Making Scientific and Technical Careers More Accessible
Science and medicine have not traditionally been welcoming for people with disabilities. Here’s how to make them more inclusive—and bring greater creativity, new perspectives, and fresh talent to these fields.
I entered college prior to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, when much of the world was a daunting place for people with physical disabilities, despite previous laws and regulations having made marginal improvements to public accessibility. I decided to pursue engineering studies not knowing that people with disabilities rarely pursued careers in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM), and that when they did, their chances of employment were poor.
Seeing astronauts land on the moon and watching the animatronics in Disneyland inspired me—just as my years in the US Army awoke a passion for public service. By vocation and inspiration, engineering seemed to me the best way to make a difference in the world. Armed with optimism, ambition, and a healthy dose of ignorance about the barriers before me, I earned three degrees in engineering, culminating in a PhD.
In many ways, I had found my home in engineering: engineers and people with disabilities share an inclination for practical problem-solving. This inclination, paired with a “let’s find a way” disposition toward difficulties, can become a transformative force. While aspects of science and engineering are by nature difficult, these difficulties are also what make STEMM careers attractive. And, in that light, making these fields more accessible to people with disabilities should be a natural fit. Additionally, among the many benefits to making STEMM more accessible as well as inclusive is that it would ensure that creativity, new perspectives, and fresh talent are available to address the challenges facing the world and its inhabitants.
But STEMM fields are not actually home to many people with disabilities. Even though the Centers for Disease Control reports that nearly 25% of the population has some form of limitation in performing daily activities, the National Science Foundation reported in 2019 that among STEMM doctorate holders under age 40, only 5% have disabilities. What’s more, scientists with disabilities not only have higher unemployment rates than other scientists, they also have higher unemployment rates than US workers in general. Scientists with disabilities are more likely to be working in nonscience fields than those without disabilities. In very important ways, science is failing scientists with disabilities.
Since its inception, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been a groundbreaking civil rights law that has lowered many barriers and created pathways for integration and participation for people with disabilities. The ADA has positively impacted society at large not only by enabling greater inclusion, but also because many of the accommodations created or installed for people with disabilities have improved life for nearly everyone. For example, speech-to-text and text-to-speech applications, texting, and closed-captioning are now widely used because they benefit many people and businesses. Curb-cuts in sidewalks that make it possible for motorized wheelchairs to move from sidewalks to crosswalks were first championed by disability activists and have now made cities more navigable for everyone.
Despite these widespread advances, people with disabilities are still nearly invisible in STEMM disciplines. And, more discouragingly, they are also overlooked within STEMM inclusion initiatives and activities. It is not uncommon for young people with disabilities to be guided away from STEMM fields after they complete middle school, which may limit their ability to pursue and attain a degree in college. To fix this and make inclusivity in STEMM a widely valued goal, it will be necessary to create deliberate pathways that can lead all students to success—including extra training for teachers to create curricula, making classroom facilities more accessible, and alternative methods of learning skills.
One hurdle is that disabled students often don’t “see themselves” in STEMM careers, which could be addressed by exposing all students to role models that have disabilities. There are already some programs in place to accomplish this. For example, the US Patent and Trademark Office has created materials for schools called the Inventor Collectible Card Series, which features patent holders from diverse backgrounds and demographics. These cards are popular and effective at educating and motivating diverse populations of young people.
But motivation alone is not enough: it has been reported that when students with disabilities participate in labs and field work activities, they are often placed in the role of notetakers and observers rather than as active participants. The National Science Foundation’s INCLUDES initiative is building a broad network of individuals, institutions, initiatives, and federal agencies to bring about a systemic shift with tools that support greater inclusion.
Several colleges and universities have been making a difference in the lives of people with disabilities and should be used as models to create broader inclusion. The Experiential Learning for Veterans in Assistive Technology and Engineering (ELeVATE) is a program established at the University of Pittsburgh with support from the National Science Foundation and in cooperation with Student Veterans of America. The program has helped wounded, injured, and ill military veterans to earn college degrees and become successful in new careers in industry, government, and academia. The ELeVATE program has been replicated in some form at several institutions and has become sustainable through support by private, corporate, and foundation donors.
Another promising model is the Cloud Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, which is creating a futuristic automated biology and chemistry lab that can be accessed from anywhere in the world through a software interface. This approach has the potential to increase opportunities for people with disabilities because not only could they use accessible software interfaces, but they would also be able to live and work wherever there is an adequate support system. And by accommodating scientists with and without disabilities, and allowing them to run their experiments in the same manner, cloud labs could make scientific employment hinge more on intellectual capability and creativity than on a person’s ability to run experiments at the bench.
Building an inclusive environment does not depend on advanced technology, however. Since 1948, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been a leader in training students with disabilities in STEMM fields. The school offers a comprehensive array of adaptive sports and recreation services, on-campus accessible housing with nonmedical assistance, and facilities designed to reduce barriers to a full array of opportunities inside and outside of the classroom and labs. Their Disability Resources and Education Services are among the most innovative and successful in the country.
