Scientist with Disabilities

Posted on 2/12/2020 in Data


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While the condition of people with disabilities is improving, biases and lack of accessibility to faculty buildings and scientific equipment still hinders their chances to build a career in research.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced drastic alterations on most working environments. Somehow the new norm of working remotely and meeting online has benefited people with disabilities. While requests from disabled people for specific accommodation and adaptations of the working space to their needs was mostly denied in the past – a rejection simply justified by lack of time or infrastructure, it appears Universities and departments are now more inclined to provide these accommodations since most researchers now require them. (“Let COVID-19 expand awareness of disability tech”, Nature)

Disabled scientists and the issues they face

Disabilities can be visible (i.e. blindness or physical impairment) or invisible (i.e. bipolarity or learning disabilities). About 1 in 4 adults in Europe (Eurostat 2018) and the US (CDC 2018) reports living with a disability. In Europe, the share of disabled persons attaining a University education level (MScs and PhDs) is lower than for non-disabled persons (15.5 % compared with 25.0 %, Eurostat 2019).  

In the video "Accessibility & Universal Design Learning", Nicole Schroeder (founder of the Disabled Academic Collective) describes the struggle of job hunting as a disabled person:  "Disabled academics negotiate for accommodations during their job search and they will be regarded as incapable of meeting the demands of the job", "we continue in our language, whether explicitly or implicitly, to categorise disability as a liability.". Nicole also denounces a medical bias when one needs a diagnosis to access available accommodation: "Medical racism and sexism prevent many from being diagnosed (i.e. autism in women, misdiagnosis in people of colour, etc.)".

Cary Supalo (Research Developer at Educational Testing Service) experienced discrimination first hand when he was looking for a PhD advisor. A professor bluntly said "he viewed me as a financial liability and did not think I would be a productive student". Fortunately, another professor saw the benefits of hiring Cary: "you have been problem-solving your entire life to overcome challenges, and that is the epitome of what a scientist does." (The Blind in Science and Beyond, NBF)

According to testimonials, most disabled scientists see a biased culture, feeling excluded, the lack of assistive technology and being considered as a burden, as the main obstacles for the pursuit of a STEM career.

Disability is a diversity and a strength, not a burden

"My illness contributes to diversity by giving me an advantage and a perspective that's vital to the scientific community. That background and knowledge should be celebrated and cherished, not ignored. We must ignite discussions on the value of disability in the sciences."

(Erica Avery, PhD candidate in Biochemistry;  Scientific American)

The struggle of living with a disability doesn't start in academia, people with disabilities have learned to adapt and design strategies to accomplish tasks or overcome obstacles their whole life. In the article "Our Disabilities Have Made Us Better Scientists" (Scientific American), Gabi Serrato Marks and Skylar Bayer, both living with physical disabilities, explained how they have learned to advocate for themselves and persist through challenges, be it concerning their health or research. In "Raising Awareness of Neurodiversity in the Scientific Workplace" (Wellcome Sanger Institute Blog), Sara Rankin (Professor of Leukocyte and Stem Cell Biology) highlights the strength specific to neurodiverse people that should be valued in the academic field: non-linear thinking, creative problem solving, ability to hyperfocus and attention to detail.

The examples of famous scientists with disabilities such as Stephen Hawking (physicist with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), Temple Grandin (animal behaviourist with autism) or Albert Einstein (physicist and mathematician with a learning disability) illustrate that everyone should be able to reach greatness regardless of their disabilities. 

With the current raising awareness of the need for diversity in academia, more and more universities set up equity and inclusion offices. While disabilities are included in most statements on diversity, most departments are yet to implement the necessary accommodations to adequately support their disabled students and staff.

"If you recruit disabled students, are they going to feel like their disability is a burden that the school is complying with as it's the law?" "Or are they going to feel like they are valued for their perspective?"

(Disability as Diversity, Inside Higher ED)

 Increasing the inclusion of disabled scientists

Universities should not see the implementation of accommodations for scientists with disabilities as a burden but as a long-term investment. Here is a list of recommendations issued from "Increasing the Representation of People with Disabilities in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics" (Do It, University of Washington).

Access -  Improve access to science, engineering and mathematics fields:

  • Make facilities, computers, science equipment, and programs accessible to people with a variety of disabilities.
  • Assure that scientific and mathematics publications are readily available in appropriate alternative formats.

Acceptance - Create a positive environment for learning and working:

  • Increase the awareness of pre-college and college educators regarding the potential contributions and accommodation needs of people with disabilities.
  • Help employers and co-workers appreciate the potential contributions of people with disabilities and create a flexible work environment where productivity can be maximised.

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