Scientists with disabilities are indispensable to the scientific community but receive little support

Cortney Gensemer
October 13, 2021
Group of diverse happy smiling disabled people and guide dog with an assortment of different handicaps on a pink background.
Licensed from

When you think of diversity and inclusion, what comes to mind? For most people, this means focusing on topics like gender, race or sexual orientation. But what about disabilities? Disabilities are frequently left out of the conversation. It’s estimated that one in four adults has a disability, but many institutions fail to include disabilities in their diversity and inclusion training. It is well documented that diversity is essential to scientific creativity and innovation, however, individuals with disabilities are underrepresented in STEM careers.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month and I’d like to take this opportunity to highlight how we can better support individuals with disabilities in STEM. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a person with a disability as someone who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; has a history or record of such an impairment, such as cancer that is in remission; is perceived by others as having such an impairment, such as a person with scars from a severe burn.

Disabilities can include visual and hearing impairments, acute or chronic illnesses, traumatic brain injuries or spinal cord injuries, intellectual disabilities, mobility difficulties that may require mobility aids, autism, mental health conditions, and more. It is important to note that many disabilities are invisible, and because of the stigma associated with being disabled, many people do not disclose their disabilities even when accommodations would make their work environments easier.

This is especially true in STEM, where hiding your disability hinders your scientific creativity. 

"Diversity drives scientific advancements and scientists with disabilities are an essential component of diversity."

-- Cortney Gensemer

As a person with a chronic illness that has led to mobility challenges, frequent surgeries and chronic pain, I struggled for a long time with identifying as disabled. I have only recently become comfortable with openly sharing that I have a disability and how it has impacted me during graduate school. I often thought that because I didn’t “look disabled”, my struggles would be invalidated and necessary accommodations would not be available to me. I have been fortunate enough to work in an environment where I feel supported and am given the accommodations I need to succeed. But for many people in STEM, that is not the case.

Ableism – discrimination in favor of able-bodied people – is widespread in academia and science as a whole: lab spaces are rarely designed to be accessible for wheelchair users, crutches or walkers; seminars aren’t accessible to those with hearing loss.

On twitter, the hashtags #DisabledInStem, #DEHEM21 and #WhyDisabledPeopleDropOut are full of stories about discrimination from people in STEM careers and academia. One PhD student (@DeathCab4Callie) on twitter shared, “Something we never talk about is that disabled students often have to get masters degrees and take on more debt to compensate for the undergrad programs that didn't give them disability accommodations in order to even be competitive for a PhD program and I wish we would.”

Legally, the ADA requires universities and workplaces to make necessary accommodations for people with disabilities, but meeting the bare minimum of legal requirements simply isn’t enough. Mentors, colleagues, dissertation committees, graduate departments, and institutional leaders need to foster a culture of inclusion and equity for scientists with disabilities. It’s also important to make sure students with disabilities are a part of university decisions. Stay tuned for a more comprehensive list of ways we can make science more accessible for people with disabilities.

So how do we improve accessibility in STEM? The first step to improving accessibility is normalizing conversations around disability and increasing awareness about different types of disabilities and how they impact individuals in STEM. The Alliance for Disability Advocacy at MUSC is focused on raising awareness, implementing policy changes and providing a safe space for students with disabilities and allies. While this is progress, many universities don’t have groups like this and unfortunately, many disability awareness attempts do more harm than good.

Oftentimes, raising awareness about disabilities in the media only contributes to the further stigmatization of people with disabilities. Headlines such as “Disabilities don’t stop these experts in science and tech”, published in science news outlets, showcase disabilities as something you must overcome or conquer to be a successful scientist. It’s a form of “inspiration porn”, in which individuals with disabilities are portrayed as inherently less capable of an accomplishment because of their disability and their accomplishment is therefore “inspiring”. In reality, these individuals are equally capable of being successful if given the appropriate accommodations and support. Normalizing disability starts with focusing on accessibility, inclusion and recognizing that those with disabilities are equally capable and deserving of their accomplishments in STEM.

Diversity drives scientific advancements and scientists with disabilities are an essential component of diversity. They are adept at problem solving, capable of persevering through challenges, and adroit at thinking creatively. Disabled scientists can only succeed and contribute to scientific discoveries if we provide them with an inclusive and accessible environment, as well as educational, emotional and financial support.

If you have a disability or want to be an ally to students with disabilities at MUSC, please consider joining the Alliance for disAbility Advocacy (ADA) and attending our Disability awareness events for the month of October.