How can we eradicate prejudices in science communication?

Last month I wrote and published a piece called Seeing the wood for the trees. The piece, which gave a brief overview of the term ‘plant blindness’, was written with absolute sincerity. Yet now, a month later, I cannot support this term. So what changed in such a short space of time?

Little more than a week ago, while scrolling down my Twitter timeline, I came across a letter to the editor for the special edition of Plants, People, Planet on ‘plant blindness’. The letter, entitled We do not want to “cure plant blindness” we want to grow plant love, is an excellent read that points out the ableism of using a disability metaphor to draw attention to this complex problem.

Ableism is defined by the Centre for Disability Rights as “a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities and often rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be ‘fixed’ in one form or the other”. The use of disability metaphors is a form of ableism as it frames abled bodies as the benchmark, with the assumption that all people should experience the world in the same way and this implies that people with disabilities have a less fulfilling experience of the world. In their letter MacKenzie et al. point out that the term “positions ‘blindness’ as a deficit that must be cured and negates the possibility that blind people can lead lives that are full of rich sensory flora experiences”. This is obviously not true as we can experience the botanical world through immersion of any of our senses. Kate Parsley, a Ph.D. candidate working on botany education in the Sabel Lab, has proposed the use of Plant Awareness Disparity (PAD) as an alternative term to ‘plant blindness’ in a forthcoming paper. As she explains in this twitter thread PAD still aligns with the original goals of the term ‘plant blindness’ and focuses on the attentional portion of the phenomenon without being ableist.

As science communicators, I believe it is important that we ensure that the language we use is inclusive, and I failed here by supporting a term without considering its ableist implications. We are inherently imperfect as people, and I don’t believe that there is any shame in admitting these types of faults if they are accompanied with corrective actions. This has been an opportunity to learn and unlearn, to introspect on my usage of other common phrases that include disability metaphors, and to question why I placed so much emphasis on appreciating the botanical world with only one of my senses in the first place.

Frank discussions about inclusivity within the scientific academy are necessary, and social media can be a powerful tool to amplify marginalised voices. Coordinated campaigns such as the recent #BlackBotanistsWeek have been heralded for their success in creating these dialogues, and it’s important that they happen regular. I want to encourage all scientists and science communicators, but in particular those like me that come from a position of intersectional privilege, to listen and to introspect on our role in perpetuating prejudices in our work.

@HaysHarvest

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