Experiences The Science Life TSS

The Fight for Equal Representation: Disability and STEM Edition

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The push for the increase in STEM fields has brought up a concern that many have overlooked previously in terms of diversity. One group that is particularly underrepresented is individuals with disabilities. Disabilities can be visible or invisible, but limit a person’s daily life activities which is a broad term that can be applied to various conditions across the spectrum. As a group overall, those with disabilities are often overlooked by society and cast aside, which only becomes magnified when looking in particular at STEM fields.

One problem is the phrasing and self-identification of having a disability, which is why even census information may not truly represent the entire population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010, nineteen percent of the American population reported having a disability (1). This number of people is inaccurately represented in STEM fields as less than 2% of doctorate graduates report having a disability (2). This is a significant gap, but may be attributed to some individuals not being able to pursue STEM fields. Many programs have been initiated to increase diversity in STEM fields, in particular with race, but those with disabilities are still not welcome into STEM as there is a significant gap between those who are currently presented with a disability in the field.

For those with a disability wanting to pursue STEM, it is hard to find accommodations that match what they require. It feels as if it is a taboo topic to even bring up because others do not need the same playing field in order to do the same job. One of the problems is the education system as a whole. For those with disabilities, fighting for accommodations within the education system can be a draining process, deterring interest in pursuing further education which would require more of a fight for equity. In fact, students with disabilities show interest in pursuing STEM at the same ratio as those who do not identify with a disability (2). Through the education system, the interest drops for those with disabilities, such as during the transition from high school to college and then to a graduate program (2).

How can this problem be resolved? Making STEM fields more accessible could help with this transition and keep those with disabilities interested in STEM, making them feel welcome. Like any previous movement, it requires a lot of push from those currently involved in the field. Fortunately, there are some programs that are available for undergraduates in order to further interest in an accommodating environment.

One program is the Science and Engineering Initiative at the University of Delaware. Offered through a grant provided by the National Science Foundation (NSF), this program allows undergraduates that identify as having a disability to pursue research in a lab during the summer, focusing specifically for those interested in chemistry.

Another program is offered through James Madison University in Virginia which gives hearing impaired and deaf students the opportunity to pursue chemistry. This program is also funded through the NSF to recognize this population that might not have the same opportunity elsewhere. Rochester Institute of Technology also offers an REU opportunity for those who are deaf, also offering an inclusive environment.

Although this list of REU locations that are accommodating for those with disabilities is not comprehensive, it is still limited. The NSF offers 719  REU locations, but very few are available to those with disabilities (3). It is great progress to have these programs geared for those with disabilities in order to maintain their interest within STEM fields, but the fight is far from over and is only just beginning to come to the surface.



  1. US Census Bureau Public Information Office. “Nearly 1 in 5 People Have a Disability in the U.S., Census Bureau Reports – Miscellaneous – Newsroom – U.S. Census Bureau.” U.S. Trade with Haiti, 19 May 2016, http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/miscellaneous/cb12-134.html.
  2. National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics, Women, Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering, 2009. NSF 09-305.
  3. National Science Foundation – Where Discoveries Begin. NSF – National Science Foundation, http://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/list_result.jsp?showItems=50.

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