Rine Vieth is a PhD candidate at McGill University in Tio’tia:ke/Montréal, Canada. They are currently researching how UK asylum tribunals consider religion and conversion, with a focus on Iranian Christian converts.
Anthropology centers itself around the idea of fieldwork. As anthropologists, we head off to the field. And, it is suggested, we go for a while. Fieldwork is what we are built for, what we focus our academic careers on, what we are—told, assumed—to revel in. More than once, a professor of mine has advised that I “go get lost in fieldwork, and stay away for as long as possible!” Very few professors have ever suggested ways to take care while in the field, and those suggestions have only come in the context of sexual violence.
Built into this assumption of ethnographic fieldwork is an idea of ability, of an able-bodied human—or, still, cis-man—who carries out research. He goes to the field, equipped with Malinowskian notions of what it takes to connect: the field is a place to be fully immersed in, a faraway place to disappear to for a few years, a place to be hardy and strong (Malinowski 1922, 4-6).
As a genderqueer graduate student with an invisible disability (mental illness), I don’t see myself reflected in this kind of work. I acknowledge my privilege of educational status, class, and race—all considered within the discipline—but remain continually frustrated with how frequently anthropology ignores disability, and how dis/ability shapes research practices. Beyond the colonial assumptions of Malinowskian fieldwork, which has been challenged over the decades, there remains certain expectations of braving the field. As one colleague put it, “It’s like you have more authority the longer you stay away, and the harder your stay was. Leaving is just not an option.” Fieldwork is meant to be a kind of manifestation of struggle, an academic wrestle (?) made real.
A small part of what makes this conversation so difficult for me is how I don’t look like someone with an obvious disability; I am white, and pass as a cis-woman and able-bodied. The only ability aid I use is a pair of not-so-strong glasses. When I packed my bags for the field—for a year or more, I wasn’t letting myself think about less—the only thing that might’ve marked me as “different” was a paper bag with a thousand dollars’ worth of medication in white, rectangular plastic bottles.
Not even my universities’ health systems have seen me as markedly different from my graduate student peers. For instance, my first undergraduate supervisor was eventually switched out which made it clear that I would be on my own when it came to asking for help and support within the institutional system. Since then, I have grown more confident in seeking institutional support, and now react faster when I hit a roadblock. For example, one doctor at my current university, upon seeing me for my mental illness, remarked, “You look fine, and you get good grades, so what are you worried about?”
I never saw that doctor again.
In academia, disability is caught up in constraints of time.
In my case, I needed to check in with my doctor after six months away; neither she nor I were entirely keen on a yearlong trip without some amount of medical support. When I explained that I needed to return from the field to my university, professors were not entirely supportive. So, instead of outing my illness—and risking the social and professional stigma that comes along with it—I used another medical issue (a surgery) as the reason I had to come back at the six-month mark. I now use visa restrictions as a way to explain why I cannot remain in the field longer. Each explanation leaves something silent: a need to meet up with a psychiatrist to refill a prescription; a missed departmental talk because of an unmissable appointment; or trauma held quietly back, instead of asking for help (that is most likely not to come).
In translating my experiences for the sake of my professors, I become lost.
With relatively new regulations on degree completion time limits, my university allows for extra time—one year—to complete a doctoral degree for students registered with the Office of Students with Disabilities (OSD). If it is to be recognized by the department, this allowance of time comes with a cost: how to find funding for that additional year?
What good is (academic) time with no way to pay for it?
Graduate students are not known for overflowing pockets—our budgets are caught up on “essentials,” with an eye towards focusing funds on research. In light of funding and budgets, what becomes necessary? And how are necessities calculated? While my cohort was funded for our first three years, this funding was calculated based on a cost-of-living mathematics that does not take into account monthly medical costs, for example.
And so, when I apply for grants, I have an additional pressure, an extra cost with no slot in my budget proposal. Where is the line for “expensive psychiatric medication that keeps me going”? How will I make sure I am able to pay for medication, doctors’ appointments, and everything else that I need to make it through the day?
While some students in my program complain about having to pay for health insurance, I am silently grateful for my insurance plan, and to be in Canada. The thousand dollars I spend every year on insurance is more than worth the cost of my medication and doctor’s visits. And so, instead of explaining how I rely on a variety of seemingly-invisible social networks, I remain quiet.
Academic faculty seem to forget that there are disabled graduate students, while articles pile up to show their presence (Jolin, 2017; Times Higher Education, 2017). Research points to mental health issues in graduate school—and the trend is only increasing (Evans et al, 2018). In my department, more and more professors are becoming aware of undergraduate students with registered disabilities.
And yet, neither of these seem to be resulting in an open conversation about the state of graduate school for students with disabilities. Whether due to understaffing, administrative overload, ableism, or ignorance, professors sometimes regard disabled students as problems. Requests for accommodation are treated as an additional burden. Biting my tongue in a departmental meeting, I quietly listened to professors talk about the stress they feel when dealing with a student with a severe mental illness—and the lack of university response—while they never seemed to suspect one of those students was sitting in the room.
What would have happened if departments incorporated a discussion of ability into conversations about the field? What if a fieldwork prep list included “medication’? What if we grad students were encouraged—and trusted—to create through a fieldwork timeline that works the best for us?
What would it look like if anthropology really did talk about dis/ability? How can we normalize the idea of disability and support people with disabilities within the discipline?
Here, I turn to other efforts in regards to sexual violence and harassment, notably recent grassroots efforts to both talk about and prepare for sexual harassment in the field. All students might be given advice as to how to best care for themselves in the field, including a component on mental health. Training professors on campus policy—as well as legal requirements—for disabled students, staff, and faculty would go a long way in breaking down assumptions of able-bodiedness within academia. Upon acceptance to university, students could be asked to supply supplementary information as to why they might need additional funding to cover costs. Students would be encouraged to make decisions—including whether or not to register for as a “disabled student”—based on what is best for them.
These options come with their own problems, which I openly acknowledge. What if students do not want to “out” themselves as disabled? What about the very real fear of repercussion within departments, or simply the tension of intradepartmental politics? What about professors who feel that medical attention and therapeutic interventions are unnecessary and counter-productive to fieldwork? I have yet to hear a perfect solution to figuring out the current situation of disability in the field, but it is important to at least start the conversation: stagnating in denial can no longer be an option.
While ethnographic work is valuable in its displacement, by its nature it asks for a certain kind of separation, a giving up of personal resources. I do see value in fieldwork, and love the complexities that ethnographic work allows for, but I also cannot and will not separate it from its ableist layers. As a disabled student, I rely heavily on existing social networks and medical professionals to survive. Pressuring me to give up these networks for the sake of a dream of fieldwork as a macho enterprise is a risk to my health—and serves no purpose than to reinforce the Malinowskian dream of the field that so many are working to tear down.
Instead, I suggest a different kind of dream: one of a more accessible fieldwork. One where needs are acknowledged, validated, and supported. One where social networks wouldn’t be the purview of old kinship charts, but something that we ourselves recognize as necessary for our own success and survival. One where I wouldn’t feel forced to “pass” and forget my disability, one where I could talk openly about fieldwork struggles without feeling as if I was failing my discipline.
And finally, one where we begin to really talk about what it’s like to be an anthropologist—to do anthropology—with a disability.
Evans, Teresa M., Lindsay Bira, Jazmin Beltran Gastelum, L. Todd Weiss, and Nathan L. Vanderford. 2018. “Evidence for a Mental Health Crisis in Graduate Education.” Comments and Opinion. Nature Biotechnology. March 6, 2018. https://www.nature.com/articles/nbt.4089
Jolin, Lucy. 2017. “Is Enough Being Done to Improve Access for Postgrad Students with Disabilities?” The Guardian, November 10, 2017, sec. Education. http://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/nov/10/universities-improving-access-students-disabilities-participation.
Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1922. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London: Routledge.
Times Higher Education. 2017. “Disability on Campus: The Challenges Faced and Change Needed.” Times Higher Education (THE). May 18, 2017. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/disability-campus-challenges-faced-and-change-needed.
 Here, I call attention to how ability aids are prevalent, and but often go unremarked upon unless they are to do with mobility (e.g. wheelchair, crutch).