Ableism in Archaeology

I recently had Hanna Marie Pageau on the Go Dig a Hole podcast (Episode 21) to talk about ableism in archaeology, and her experiences as a disabled archaeologist.


On this podcast episode, Pageau explains that ableism in general is quite simple to define on the macro level – practices or policies that prevent participation based on ability. On the micro-level, things get more complicated.

Pageau points out that ableism often takes the form of micro-aggressions – subtle, perhaps-unconscious words or actions that discourage disabled people from participating. She gives examples from her early experiences in archaeological field schools, in which she was relegated to duties that were low-impact in and of themselves, but aspects of these assignments were not accommodating to her needs at the time. People’s attitudes toward disabled people shape the starting point for ableism. If colleagues on an archaeological project express the attitude that “you chose this field” rather than “what accessibility options would make this more accommodating?”, it belies a lack of compassion that forms ontological obstacles to improving accessibility. It says to the disabled, “you are not welcome, you did this to yourself”.

Field archaeology can be physically demanding, but removing a person from the field is not always the solution. Pageau recounts from her field school experiences, that the distance and strenuousness of the walk to the lab was more limiting than excavating under the cover of shade, and when the field director reassigned her to the lab, it put her out for the day. On a whole, these small incidents rob early career archaeologists of valuable learning experiences and, over time, limit their opportunities in the future. Pageau points out that disabled people know their limits – they live with them every day – and they don’t have unrealistic expectations when it comes to accessibility. “Nobody is going to put a chairlift on the side of a mountain”, Pagaeu laughs, “but it doesn’t have to be that extreme, there are simple solutions to most things and what’s needed is some flexibility”.

Ableism isn’t confined to field archaeology. Accessibility at academic conferences has long been lacking, and some have gone to great lengths to defend this – expending more time and energy than it would take to simply fix. Pageau shares several examples of this, highlighting how simple it can be to offer a chair to a presenter (seriously, how are there no chairs for presenters in a room full of chairs?!). The starting point for accessibility at conferences, Pageau urges, should simply be an option to request accessibility services. This goes a long way to dismantle the ableist attitude of “you can’t do this”, by letting people self-identify what they need for participation. Pageau recently encountered resistance to suggesting this approach, most notably with the organizers for the March for Science (listen to Episode 55 of the Arch365 podcast for an expanded discussion of this). In this instance, she asked March for Science organizers to include “disabled people” in their so-called inclusive mission statement. Not only did they refuse, but it sparked a several-day-long Twitter flame war in which organizers and supporters of the March for Science responded in appalling manners ranging from condescension to full-tilt hatred. This appears symptomatic of problematic leadership within the March for Science, as several POC scientists have received similar reactions when they attempted to engage in dialogue about inclusiveness, intersectionality, and representation. In the case of the March for Science, inclusiveness and intersectionality are presented as quite empty buzzwords to appeal to a certain base, however the organizers have made public statements denying the organization has any political motive. As both Pageau and I point out in the Arch365 podcast, that position is intellectually bankrupt and betrays marginalized scientists with the privilege that underpins such an attitude.

Pageau’s experiences highlight the pervasiveness of ableism in archaeology (and in STEM). She offers a plan for moving forward with effective inclusive measures to make archaeology (and science at large) more accessible; it’s not a radical shift, but rather a tiered approach. By taking a tiered approach to accessibility in archaeology, simple, inexpensive acts can have far-reaching impacts. In the end, offering disabled people a chance to share their perspectives and communicate their needs should be the starting point for working away from cemented ableism. It’s astounding how few professional or academic settings fail at even that level of inclusion, as evidenced by Pageau’s accounts. Take the tier a level up, and offer chairs for people who have difficulty with standing. You wouldn’t think this would rock the boat, but somehow it does. Once a culture of awareness is normalized, then funding expanded accessibility features might eventually become standard operating procedure for archaeological projects. Understanding and dealing with ableism is complex and nuanced, but not impossible (not even that difficult, most of the time).

Looking forward, several professional and academic conferences are showing responsiveness to demands to be more inclusive to people with disabilities. As Pageau closes the podcast episode, she points out that self-identifying accessibility needs is one important step. If a contact form isn’t readily available in online registration for conferences and such, then contacting organizers is the next step. On that same note, if accessibility isn’t included in a group’s diversity or inclusive statement, then request the organizers of the group to simply add a statement on accessibility and inclusion of people with disabilities. If that fails, then boost the signal of your complaint until a resolution is met.


You can follow Hanna Marie Pageau on Twitter (@tinysapien).

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