The exclusion of persons with disabilities from STEM disciplines is something I’m just starting to study. If you know this blog, you know this is not really a set of discriminatory practices that I’ve written about here. And that is both telling and troubling because it is an aspect of STEM equity that should be integral to our thinking on the subject, not a distinct set of considerations, let alone one that trails after our more familiar concerns with race or gender discrimination.
I want to use this space to formulate questions about disabilities in scientific and technical disciplines, and as usual it is not a matter of looking for what we might label good- or ill intentions. Instead we need ask questions like these, about seemingly practical decisions: Why do some STEM instructors, when asked to accommodate students with disabilities, see insurmountable safety issues? Or prefer the use of classroom aides for students with disabilities rather than technical or procedural innovation that might lead to more direct student participation? Why do disabilities officers to whom I’ve spoken often find STEM departments less able to “find time” to make changes than other parts of the university?
I think one recent effort to address accessibility in the science lab holds a kernel of important ways to think about all this.
Take a look at this recent newspaper article, “Blind CU-Boulder Student Inspires Lab Changes,” by Whitney Bryen. At the University of Colorado at Boulder, one creative and highly focused student, her willing instructors, and some innovative Disabilities Services staff members have together developed ways to make laboratory processes accessible to visually impaired researchers.
The student, Amelia Dickerson, is blind and had been frustrated by limits to her immersion in laboratory work for chemistry courses. Working with the school’s disabilities services team, Dickerson’s chemistry professor Susan Hendrickson began to make material and procedural changes to lab practices that among other things allowed the student to ascertain experimental results through non-visual means. Note how simple some of the changes were: for example, the addition of notches to the printed calibrations on lab glassware, at a cost of just 25 cents per test tube.
Look closely, as well, at the changes that involved higher-tech interventions, such as the school’s purchase of a $900 apparatus that can help translate visual laboratory data into auditory information. There are many more apparatuses of this nature on the market, such as those available from Independence Science, and I’ll be writing about those shortly.
For now, I want to make the point that it is not cost alone that has stood in the way of wider laboratory adoption of such technologies; after all, very few labs have undertaken the 25-cent innovation, either. Rather, I see a belief among scientists that such translations are not translations at all, but alterations of laboratory data. That is, I see an uncritical acceptance of the idea that it is the data’s visuality, its expression on a graph or instrument panel for scrutiny by the researcher in that form, that gives it meaning. In this view, to re-present the data in any other format would be to change it.
Most scientists presume some optimal association of scientific form and content but unlike Hendrickson, never make such associations explicit. So conventional practices seem unassailable. Thus is the student with disabilities rendered an unlikely future scientist in the eyes of many, without anyone actually saying that’s what’s happening. (These conventions of scientific display, incidentally, are a focus of Science Studies, my home discipline). My point here is that exposing and thinking about such epistemic features of STEM practice will help us understand and address discrimination faced by persons with disabilities, just as it has illuminated racial and gender inequities.
We know that science sees its procedures as the essence of its rigor. And, indeed, the precision with which a specimen or instrument is handled, or with which measurements are taken, is undeniably crucial to virtually every experimental protocol. But customary understandings of how that precision might be achieved are unnecessarily narrow. And exclusionary. CU-Boulder, and other sites such as the University of Washington’s Center for Universal Design in Education, are taking on that exclusion.
As I tried to show in Race, Rigor and Selectivity in US Engineering, unexamined notions of technical rigor served for generations in America to reinforce the exclusion of HBCU researchers from science. So, too, notions of what counts as a precise handling or accurate measurement in the lab today reinforce the idea that accommodations for physical impairment necessarily reflect loosened standards of precision or accuracy. Amelia Dickerson and some of the folks at CU-Boulder think this situation cannot stand. We should follow their lead.