Labs, field work, and computing resources are essential to both a STEMM education and a successful career. Unfortunately, they are also three of the most significant barriers for accessibility and inclusion of people with physical or sensory impairments. The architecture, layout, and furnishing of laboratories must become more adaptable and inclusive, which will require deliberate work. In many cases, lab activity accessibility can be achieved with creativity and simple changes such as powered height-adjustable work benches, computer-controlled scientific instruments, and even small robotic arms.
Field work is a difficult problem to solve because it often necessitates spending time outside the lab at “dig sites,” on biological or ecological reserves or scientific ships, or other unpredictable environments. But even here, people have successfully deployed both technical and hybrid accessibility accommodations. For example, ruggedly designed wheelchairs can be used in off-road environments, and motorhomes or camping trailers can assist with accommodations. In some situations, drones with cameras can be used to address accessibility. “Trained human assistance” could be employed, for instance, by an undergraduate intern assisting a graduate student as their eyes, ears, or hands. In medical fields, it is possible to learn anatomy and clinical skills by combining computer models with hands-on investigation by a human assistant guided by a person with limited hand or arm function. With creativity and some extra effort, many activities can be made accessible. For example, in the field of space and planetary geology, field work is often focused on data sets that can be made accessible to people with various impairments.
Finally, it goes without saying that access to computing resources is essential, because STEMM work has become nearly impossible without the use of computers, specialized software, websites, and, in most cases, databases or data sets. Although accessibility of computing and information resources is codified in US law, there remain many gaps, sometimes due to legacy systems or because decisionmakers are unaware of both the barriers to and benefits of making computing and data sharing broadly accessible. This process can take a variety of forms—such as hardware alternatives to keyboards or mice, or specialized software such as speech-to-text or text-to-speech. While there are many challenges to making computing and software accessible, some of the bigger ones include creating video and image content that is accessible and useful for people with visual impairments and optimizing data interpretation tools for people with visual impairments, especially for those with both visual and hearing impairments. Another challenge is making computer-aided design tools and software that provide alternative graphing and charting tools for interpreting data with dynamic tactile displays. All these challenges to accessibility can be overcome and, when they are, have been proven to benefit a larger group of society.
Impairments are very personal and unique, so it is critical to work with people with disabilities to determine approaches that will make activities inclusive and accessible for them as individuals. As an undergraduate student prior to the passage of the ADA, I was fortunate enough to learn from professors and fellow students who were supportive and creative, and believed that inclusion and accommodations were engineering challenges that aligned with the university’s philosophy of “learning by doing.” We met each term to decide how best to ensure that I could participate to the fullest extent possible. As a manual wheelchair user with use of my arms, most of these accommodations involved being sure that equipment and tools were accessible from a seated position. However, two important lessons emerged: first, communication and teamwork made it possible for me and students with other disabilities to be included. And second, with creativity and will, most of the accommodations for me and other students were and remain possible for only modest cost and effort.
To provide greater opportunities, some important structural barriers for inclusion of people with disabilities in STEMM need to be removed. A substantial portion of the potential student and professional employee population of people with disabilities requires assistance from another person to complete essential activities of daily living—dressing, eating, personal hygiene—which is frequently paid for through private insurance or a state or federal program. To get these benefits, recipients often must prove their income is low—and the limits are often lower than, for example, the stipends provided to many graduate students. This creates nearly insurmountable barriers for people who are working to get an advanced degree of the kind often required for a STEMM career. In addition, once a person becomes employed, this benefit may be revoked, forcing people to pay out of pocket, which effectively lowers their income relative to their peers. For full inclusion of people with disabilities in STEMM, structural changes are needed in how personal assistance is provided and how income is determined.
Earlier this year, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine held a series of listening sessions called Leading Practices for Improving Accessibility and Inclusion in Field and Laboratory Science, during which panelists described multiple ways to remove barriers to inclusive environments for disabled scientists. Among the suggestions was valuing disabled scientists for their perspectives and paying them for the work they do to change the institution, rather than expecting them to do the work for free. Another point raised in the discussion was that STEMM is arguably the area with the greatest potential for growth in career opportunities and also the most underrepresented domain among people with disabilities.
It is clear that the attitudes of teachers, professors, administrators, and employers must adjust to adopt and internalize the belief that accessibility and inclusion are beneficial to all parties. STEMM students and professionals with disabilities bring unique and important skills, perspectives, and experiences that enhance both learning and work environments.
At the same time, building an inclusive STEMM community that welcomes people with disabilities is a moral principle and a basic human right. Representation cannot happen if a portion of the population is continually excluded from an appropriately accessible education that leads to good careers. Inclusivity is, above all, an affirmation of democracy. It may come with some cost, and society may not see the returns of those investments immediately, maybe only over decades. But it’s still worth the investment.