Professional Archaeology- Disability Friendly?

Posted on August 11, 2014


There are 11 million people with disabilities in the UK, that is roughly 17% of the population. Guess how many professional archaeologists have disabilities?

Less than 2%, that is what The Profiling the Profession surveys have found (1.8% in 2012-13, 1.6% in 2007-08, .3% in 2002-03). A different survey in 2005, ‘Archaeology and Disability’, specifically looking at disabilities in archaeology, found the number to be between 2% and 10%*.  Of course we don’t have numbers from other countries but I would imagine they are similar. Assuming it is closer to 2% that means Professional Archaeology is 8x less likely to employ someone with a disability, as compared to the general population. It would appear that Archaeology is not disability friendly. But, before we jump into why that might be let us take a closer look at those numbers.

(This is part of a series of posts on Disabilities and Archaeology- see high rates of dyslexia in archaeology, my personal experiencesdisclosing to your employer )

Disability by Age

6% of UK children are disabled. More relevant to this discussion- 16% of working age adults and 45% of adults over pension age. Age is not an explanation for the discrepancies we see in hiring professional archaeologists. Though if you are involved in Public Archaeology pay real close attention to that 45% of people over retirement age being disabled as most surveys show these are the people most involved in Public Archaeology.

Disability and Exclusion from the General Workforce

In 2012, 46.3% of working-age disabled people were employed compared to 76.4% of  non-disabled people. But, that makes sense right? The definition of a disability, in the UK at least, is-

‘if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.’

Working is a normal daily activity and so we should not be surprised that people with disabilities might not be able to work. Still, if all things were proportionate we would expect to see about 11% of working professional archaeologists to have some sort of disability, but we don’t.

Why So Few?

I suspect some of it has to do with under reporting. The ‘Survey of Archaeology and Disability’ I mentioned broke down the reported disabilities for archaeologists:

Dyslexia  15.5%
Unseen Disability  53.5%
Hearing Impairment  3.9%
Restricted Mobility  8.5%
Asperger’s 3.1%
Mental Illness 18.5%
Visual Impairment 7.0%

The largest number was for ‘Unseen Disabilities’. These disabilities include: Agoraphobia  1.5 %; Allergy  1.5%; Arthritis 17.3%; Asthma 14.4%; Diabetes 26.0%;
Epilepsy 8.7%; Heart Condition 5.8%; MS 2.9%; Phobia 2.9%; (you can see them all in the report),

I suspect that many people have disabilities that their employers are not aware of because they are not seen. Since all the data we have is from surveys of employers this is a distinct possibility. Some people may not believe they have a disability and thus not report it. Here is a response from the Archaeology and Disability survey:

‘It really depends how you define disabled. According to the list in your letter, about half our staff are disabled, including myself. Four have some degree of visual impairment, for which they wear glasses or contact lenses. Additionally, two of these also suffer from mild dyslexia. I do not consider myself disabled, and I’m sure they do not either. In any case, some of the conditions you list (eg. Arthritis, diabetes, ME) should surely be classified as ailments or diseases, not disabilities. This all sounds a bit too politically correct in my view.’ – Archaeology and Disability respondent

Stigma or Stigmata?

With unseen disabilities it is on the onus of the employee to report the disability. There are many reasons not to report a disability to your employer. One reason is that it is not relevant to your work but another one is fear. While it is technically illegal to fire someone or not hire them because of a disability, in most countries, professional archaeology is well placed to do just that. Most jobs are temporary and it is very easy to simply use, ‘last-in first-out’, or ‘experience’ or any number of other factors to not re-employ someone and avoid lawsuits. This was another response to the survey-

‘The only person we had real problems with was an Asperger’s spectrum employee who was on a short contract which was not renewed. As might be assumed, it was the disruption to the team which caused the problems, as well as his inability to cope with changes in routine. Dyslexia/associated impairments are a problem probably quite widespread in a mild form. We provided support for an employee in the form of an assessment, but at the end of the day he was incapable of writing reports or organising anything, just a brilliant ideas person.’ (A large employer) – Archaeology and Disability respondent

The stigma of disability can quickly manifest itself into negative work consequences, a stigmata of sorts.

Archaeology is Physical and Remote

But, if these numbers are not under reported then there are several factors that can limit people’s participation or employment options?

In the UK, an employer has to make’ reasonable adjustments’. What is a reasonable adjustment? No one quite knows.  Could someone require a commercial archaeology unit to make a construction site wheelchair accessible? I don’t know. However, it is possible to refuse employment on health and safety grounds, but an individual risk assessment must be carried out.

‘We have employed people with various levels of disability, mainly mental, within what was feasible within a local authority. One person had to be terminated on the instructions of Human Resources because of the possible dangers to other staff. Others I have refused on Health and Safety grounds – registered blind are not appropriate members of staff on what may be compared with construction sites, and good eyesight is important when doing fieldwork; staff on crutches have been banned from site until physically able to cope with site conditions.’ – Archaeology and Disability respondent

Unfortunately, some cannot even accept the idea of employing someone with disabilities-

‘The concept of anyone who is physically or mentally impaired being involved with field archaeology, particularly excavation, is absurd.’ – Archaeology and Disability respondent

Archaeology is Bad for Mental Health

Stuart Rathbone has posted his famous ‘The four and a half inch pointing trowel … and the damage done‘, a post on mental health. There is not much I can add to his work, go and read it.

“…There are some interesting connections that can be made between the lifestyle of contract archaeologists, the occurrence of mental illness, and the levels of alcohol and drug misuse. The development of mental illness and drink and drug problems are believed to be influenced by a complex combination of factors relating to the genetic makeup of a person and the nature of their environment. The important part for the archaeological profession is that whatever the biological and sociological background of our compatriots may be, there are other factors that have a substantial impact on wellbeing. It is within our collective power to make alterations to these factors if we can identify avoidable problems and find appropriate ways of negating them…”



After looking at the quantitative and qualitative I am not sure if disabilities are under reported or if the nature of archaeology, physical work and mentally unhealthy, restricts those who can work in archaeology. I would love to hear people’s thoughts on the matter. Especially employers and people working in different countries with different laws.

Disabilities Continued…

Taking a break from my postings on Wikipedia and Archaeology this week posts will mainly focus on disabilities and archaeology. If you want to learn more about the subject I would recommend checking out the Inclusive, Accessible, Archaeology project

 Edit- Cuts to Help

While these affects all students, it will also hurt archaeology students with disabilities. The UK government is planning on cutting funding to disability support at universities. Not a good sign for future archaeologists with disabilities.

*That range of 2% to 10% is because they asked for the number of disabled employees in the last 5 years. If you divide the result by 5 you get 2% but if you assume there is no over lap and they all were employed at the same time you get 10%. It most likely closer to 2%.

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