In early March 2022 BIOME had the pleasure of hosting Helen Rottier (she/they), a PhD candidate in Disability Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, for a talk on the principles of accessibility in mentorship. Their research focuses on ableism, access, and the experiences of autistic, mad, and disabled scholars. She is an autistic and otherwise disabled researcher, educator, and activist committed to disability justice and centering diverse autistic perspectives. The presentation and conversation touched on everything from best practices of accessible and inclusive mentorship, to how disability justice is intimately intertwined with other justice movements. This started a much-needed conversation about academic ableism on our own campus. Below is a summary of the presentation.
We invite you to refer to Helen’s slides on “Disability Justice in Mentoring” as you read through a summary of the talk below!
Getting up to speed
Ableism can be defined as the practices, beliefs, and systems that discriminate against e disabled people. Ableism happens through ideas and actions; both by how we view disabled people and how we act upon those viewpoints. Extending from there, academic ableism is the “systemic oppression, exclusion, and devaluation of disabled people in or around the academy” (Helen Rottier’s presentation).
Academia is intentionally, inherently, and iconically ableist. The academy was designed to reward able-bodied, white, middle-to-upper-class, male scholars. This norm actively pushes disabled scholars out of the academy, and at every career stage disabled scholars become scarcer (J. P. Sarju, Chem. Eur. J. 2021, 27, 10489.). Disabled and neurodivergent scholars face additional challenges beyond those inherent to the rigor of their studies, ranging from inaccessible spaces to the erasure of their identities .
As mentors, we have the power to either perpetuate these systems, or actively dismantle academic ableism! We can be a resource for mentees facing discrimination and a source of support to our disabled colleagues. Additionally, these anti-ableist practices benefit all mentees, regardless of ability. Clear communication of expectations, valuing students as more than their academic output, and maintaining flexibility in communication and meeting norms allows abled and disabled students to flourish.
Accessible and inclusive mentoring relationships are integral to changing how higher education operates and developing fairer systems for future scholars.
How can we be inclusive mentors?
So how can we be inclusive mentors to disabled and neurodivergent mentees? All mentees need mentors who are content experts— after all, when we join a new environment, we’re looking to gain a skill! Mentees are also often in search of mentors who can provide feedback, opportunities for growth, and care about them as people as well as scholars. Beyond this, disabled students also need mentors who can help them navigate ableist academic structures.
High expectations, high support
Default to high expectations, high support for your mentees. Our students are capable of extraordinary work, and often just require the tools necessary to succeed. We can adjust these to what each student needs- some may thrive with a hands-off mentor, while others may want more regular check-ins.
By being flexible with deadlines, communication, and meeting norms, mentees can have the freedom to grow into new spaces. Flexibility in communication may look like summarizing oral conversations in an email, allowing mentees time to work through responses during meetings, or making space for students to communicate in different ways (ex: sign language, Augmentative and Alternative Communication or AAC). We also need to clearly state the social norms of a space and adjust those norms to allow everyone to contribute fully.
Shared needs and expectations
Similarly, sharing your needs and expectations as a mentor gives your mentee a framework to build on. This allows them to know what success looks like and how to get there. They also should feel comfortable sharing with you what they hope to gain from the experience.
Be sure to share opportunities with your disabled mentees. If you’d share an event, opportunity, or resource with an abled student, you should invite disabled students as well. In the same vein, don’t treat disabled mentees as fragile- they are capable of handling feedback, responsibility, and adversity. Disability is not a flaw, it’s a valuable way of being inside and outside the academy. The unique ways disabled people think bring valuable insights to our work.
Assess and adjust mentorship style
Remember to check in on your students! This doesn’t only extend to their project and content understanding, but also includes getting their feedback on the mentoring relationship. This is a good time to reassess expectations and support needs. Does your student need more frequent check-ins? Have they accomplished their goals? Is it time to set new and perhaps more challenging expectations? Can you connect your student with a colleague for support in a specific area?
We can’t (and we shouldn’t!) be the only mentor that our mentee has. By connecting our mentee to other appropriate and qualified mentors, we not only help our students build connections to the scientific community, but we facilitate them finding mentors that share their identities and/or experiences. Just as Black students need Black mentors and female students need female mentors, disabled students need disabled mentors. Not only can disabled people be mentors, but they also are invaluable resources for mentees navigating through academic ableism due to their firsthand knowledge. This sort of support can be instrumental for the success of disabled mentees .
These actionable steps are informed by the principles of Disability Justice, a movement focusing on the intersectionality of the disabled experience and is led by Black, negatively-racialized, queer, and trans disabled people. For a detailed explanation of the 10 principles of Disability Justice, listed below, you can check out work by Sins Invalid and this video.
- Leadership of the Most Impacted
- Cross-Movement Organization
- Recognizing Wholeness
- Dross-Disability Solidarity
- Collective Access
- Collective Liberation
- Able-bodied: non-disabled
- Ableism: “the system of discriminatory practices and beliefs that maintain and perpetuate disability oppression” (Sins Invalid, 2019). “These constructed ideas are deeply rooted in eugenics, anti-Blackness, misogyny, colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism” (working definition by @TalilaLewis and the community of Black/negatively racialized folks, especially @NotThreeFifths).
- Academic Ableism: “systemic oppression, exclusion, and devaluation of disabled people in or around the academy” (Helen Rottier’s presentation).
- Disability Justice: in contrast to Disability Rights Movement, which works to establish civil rights for disabled people and is focused on advancing mostly white people with mobility-limiting disabilities, Disability Justice is led by disabled people of color and queer and trans folks which encompasses the intersectionality of disability with other marginized identities and acknowledges that the state will never dispense rights to Black, queer, and other multiply marginized disabled people (Sins Invalid, 2020)
- Neurodiversity: variation in neurocognitive functioning, encompassing neurocognitive conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome, intellectual disability, depression, OCD, anxiety, schizophrenia, and many more (“Increasing Neurodiversity in Disability and Social Justice Advocacy Groups” by Jessica M. F. Hughes, Ph.D)