By: Alyssa Paparella founder of @DisabledStem
As a disabled scientist, I struggled to navigate academia as I lacked a mentor with a disability.
I attempted to find others with disabilities in STEM, who could provide advice for navigating the path, but I could not find anyone. The most staggering statistic in my search to understand navigating STEM with a disability was that the 2009 National Science Foundation (NSF) Science and Engineering Doctoral Recipients by Field and Disability Status data reported that 1.02% of STEM doctorates are earned by students with disabilities (https://sites.udel.edu/seli-ud/facts/).
As someone with the desire to attend graduate school, that statistic stood out to me as
it felt like those with a disability could not navigate graduate school.
Had acceptance of the disabled changed or was I setting myself up for an arduous task? Although over a decade ago, this 2009 statistic highlighted the lack of representation of those with disabilities in STEM. Using this statistic as motivation to see if STEM fields had changed to be more inclusive, I dove into more recent data published to understand how the disabled in STEM are treated, with specific attention to graduate school and long-term occupation.
July marks Disability Pride Month, which is celebrated among those with disabilities and their allies to help amplify disabled voices. The first Disability Pride Parade was held in Chicago on July 18, 2004, with more attendees than expected, indicating the desire for those with disabilities to create a sense of community and show their pride for their lived experience (https://mn.gov/mnddc/news/inclusion-daily/2004/07/072004iladvdispride.htm). July was chosen for Disability Pride Month as it was the month that the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 was signed into law by President George W. Bush, which set forth legislation to prohibit discrimination for people with disabilities. As we approach the 30th anniversary of this legislation, it is important to reflect how ADA has impacted STEM to make the field more inclusive for the disabled.
According to the 2019 Census, there are 12.7% of 40.7 millions of Americans living with a disability
Despite representing a significant portion of the overall population, the disabled are not equally represented within STEM fields. Where does this discrepancy take place along the way, pushing those with disabilities out of the field?
The National Science Foundation releases reports on Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in STEM and Engineering every few years to track the success of these groups. One interesting statistic that was reported in the 2019 report was regarding financial support during graduate school for those with disabilities. In terms of funding their doctoral career, 18.3% of those with disabilities had reported using funding from personal or family funds versus 13.6% of those without a disability (https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19304/data).
This is significant to note as a disabled person may have more annual expenses given the need for potential medical care involved with their diagnosis. In America, those with disabilities spend more on healthcare, sometimes as high five to six times more and have more out-of-pocket costs associated with their care (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5798675/). In terms of institutional funding, those with disabilities also report a higher percentage of using Teaching Assistantships for funding (20.2% for disabled versus 18.4% nondisabled), but lower percentage for Research assistantship, traineeship, or internship (33.9% for nondisabled and 31.0% for disabled) (https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19304/data). By relying on Teaching Assistantships, this often is a detraction from research and can be more taxing for someone with a disability. These statistics help illuminate how disabled students make ends meet during graduate school, but also potentially highlight the extra pressure placed on them. A doctoral degree is often a stepping stone into a career, which is why occupation of those with disabilities in STEM must also be considered.
Out of all minority groups, including ethnic groups, people with disabilities have the highest unemployment rate at 5% within science and engineering fields,
which is slightly higher than the total United States labor force of 4.4% (https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19304/digest/employment#unemployment-rate). Looking specifically at occupations within science and engineering-related and non-science and engineering, the disabled had a slightly lower median salary than their nondisabled colleagues (https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19304/digest/employment#unemployment-rate). Is it possible that the STEM fields are not inclusive to those with disabilities and do not value their contribution, ultimately pushing them out of STEM despite their educational background? Are employers not willing to accommodate those with disabilities, making it a difficult experience? This is a gap that should be further explored to truly understand if the STEM workforce is inclusive of those with disabilities.
We must make active steps to work on inclusion and retention of the disabled within STEM. To close this current gap, there must be actions taken to work towards active recruitment and encouragement of this population.
I have created an initiative, called DisabledInSTEM, that seeks to create a sense of community for those with disability and be a voice where there previously was none. The statistics show that the track record for people with disabilities in STEM has had a historically difficult path, but is improving. As part of my DisabledInSTEM initiative, I am interviewing those with disabilities in STEM to share their story and experiences. These interviews ultimately serve to generate more awareness for disabilities, inspire others who may be facing similar situations, and also used as a way to generate understanding to create better allies. Thirty years from the passage of ADA is significant, but the accessibility of STEM still presents an issue for the disabled. We must work together to increase accessibility and inclusivity in STEM for all, with the ultimate goal to create a better and more diverse scientific community.
Connect with Alyssa via
The website currently being revamped but where you can find forms to apply for a Mentor and to share your story as someone who is disabled in STEM.
Do you know someone who is experiencing life with a disability?
Let July be a month to touch base with them and let them know you’re there to listen and help if at all possible.