Thursday, 18 August 2016

Metrics of Productivity

Written by Wanda Diaz Merced
During the month of September 2015, I was invited to an inclusion summit by the American Astronomical Society (AAS).  On my way to the summit I took a shared shuttle ride.  A very nice and talkative couple shared the journey with me.  Their destination was their house and mine the AAS office in Washington DC. Of course, we chatted all the time. I love chatting!
The lady introduced herself as a member of staff at the Fulbright Commission. We chatted and laughed all the way. The conversation reached a point where she mentioned her various trips to a country in Africa, to which I replied "I have been there many times too!".  That led me to explain why and to talk about my academic research.  It was very good to hear the “how do you do it?” question right after I told them about my work.
When we got to that point, being unemployed myself, I spoke about how some people’s disabilities lead them to make grammatical mistakes in their resumes, essays and in job application forms that are often not user centered.  I also spoke of technology like screen readers, which despite being helpful, do not prevent us from making mistakes that may lead to incomplete applications or unattached required documents leaving our applications destined for the rejection pile.
I had the same challenge when doing my PhD.  Because I did not ask for a proofreader, upon turning my thesis in I had a whole chapter inserted into the table of contents and during the viva the examiners asked me why I had not included a conclusion chapter.  I had written it but it never made it into their hands.  Beyond that, my examiners mentioned that paragraphs were repeated and pages were numbered twice among other issues.   Luckily for me, my university took action and paid a proofreader, who helped me to correct all the grammatical mistakes and my examiners understood the situation.
However, what about a recent graduate who has a disability causing the occurrence of grammatical mistakes who cannot pay an editor or someone to proofread or help with the job application process?  What about the mentality in scientific academia in the field of astronomy and computer science (I only know astronomy and computer science) of a productivity metric based on written publications?  What about the fact that people who are disabled are expected to perform like a traditional academic (I still use astronomy and computer science as an example) using the same interfaces and perhaps strategies.  As a blind person I have my own strategies; why do I have to be assessed against the established metrics if I have to complete an application that has been made only for sighted users, when I navigate the application with my ears?    How much more difficult is it to compete fairly for a job when your cv is destined for the rejection pile because a grammatical mistake potentially has more weight than your achievements, or because we just could not deal with the presentation of the job application?
I choose to use sound to analyze my data but I have to present anything I find in the data visually to my peers.  When my collaborators bring data to me no one provides a sound file for me to evaluate the data as a peer.  I have also failed to make them aware that I use sound to analyze my data because my performance is at its highest.  They provide a chart.  It is true that the chart may be embossed so that I can use touch to “read” it but in my case having access to the data behind the charts allows me to hear it and do a more thorough evaluation of possible features that may be significant.
I humbly think that while academia is affected by these sorts of inequalities, some are at a disadvantage.  There is no malice; it happens unwittingly but to me this is equivalent to suffer a death by a hundred paper cuts.  At the same time I believe firmly that evaluation metrics have to change to establish a heterogeneous environment in academia, that better awareness will decrease the bias of review boards and that we will be able to level the playing field.  I do not underestimate the effort this will take.  This is a situation that affects all people with disabilities in academia, those applying for post-docs and anyone with a disability who is job hunting.   This is robbing people with disabilities from equal opportunities to display our talents and dignified, meaningful work.  Anyone may develop a disability at any time.  Academics with and without disabilities from every background should unite and work towards leveling the playing field.  People with disabilities do things with our bodies that the able-bodied person has never thought of; if we are allowed to participate as equals, a new type of academia will emerge with people exploring, discovering and employing innovative coping strategies the able-bodied would never think of. 

About the Author

Wanda is a Computer Scientist and Astronomer with a PhD from the University of Glasgow in Scotland.  She is now affiliated to the Office of Astronomy for Development located at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town.

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