As Enable Science launches a poster series to celebrate disabled scientists, founder Chantelle Minchin discusses the importance of representation
Throughout my scientific career, I have encountered disability discrimination. I have been banned from mentioning my diagnosis, faced accusations of special treatment, and, at times, been excluded from the workplace altogether. I am not alone. There are many more stories like mine, which, perhaps, explains why disabled individuals are almost twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled individuals.
While the social model reframes disability as a form of exclusion rather than an individual deficit, research indicates that negative attitudes towards disability persist. Findings by Scope indicate that in addition to 32% of survey respondents believing disabled people are ‘in general not as productive as non-disabled people’, 13% admit to perceiving the disabled as different. Even well-intentioned efforts to address discrimination through awareness campaigns could inadvertently contribute to the problem. Awareness is synonymous with knowledge and understanding, but also apprehension – beware, disabled people are among you!
It is not a phenomenon that is unique to the sciences, and yet, the rigorous demands and expectations placed upon scientists heighten concerns that disability is a liability. In the Royal Society of Chemistry’s (RSC’s) 2020 Diversity Data report, less than 10% of members declared a disability or disabilities, in comparison with 22% of the UK population.
Is ableism, a term coined to describe disability discrimination, deterring, or even preventing, disabled individuals from working within science? Perhaps – but it is also possible that disabled scientists are hiding in plain sight. In an interview for The Scientist in 2021, motor neurone disease researcher Justin Yerbury stated that the numbers of disabled scientists ‘are likely an underestimate’, attributing this to the impact of ableism on disclosure rates. Knowing the prevalence of ableism, would you choose to disclose a disability?
Whether disabled scientists are leaving the profession, opting not to disclose, or even to not self-identify as disabled, the result is ultimately the same: the sciences suffer from an absence of disabled role models. But why does representation matter?
Belonging to a minority group, such as the disabled community, impacts on an individual’s sense of belonging in the workplace. This can have a damaging effect on an individual’s wellbeing and reduce employee performance and staff retention rates. Participating in the RSC’s Belonging in the Chemical Sciences study in 2021 allowed me to meet my peers and to gain an insight into how they had addressed barriers throughout their own careers. At the time, I was questioning my future in science and internalising much of the ableism that I had encountered. Yes, I too was ableist – or at least the little self-critical voice at the back of my head was.
Representation alone will not resolve all the challenges … but it is a pivotal first step
I have since fully embraced my identity as a disabled scientist and been welcomed into the disabled science community. I am no longer engaging in the unproductive pursuit of fitting the scientist stereotype, where work-life balance is overlooked, and traditional working practices are favoured over innovation. This has empowered me to develop authentically as a scientist, challenging norms and exceeding expectations, and to feel happier. I am now a passionate advocate of disabled networks – to the extent that I founded the Enable Science Network.
Representation alone will not resolve all the challenges facing disabled scientists. Ableism extends far beyond attitudes, with physical obstacles and inflexible work practices also excluding disabled scientists. Representation is, however, a pivotal first step. We need to establish platforms for the voices of disabled scientists, following the popular mantra ‘nothing about us without us’. We need to be given the opportunity to identify and resolve the barriers we face, which we are best qualified to do given our experiences. This requires representation at all levels, particularly across leadership.
Enable Science is one such platform for the voices of disabled scientists, funded through the RSC’s Inclusion and Diversity Fund. We are working to promote the achievements of disabled scientists and, therefore, provide much needed role models. Our recent Spotlight Series: Celebrating Disabled Scientists launch released a series of posters that feature 12 disabled scientists and their work, produced in partnership with Compound Interest, for schools. From 2025, our Raising Aspirations: School Project will design a set of experiments around the work of one featured scientist each year for schools during Science Week. We are also inviting members of the disabled science community to share their stories by completing a short case study questionnaire.
At Enable Science, we are working to address the barriers facing disabled scientists and ensure that disabled individuals are not excluded from the practice and governance of science, which underpins our daily lives. I am not alone in facing ableism and I am not alone in fighting it.
For more information, visit enablescience.co.uk or join Enable Science’s 2023 Round-Up on 7 December.