Inaccessibility continues to push disabled scientists out of science

If I ask you to think of a disabled scientist, who’s the first person that comes to mind? I would guess that for the majority of people, the answer is Stephen Hawking. But it should come as no surprise that he wasn’t the only disabled person who has ever made a contribution to science. For example, Dorothy Hodgkin, who was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for determining the chemical structures of penicillin and vitamin B12. Likewise, disabled scientists were responsible for discovering at least 22 elements of the periodic table, including helium, oxygen, sodium, radium and hafnium.

The contributions that marginalised people make to research are rarely acknowledged and we struggle to thrive within the scientific workforce. However, while issues surrounding systemic racism, sexism and transphobia are regularly discussed, ableism – the discrimination of people with disabilities – is almost always left out of the conversation. And that’s a problem. Because, while there’s no doubt that laws such as the Equality Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act have made great strides in increasing the participation of students with disabilities in Stem, we’re still vastly underrepresented in science and our numbers decrease alarmingly as we move through the pipeline. For example in 2013, disabled chemists made up only 2.3% of researchers and 5.4% of doctoral students in the UK, despite representing 8.6% of undergraduates. These sharp drops can be attributed to the physical and attitudinal barriers that come about because of ableism which can deter even the most passionate of students from becoming a scientist.

Difficult to navigate

Certainly, when I became disabled midway through my PhD, not even my love for chemistry could prevent me from thinking my scientific career was over. Even though nothing had changed in terms of my knowledge and skills, the laboratory that I was once so familiar with suddenly became difficult to navigate. Our fume hoods are gruelling to work in, as they’re high off the ground and I have trouble standing for long periods of time. While I’d love to pull up a stool, the space underneath is blocked by safety cabinets and prevent me from sitting down unless I twist my body uncomfortably. In addition, high workbenches combined with our narrow aisles and strange lab layout mean I can’t use a wheelchair (my preferred mobility aid of choice), and the clutter on the floor often snags onto my other mobility aids (usually a cane or crutches), creating dangerous tripping hazards for someone already unstable on their feet.

We’ve built and maintained an ableist system

I could go on. But instead I’ll stop to point out that this is a partial list based on my own experiences. There are plenty of other ways that labs are inaccessible to people whose disabilities differ from mine. When you consider the fact that laboratory experiences are crucial to the success of all scientists and engineers, it’s no wonder that disabled people are either pushed out of Stem, or prevented from entering it in the first place. We’ve built and maintained an ableist system that favors certain physical or mental attributes over others, and makes it so that these characteristics become a prerequisite for working in science.

Universal design

We need to build new labs with disabled people in mind and advocate for the budget to renovate old labs accordingly. While there’s not yet a standard design for accessible labs, guidelines have been published that base their recommendations upon the principles of universal design–a method that purposely designs a space so that it is usable by the majority of people, regardless of disability status. Though it will never completely negate the need for accommodations, it proactively incorporates the most common ones, such as adjustable-height fume hoods, automatic doors, and pull-cord alarms for safety.

In an ideal world, this would be where I say that diversity is necessary for scientific innovation and make the logical leap that it’s therefore important to include the perspectives of disabled scientists. But we’ve been making this argument for years and still haven’t successfully diversified the scientific workforce. So, instead I’ll argue that making labs more accessible is actually beneficial for everyone involved. After all, out of the approximately one billion people in the world who have a disability, most of them acquired it over the course of their lifetimes. Increasing accessibility not only makes Stem more inclusive to disabled students, but it also ensures that scientists can have life-long careers, regardless of what situations are thrown their way.

Further reading

Resources on universal design: