Disability in archaeology can be discussed from two perspectives: identifying and interpreting disability in the past (e.g., Gowland 2017, Kristjánsdóttir and Walser 2021, and my own previous blog post briefly discussing this), but also supporting accessibility and inclusivity for disabled archaeologists (e.g., Philips et al. 2012, O’Mahoney 2015). Today’s blog post will focus on the latter, and I want to dedicate this to the memory of Theresa O’Mahoney, a dis/Abled enabled* public archaeologist who was also one of the most prominent disability activists in the field, particularly through the establishment of the Enabled Archaeology Foundation.
*dis/Abled enabled, in Theresa’s own words – “We put the A in disabled to show we have abilities not disabilities, and enabled means using coping strategies or tools to do our best work and live our daily lives” (O’Mahoney 2018).
So, among many other things, I’m a disabled archaeologist. I guess perhaps the more accurate term would be “newly disabled” archaeologist; recent health issues over the past year have exacerbated problems with my mobility and severe chronic pain. And yet, looking back I can see the signs of my current health condition: the amount of injuries I have sustained during excavations from what was originally considered inherent clumsiness may have actually be cases of my joint disorder getting the better of my coordination, and my ignorance of the underlying conditions at play have inadvertently placed me in a more dangerous spot than my non-disabled colleagues. These culminative injuries and the effect it had on my mental health (something that I’ve already struggled with for years) made me uninterested in working as an on-site archaeologist…which may have been a good call as my health problems have intensified in recent years.
Despite this decision to avoid fieldwork being made far in advance, I can’t really say that it has helped me plan for continuing a career in archaeology as a disabled archaeologist. In some ways, I’m very fortunate that I even have the privilege to choose not to excavate – for many disabled archaeologists who primarily work in the commercial sector, there is the sense that you just have to “get over it” in order to keep one’s job (Phillips et al. 2012, p. 681-682). My academic background, as well as the fact that my expertise lies primarily in post-excavation analysis, arguably makes me a better candidate for non-field-based roles anyway; however, those sort of roles are not plentiful on the job market, especially those which are connected to academic institutions and projects. And while there is much work being done with regards to expanding archaeological practice beyond traditional fieldwork (e.g., Frieman and Janz 2018, Nishimura 2020, Aycock 2021), I’d argue that excavation is still considered by many to be a main method by which our discipline is enacted. There’s logic to that, of course, but unfortunately such an attitude can also be entrenched in ideals of harmful gatekeeping, ableism, and toxic masculinity that continues to make the discipline inaccessible to marginalised individuals (Fitzpatrick 2020); personally, its this attitude that makes the idea of ever returning to the field seem impossible, that I would be an additional burden who cannot pull their own weight alongside my colleagues, even with accommodations in place.
Things can often seem dire, and I’m still learning the ropes of navigating life as not only a disabled person, but as a disabled archaeologist as well. But it should be noted that there has been a lot done with regards to changing the way archaeology is practiced and accommodating the needs of others. For starters, I should clarify that being disabled doesn’t necessarily exclude you from traditional fieldwork – there has certainly been a more conscious effort by fieldwork supervisors to provide accommodations where necessary, with many organisations developing and adopting standards and practices to become more inclusive (e.g., Phillips and Creighton 2010, Philips et al. 2012, O’Mahoney 2015). But part of the challenge is that we must also avoid a “one-size-fits-all” solution to overcoming inaccessibility as well – accommodations and support will differ among disabled archaeologists (e.g., Dall 2017, Heath-Stout 2019, Talbot and Loftus 2020, King et al. 2021). Non-disabled archaeologists must continue to listen to the voices of our disabled colleagues and recognise that accessibility is not a privilege within our field – it must be a non-negotiable right. Similarly, we must end this notion that fieldwork must be this physically demanding and torturous rite of passage – this isn’t to downplay the fact that excavation requires a level of physical rigour, but to reframe the way we view fieldwork as archaeological practice. Archaeology can be practiced through various means, and all levels of work – both inside and outside of the site – must be seen with equal importance as part of a more holistic model of archaeological practice.
There is still much to be done within the field to become more inclusive and accommodating to the various needs of disabled archaeologists; this urgent need has only been heightened with the coronavirus pandemic, which has unfortunately seen many disabled people once again facing exclusion under the guise of returning to “normal” (Barbarin and Dawson 2021). But with more disabled archaeologists speaking out and the further adoption of inclusive practices, we can continue to open up the field to everyone.
Aycock, J. (2021). The coming tsunami of digital artefacts. Antiquity, 95(384), pp. 1584-1589.
Barbarin, I. and Dawson, K. (2021) “Normal” Never Worked for Disabled People – Why Would We Want to Return to It? Refinery 29. Retrieved from https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/workplaces-need-change-for-disabled-people
Fitzpatrick, A. (2020) You Will Never Be Indiana Jones. Lady Science. Retrieved from https://www.ladyscience.com/essays/you-will-never-be-indiana-jones-toxic-masculinity-archaeology
Frieman, C. J., & Janz, L. (2018). A very remote storage box indeed: The importance of doing archaeology with old museum collections. Journal of Field Archaeology, 43(4), pp. 257-268.
Gowland, R. (2017). Growing old: biographies of disability and care in later life. In L Tilley and A A Schrenck (eds)New Developments in the Bioarchaeology of Care. Springer, Cham, pp. 237-251.
Heath-Stout, L. (2019) The Invisibly Disabled Archaeologist. Presented at The 84th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Albuquerque, NM.
King, J., Jennings, B., & Bohling, S. (2021). Visual impairment and archaeological engagement. The Archaeologist, (112), pp. 25-27.
Kristjánsdóttir, S. and Walser, J.W. (2021) Beneath the Surface: Disability in archaeological and osteobiographical contexts. In H Björg Sigurjónsdóttir and J G Rice (eds) Understanding Disability Throughout History. Routledge, Milton Park, UK, pp. 29-45.
Nishimura, Y. (2020). Doing archaeology outside of the trench: Energizing museum “Diaspora” collections for research. Archaeological Research in Asia, 24, p. 100227.
O’Mahoney, T. (2015) Enabled Archaeology. BAJR Series Guide (41).
O’Mahoney, T. (2018) Reflections in UK Archaeology – a Personal Journey in Academic Life. Journal of Community Archaeology and Heritage 5(3), pp. 216-218.
Phillips, T., & Creighton, J. (2010). Employing people with disabilities: Good practice guidance for archaeologists. Institute for Archaeologists.
Phillips, T., Gilchrist, R., Skeates, R., McDavid, C. and Carman, J. (2012). Inclusive, Accessible Archaeology: Enabling Persons with Disabilities. The Oxford Handbook of Public Archaeology. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp.673-693.
Talbot, A., & Loftus, R. (2020). Neurodiversity and archaeological practice. The Archaeologist, (110), pp. 26-27.
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