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Towards an equitable, diverse, inclusive and accessible research ecosystem

(Photo credit: Andrew Hessel)

Operating in a world designed by and for people who fit certain body and mind ability norms can be a challenge when you are seen as not measuring up to those norms, which is often the case for people considered as disabled or impaired. The research ecosystem can be particularly problematic. NSERC met with Gregor Wolbring, a researcher who had to face less-than-ideal circumstances.

Dr. Wolbring is a tenured full professor at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine in the community rehabilitation and disability studies program, who initially trained as a biochemist. In 2008, he moved from his biochemistry work into his current faculty position, focusing on policy work. When asked about his areas of expertise, he describes himself as an ability studies, disability studies, sustainability studies and science and technology governance scholar. Dr. Wolbring highlights that in ability studies, the focus is on the cultural reality of ability judgements that impact everyone (everyone gets judged on their abilities) and the consequences of these judgements, that are used in disabling and enabling ways. Dr. Wolbring is also increasingly known as an equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) scholar and often uses his natural sciences lab background and EDI expertise to guide his policy research work including how he runs his research group.

What is the EDI thread in your career trajectory?

I was born with no legs and am a wheelchair user. As such I experience discriminatory realities based on ability norms that assume legs and walking as an ability. Luckily, I was raised by very supportive parents in Germany who did not buy into this ability norm. Therefore, when I figured that I wanted to be a biochemist, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t be one! Of course, I was in the lucky position that I could shift between different modes of mobility (crawling, artificial legs and wheelchair) which allowed me to 'adapt' to the non-accessible realities I encountered. I started my postsecondary studies in biochemistry in Germany, did my actual diploma thesis work in the United Kingdom and my PhD back in Germany. It was for my postdoctoral studies, 30 years ago, that I first joined the University of Calgary, in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics.

Throughout my biochemistry career I was also involved in science and technology policy and ethics work; often raising the consequences for marginalized groups, such as persons with disabilities. In 2008, when a faculty position became available at the University of Calgary, where I could apply my science and technology policy work, I sent my CV in. Partly, this was because I felt that my physical abilities eventually might not allow me to go to the lab daily and this faculty position was more flexible as I could do research and teach virtually. That was in the early 2000s, when going virtual was not a common thing!

Please tell us more about your EDI input on your most recent research projects.

Currently, I collaborate on two projects that receive federal research funding. This link will take you to another Web site FUTUREBODY, The Future of the Body in the Light of Neurotechnology is funded under the ERA-NET NEURO program and, as the Canadian member of the grant, I am funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). Our focus is on the philosophical analysis of embodiment and agency and my contribution is on disabled students, especially undergraduate disabled students as knowledge producers. From an EDI perspective, it is important that these students see themselves as knowledge producers, including as researchers.

The second project is the This link will take you to another Web site emergency and disaster management research project funded by the Tri-Agency New Frontiers in Research Fund (NRFR). My University of Calgary colleague Svetlana Yanushkevich is the principal investigator on this grant, which focuses on machine learning, to develop algorithms that could be used in the emergency management cycle. As part of our EDI focus, we ensure that all members’ ability realities are considered. We also apply an EDI lens when wording our research questions. My group looks at how marginalized groups are covered within emergency and disaster management situations (for example, in newspapers) and how to increase people’s literacy―including researchers’―involved in dealing with these situations. The impacts on marginalized groups are particularly important to highlight.

Finally, a third project that just concluded, and not funded through the federal granting agencies, was with the Institute on Science, Society and Policy: “This link will take you to another Web site From concept to action: Good practices for EDI in research, KMb, and teaching at the interface of science, society and policy."

Can you explain your approach to working with undergraduate students?

Since 2008, I actively recruited over 50 undergraduate students (many are in their first year when they start with me) as researchers (This link will take you to another Web site link to my blog outlining their achievements). I see undergraduate students as needing opportunities to be researchers and I envision them as potential EDI influencers. We, as a group, make sure that everyone can belong. All the premises of how the group functions are about a ‘we’ and EDI is part of the ‘we’. Given my own experiences, our focus is on increasing opportunities such as presenting at conferences, and mainly virtual ones (430 so far mostly virtual or within driving distance). Travel is not only a barrier for me but also for many others, including undergraduate students.

Most of my students don't want to go into academia: many will work with or for marginalized groups including disabled people in the community, and as such could influence EDI work in workplaces that are not postsecondary institutions. In providing research training to undergraduates, we can provide them with tools needed to be community scholars (community members being the scholars) in their workplaces and communities, enabling them to contribute to EDI by suggesting research questions and conducting research. Also, for me, the group shapes the group. It's not me. They learn to think in “EDI ways” and see how beneficial it is for the group. Working with my students is probably the most rewarding experience I have had to date. They are my inspiration.

What would you say are the main EDI challenges in the research ecosystem and what can be done to address them?

If we want to focus on disabled people, I would say that one main EDI issue, at least in Canada, is the broad definition of “disability”. EDI barriers vary for different disabled people even if they are oftentimes (and mistakenly) referred to as a homogenous group. Target percentage should be much higher to be representative of the disabled population, which is bigger if we tally up all the characteristics falling under “disability”. EDI barriers also differ based on the disciplines and there are uneven provincial and territorial realities.

There are issues around the time one loses while waiting for accessibility such as labs or webpages (for research projects submissions) to be implemented (if they are even implemented). Behaving as if only disabled people need “accommodations” is another EDI issue. We do not consider in a systemic way the problems disabled people experience outside academia. We do not encourage disabled students at the high school and undergraduate levels to become researchers and we only provide them with few opportunities and little exposure to research. We need more mentors. Students have the This link will take you to another Web site National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS) and disabled student groups on campus; similar set ups for faculty are needed. To my knowledge, there is no disabled faculty network in Canada – not at most if any university, nor as a national organization. There are EDI initiatives within non university workplaces and there is the Dimensions EDI program. A repository to list best practices for resolving EDI problems disabled academic and non-academic staff and students face within and outside the research ecosystem would be useful. We know there are gaps in academic studies focusing on EDI.

Initiatives that could fill these gaps and move the EDI research community into the mainstream would be useful. I hope that, in some ways, my policy and research work and the research exposure that my students gain from our work will contribute to a more inclusive research ecosystem.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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