Making science more accessible to people with disabilities

A biologist examines a skull. Credit: Anthro Illustrated

The pandemic led to changes in the workplace that have proven to benefit people with disabilities in the science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine (STEMM) fields, but there are fears that these adjustments will be reversed. With International Day of Persons with Disabilities taking place on Dec. 3, a research team, including a faculty from Binghamton University, State University of New York, is calling for ways to make work in STEMM more accessible.

“We are hearing more and more about how nice it is to be ‘all’ together again, as well as calls to put the pandemic behind us and ever-tightening demands for pre-pandemic ‘normal’,” said Katherine, an associate professor of anthropology at Binghamton University. . wander. “We fear that the lessons learned during the pandemic will be lost.”

Wander, along with Siobhán Mattison, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of New Mexico, and others, outlined the situation and the framework for possible solutions. The article draws on insights from disability studies, an interdisciplinary field of research that examines the ways in which disabilities are created by both social and biological processes. Many people within STEMM are unaware of the insights of disability studies and are unable to see these social dimensions, the authors say.

The dynamics of disability-based exclusion also overlap with other exclusion dynamics, such as those based on sex/gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity or socio-economic status. While each type of exclusion has elements in common, they also have their own unique dimensions, the authors acknowledge.

Wander points to the similarities between experiences of exclusion to see how best to mitigate them. For example, working from home not only benefits some people with disabilities, but also people who belong to a racial or ethnic minority, some of whom found that working remotely alleviated many of the prejudices they experienced in the workplace. That said, not everyone finds remote work accessible as it depends on decent internet access, among other things. In short, there is no single, simple solution that will increase inclusion for a particular group.

Instead, the authors advocate an approach based on three pillars: flexibility, accommodation and modification (FAM).

Providing more flexibility in the workplace will increase the contributions of people with disabilities and others who face various limitations, such as the need to care for family members. When broad flexibility is not possible or sufficient, accommodations should be available to help people fulfill the core functions of their role. Adapting work tasks can also help STEMM maintain the insights and efforts of people whose disabilities sometimes or persistently interfere with their ability to work in positions not designed for them.

However, adopting FAM strategies involves changing longstanding practices and may incur financial costs for institutions. However, the benefits to science, students and patients are likely to be significant, the authors say.

Ultimately, the FAM approach can benefit everyone. While someone may not be considered disabled today, injuries, illness, and aging can change their circumstances in the future. The phenomenon of long-term COVID, the authors point out, reminds us that no one is more than one illness away from permanent disability.

“Inclusion is a proactive responsibility. If we’re going to say everyone deserves a seat at the table, then we have to make sure there’s room for everyone,” said Mattison.

Co-authors besides Mattison and Wander include Logan Gin of Brown University’s Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, Allistair Abraham of George Washington University’s Department of Pediatrics, Megan Moodie of the Anthropology Department at the University of California-Santa Cruz, and Feranmi Okanlami from the University of Michigan Family Medicine, Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Program.

The paper, “Community Voices: Broadening Participation in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine Among Persons with Disabilities,” was published in Nature communication.

More information:
Siobhán M. Mattison et al, Voices of the Community: Broadening Participation in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine Among Persons with Disabilities, Nature communication (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-34711-w

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