My Journey Navigating STEM as a Person Who Identifies with a Disability
The participation rate of individuals who have disabilities in the US science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) workforce is dismal – a mere 19 %. As American society undergoes a reckoning to address its role in creating, or maintaining, barriers to opportunity based on race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation, it is crucial to acknowledge that individuals with disabilities have also been overlooked for opportunities, particularly in STEM, due to misconceptions and misinformation about what they can do. The Zero Barriers in STEM Education: Accessibility and Inclusion Program is meant to help educators address challenges in accessibility and inclusion in our current education system for students with disabilities – ensuring that all students have a chance to access and participate in high-quality STEM learning and experiences. Yujia Ding, a STEM educator and advocate, has offered to share her journey in a series of blog post related to accessibility in STEM. The first of the blog series begins with the passage below: a story that seeks to enlighten others on what it is like to navigate the STEM sector as a person with a disability. Her first post encourages us to examine our assumptions and reconsider what we think we know about people with disabilities and their involvement in STEM.
Growing up, I don’t think I ever recall being around an individual who identified as having a disability. In my K-12 years, I think there was one time, in eighth grade, when the teacher asked if I could share my notes for a classmate that had trouble taking notes. Looking back, I think the classmate had a learning disability that allowed them certain accommodations but 12-year-old me had no idea. As a child, though, I can say I was never around anyone with a disability. I cannot even tell you who the special education teacher was at any level of schooling I had, as there was no mainstreaming of individuals with disabilities in my classes.
As an educator now, I see the importance of creating inclusive classrooms for individuals across the spectrum of human ability to work alongside one another. As my experience indicates, I had no exposure to what it means to have a disability, what it means to speak properly about disabilities, and what it means to acknowledge and include individuals that are different than myself. Being fully transparent, I did not meet anybody with a disability until my early adult years, and even then, it was through the growing network of social media that I learned about different disabilities and how to be inclusive.
The first time I truly worked with someone with a disability was the quadriplegic lawyer who returned to earn his master’s in biotechnology to better understand science law. I was the student aide assigned to him through the services for students with disabilities office. While the student could not perform experiments on his own or take notes, he was able to dictate what he was thinking, the exact steps of the experiment that needed to be done, and I simply acted as his hands and feet. He had so much wisdom and a different perspective and approach to problems that the experience made me question why I didn’t see more individuals with different abilities working around me, in the field and in the classroom.
As somebody who was not diagnosed with an invisible illness until her mid-twenties after several sequential health scares, I never realized how difficult it can be to navigate the world with a disability, let alone navigating the world of STEM with a disability. After being paired with my service dog, I kept working in STEM, completing my master’s degree, and moving on to a position in the biotechnology industry. Through this time, I was denied access to the lab spaces I worked in, or if I were to work in the lab, I had to place my service dog in a separate room away from me. Not only did access issues arise in my professional life, I experienced issues in my personal life, too. This was the first time my eyes were opened to the difficulty individuals with any type of disability face navigating a world built without them in mind.
The accessibility issues continued in my professional life even after I transitioned careers to become an educator. I was not allowed into certain schools to inquire about jobs because I looked different. I was overlooked or questioned about my abilities because of the way I look. During this time, questions like, “Who wants a teacher who has a service dog teaching their kids?” and, “Somebody with a service dog cannot be that competent, right?”, ran through my mind.
I started to doubt myself. I began to question what my purpose was. Thankfully, I was given an opportunity to teach as an adjunct faculty at a local community college that welcomed me and my service dog with open arms – they gave me a chance before passing judgement about what I can and cannot do. In my first class, I had a student who used to be a scientist and after a life-changing accident, had to return to the basics and relearn everything she had known. My student had traumatic brain injury and would not let that stop her from doing what she loved: research. As I worked with this student throughout the eight-week course, I saw her skills improve, from the first day when she could not even write in a lab notebook to being able to pipet small volumes of liquid during my lab practical. I was told by my student’s aide that I was the first teacher that gave her a chance and looked past her limitations. I have been fortunate to keep in touch with this student and her family and am proud to say she is now able to conduct simple experiments on her own, form more complex sentences than when I first met her and is looking to re-enter the workforce as a research assistant in the near future.
Individuals are unique for a reason. From our DNA to our outward appearance, we are all different and that difference is what allows for us to live in a diverse world and see life from different points of view. Including individuals from all walks of life, with all different abilities opens the scope of approaching and navigating the challenges that life throws our way. Providing access to a STEM education opens the door for diverse viewpoints that can expand the field and push our society into the future.