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Disability is not a disqualification

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Science  22 Jan 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6271, pp. 418
DOI: 10.1126/science.351.6271.418

When I began my master's program in astronomy, I immediately encountered a substantial—and quite literal—obstacle to my pursuit of the cosmos: a flight of stairs. I have a physical disability, and stairs are a particular source of difficulty. Unfortunately, they lie in front of every entrance to the building where I take classes, teach labs, and conduct research. The four observatories I have visited for my research were all equally inaccessible, mostly because their age and historic significance exempt them from Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. So, besides coping with the stress and workload of graduate school, I must also struggle with architecture. Thankfully, I am mobile enough to make do by climbing slowly or using a cane, but it takes a toll.


“The barriers don't end once I've reached the top.”

The barriers don't end once I've reached the top of the stairs. I face hostility from other scientists, including the ire of professors who believe that my need for flexible deadlines or breaks during tests arises from laziness. This sentiment, rooted in a scientific culture that prioritizes a pathological devotion to work over mental and physical wellbeing, is best summed up by one of my professors, who commented on my disability: “It must be so nice to have an excuse not to do any work.”

Regrettably, my experiences are not unique; they are emblematic of the barriers disabled scientists contend with throughout their careers. Although science is by no means intrinsically inaccessible—nothing about the data we gather or the analyses we do inherently excludes people with disabilities—the prevailing attitudes in science create these barriers. Most science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs insist that researchers sacrifice both their mental and physical health to succeed. Unnecessarily long hours, undue degrees of stress, and overwhelming pressure can cause even the healthiest person to develop anxiety and depression. For a person with a dis ability, coping with these pressures along with a permanent or chronic condition can be devastating.

The numbers tell the story: Only 9% to 10% of undergraduate STEM students in the United States have disabilities, compared with approximately 20% of Americans overall. Among those who obtain Ph.D.s, the number falls to just 1%. Of those who persist in STEM fields, many hide their disabilities out of concern for their careers, as several professors with disabilities shared with me after I spoke about inaccessibility at the Inclusive Astronomy conference this past June. One said she hid her disability because she expected it would affect her tenure evaluation. Another said she kept hers secret because she thought the progressive nature of her condition would make her unhireable.

Being visibly disabled, I do not have this option, and I worry about how it will affect my career. Any appearance of not being able to shoulder my graduate student duties will decrease my competitiveness when I apply for Ph.D. programs, postdoctoral fellowships, or faculty positions. If I seem to have a history of taking medical leaves because I need to prioritize my health, my value as a future faculty member or researcher may be diminished. And I fear the day when I may need a wheelchair, which would prevent me from accessing many of the necessary tools for my research.

Nonetheless, for now at least, I remain in astronomy, where my research drives me forward. First and foremost, though, the prospect of making astronomy more accessible helps me persevere. I hope to be a conspicuous example of a disabled astronomer so that future students with disabilities do not feel as isolated as I did. I have spoken about disability issues at several conferences and helped create the first American Astronomical Society (AAS) Working Group on Accessibility and Disability, and I recently began serving on the AAS Early Career Advisory Board. I already see positive changes as a result of this work. At the most recent AAS conference, we provided accessibility information about the convention center, and I met with journal publishers about creating accessible online publication formats. But a significant barrier still remains: the erroneous assumption that ableness is a prerequisite for scientific achievement.

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