Opinion: It’s time to stop excluding disabled scientists
Science and society are not built to welcome disabled people – and that’s a fault that we have to start fixing, says our disability and accessibility specialist Emrys Travis
Disabled chemists face a wide variety of barriers to full and equal participation. These can be as simple as an inaccessible building, a non-adjustable lab bench, or conferences without captions. Or they can be as complex as a competitive chemistry culture that still values long working hours, leaving little space for those who need to work flexibly and pace themselves.
Building a chemistry community where disabled scientists can thrive is a collective responsibility and we all have to play an active part.
Our 2020 Diversity Data Report showed that people with a disability, impairment or health condition are underrepresented within the chemical sciences.
Emrys Travis is the Royal Society of Chemistry's disability and accessibility specialistPicture: Royal Society of Chemistry
On 3 June, we launched a special call to fund projects focusing on the disabled chemistry community, through our Inclusion and Diversity Fund. We’re excited to support projects researching and tackling the barriers facing disabled chemists, as part of our work to make the chemical sciences more inclusive and welcoming to all.
It’s not only the practical barriers that stop disabled scientists fully participating: disclosing, and self-identifying with, disability is a significant barrier. "Disability" is an umbrella term covering diverse experiences of both mental and physical difference with an impact on day-to-day life. Mental health conditions, neurodiversity (e.g. autism and ADHD), chronic illnesses, and sensory and mobility impairments can all fall under the disability umbrella. However, for a variety of reasons, many of those who could self-identify as disabled choose not to, or are unaware that their experiences "count". This can lead to a sense of isolation, as well as impeding awareness of the rights and adjustments disabled people are entitled to in the workplace.
An important part of breaking the barriers for disabled chemists is tackling the stigma attached to the word "disabled". We need to promote a positive view of disability, encouraging our members to engage with disability and accessibility issues and understand their relevance for the chemical sciences community. Disabled activist groups developed the "social model", which affirms that disability is not an inherent characteristic of a person, but a function of how society excludes and disenfranchises them. Recognising this puts the onus on wider society to consider diverse access needs, and make adjustments to policy and practice to ensure that disabled people can participate equally. Simply put: society wasn’t built to include disabled people, so we have to change that.
Picture: Royal Society of Chemistry
Our Inclusion and Diversity Fund supports community-led projects aiming to make the chemical sciences more diverse and inclusive of underrepresented groups. This new special call for projects aiming to improve accessibility and disabled inclusion in chemistry is just one element of our ongoing work to tackle the barriers facing disabled chemists. We’re reviewing all of our activities – from communications and marketing, to mentoring and career progression – to ensure we are championing the kind of inclusive, accessible practice necessary to ensure full and equal participation for disabled members of the chemistry community. The Inclusion and Diversity team will work with special call grant holders, sharing project outcomes with the wider community and incorporating what we learn into RSC practices.
Science is impoverished when diversity is not reflected and embraced in our community. Disabled scientists have made, and are still making, crucial contributions to science. But we must recognise the valuable work being lost as many others are excluded from and marginalised within the chemical sciences. Understanding and dismantling the barriers faced by disabled people in chemistry must be a priority for us all.
How to apply for funding from the Inclusion and Diversity Fund’s disability and accessibility special call
Apply here on our website. Our special call for projects to improve accessibility and disabled inclusion is open from June to August 2021 and applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis. All applications must be submitted through our online application system. We will consider individual applications up to the value of £5,000. Funding greater than £5,000 may be considered for large-scale projects.