Kelsey discussed the importance of understanding the difference between visual and invisible disabilities and of recognizing that they are equally important and require the same accommodation considerations. Just because a disability cannot be visually recognized does not mean that someone doesn't have a disability; accommodations may still be required to make a space more accessible and comfortable for the person. There is also essential language to consider when speaking to and referring to persons with disabilities, and as Kelsey described, it is important to respect an individual's preferred terminology. The notion of "persons first" language is often considered as the preferred way to refer to someone with a disability because it presents an individual's personhood before their disability. But Kelsey refers to herself as a "disabled scientist" because her disability colours every aspect of her life experiences. Therefore, it is essential to consider each person's preference.  

Further, much of the language for interacting with a disabled person is categorized into different models. Kelsey described the medical model, typical in our society, which pushes the deficit model that asks, "What is wrong with you?" implying that there is something about a person’s disability to be fixed. The social model also assumes this notion of needing to be "fixed" but adds the view that a disability would not be considered disabling if society were "accommodating" to it; therefore, it is not the individual that needs to be fixed, but society and current infrastructures. Kelsey’s preferred model to follow is the biopsychosocial model, which acknowledges that even if society is accommodating, many struggles still cannot be ignored.  

Kelsey also said that a critical discussion around privacy and stigma needs to be included when considering diversity, equity, and inclusion. Many people don’t want to or don't feel the need to tell the world that they are disabled, especially since mental health conditions that are disabling are still heavily stigmatized; someone shouldn't have to declare their disability to benefit from inclusion. It is essential to keep this in mind and not solicit specific information about a person based on whether you perceive them to be disabled or not.  

Kelsey also discussed the importance of intersectionality coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to address the additive effects of being a black woman. The intersection of identities cannot be separated because it encompasses everything; Kelsey stated that she is not queer and disabled and asexual, but rather is a queer, disabled, asexual person.  

In her academic life, Kelsey discussed that certain disability aspects are still perceived as imperfect and needing to be fixed. Some of the comments that Kelsey has received herself (and knows that many others have received) include: "It's so good to see you out of your wheelchair," "You can walk?" and "You look like you're ready for a hike!" (referring to her backpack of medical/emergency supplies). These comments try to separate the individual from their disability, implying that it is better to see them functioning outside of their disability. It violates someone's privacy and creates an environment of discomfort when their disability is the centre of attention. They're forced to explain or address specific aspects of their disability to appease the shock and curiosity of others.  

 Kelsey discussed her experience and challenges working as a scientist and participating in fieldwork. Most of the time, persons with disabilities are encouraged to focus on paperwork and stay in the office, pushing the notion that fieldwork requires full functionality and mobility. Decisions tend to be made for persons with disabilities, telling them what they can and cannot do rather than asking them what they are capable of and making the necessary accommodations to include them. Kelsey finds that, many times, alternatives can be found to include a disabled person in fieldwork. Still, it requires being creative and not assuming a person's ability, but instead including everybody in the conversation and asking what that person needs.    

What I took away from this talk by Kelsey is the awareness that many barriers are still in place, due mainly to the perceptions and attitudes of others rather than of the disabled person. Someone without a disability can’t conceive of how exhausting it is for disabled persons to constantly advocate for an accessible and accommodating work/academia environment, to deal with rude comments and questions, and to be made to feel uncomfortable just for having a disability. It is essential not to make assumptions, rules, or exceptions without talking to the person and not to assume that you know better. Persons with disabilities can speak for themselves, and they should be treated as the authorities for their own experience; it is not up to anyone else to determine what someone else is feeling or experiencing. Communication goes both ways: it should not be solely up to persons with disabilities to continuously advocate for accommodations to live an inclusive and fulfilling life.  


-Written by Madison Harrison