Technology March 15, 2021
Scientist Eleanor Beidatsch aims to shape attitudes towards disability as a science communicator
STEM is for everyone, regardless of gender or disability. Yet the reality is that people with disabilities face multiple barriers when it comes to pursuing science, technology, engineering and math as careers. Barriers that Eleanor Beidatsch, a wheelchair using journalist with a degree in marine biology, hopes to address as a science communicator. Based in Australia, Eleanor is doing a postgraduate course in palaeontology.
Even as a child Eleanor Beidatsch dreamed of becoming a palaeontologist. The idea of digging out ancient, fossilised plants and animals and unearthing the secrets of the earth buried for hundreds of thousands of years held great appeal.
“I love palaeontology for the way that it makes my heart speed up and my mind start conjuring images of what the past might have been like. I had to study it because there’s nothing else I really wanted to do”, says Eleanor.
She never lost sight of that passion despite the daily challenges of living with a genetic disability like Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) Type 1. There are four types of SMA, Type 1 being the most common and the most severe. Eleanor also has scoliosis, osteoporosis, and limited mobility due to weak muscles.
Drawn to palaeontology from childhood
“When I was in school my love of palaeontology was treated as endearing, more like ‘oh she’s really into dinosaurs like a normal kid’”, Eleanor told Newz Hook in an interview on email. But that interest continued as she grew older.. “By high school it was obvious that my interest was still there, and I was more interested in marine palaeontology than dinosaurs anyway”.
There were suggestions that she might be better off giving up on the idea because of her disability.
By university I’ve had people try and gently nudge me towards the arts instead, saying ‘wouldn’t you rather do a nice poem as a literature assignment instead of use a microscope?’. I know people say that because they think they’re helping but it actually makes disabled people doubt themselves. Luckily, I knew what I wanted to do. I had so-called friends tell me my dreams are silly, impractical, and unrealistic. But if someone is telling you that they’re not really your friend. I listen to advice, but I ultimately make my decisions based on what I think I can do. – Eleanor Beidatsch, Disabled journalist & scientist
The world, however, was not so ready to support her dreams. Despite top marks in biology Eleanor was not allowed to take the tertiary entrance exam (TEE) and officially graduate as the schooling system was not equipped to accommodate her needs. She was told it would be unfair to other students if her needs were taken into account and adjustments made.. Eleanor decided to drop out when she was 17 years old and enrol in a pre-degree program for students who need a bridging course. As a result she started her science degree a few years later.
Few scientists in wheelchairs
Her university experience threw up amazing opportunities although even here she faced some discrimination. Eleanor got her first hands on experience with palaeontology when she got to visit Lightning Ridge in New South Wales. This is an annual dig hosted by the Australian Opal Centre and the Australian Geographic to look for fossils, mainly dinosaur, in the mining town of Lightning Ridge. Eleanor lives on the other side in Western Australia and couldn’t fly down as she can’t take all her life support system on a plane. So, she drove down! “I brought a camper van from the 1980s and my family and friends refitted it, so it was wheelchair accessible. Then we packed into it and drove 10,000 km across the desert to get to the dig”.
She calls it an “amazing experience”, the only time in her life that she didn’t experience any discrimination. ”My presence definitely made a difference for the other people but in a good way. One of the dig coordinators said they had never had a disabled person attend the dig before, but now she was thinking about how to make it more accessible for people who might want to come to future digs”.
The trip also threw up an unexpected opportunity. “I thought my trip to Lightning Ridge and a couple of undergraduate units was all I could do but then I met Dr. Marissa Betts from the University of New England and she offered me an honours project in palaeontology that I can do from the comfort of home. It’s a common misconception that if it’s palaeontology it will take place in the field, but for every fieldwork project there’s one that takes place in a lab or on a computer”.
The experience made her look closely into the enrolment rate of disabled people in university for a paper. “I realised how rare I am as a disabled woman in science. I decided then I had to make that space more inclusive for everyone like me”.
Currently a freelance journalist, Eleanor has written a few articles about scientific issues, her aim being to inform the public about science in a reliable and accessible way. Her areas of interest are palaeontology and environmental science. “That’s what my degree is in and also because climate change is a real issue people need to be more aware of. I think being a science communicator will help shape attitudes toward disability as we need representation in every field to fully combat discrimination and make disability normalised in society”.
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