Science communication is all about making science more accessible to the population. But how accessible is science to those with diverse abilities? And how can you contribute to accessibility in science?
Science communication is a field dedicated to helping the general public make sense of science and even help them get excited about it. Caitlin from cmlovesscience wrote a fantastic article explaining the ins and outs, which you can check out here. I, personally, take the definition of science communication to be making science accessible to everyone regardless of their abilities, including those who may have visual or auditory impairment, physical handicap, or a learning disability. Over the past two weeks, I have gathered information regarding the accessibility in the scientific field and have come up with some ways to make the field as well as science content more inclusive to those with diverse abilities.
Note: this is not an exhaustive list as there are many ways to include those with diverse abilities.
How accessible is the scientific field right now?
Individuals with diverse abilities face hurdles even before they get into the field. I spoke with Ms. Wheelchair Northern USA, Joci Scott, on some of the academic challenges she faces. Joci has a spinal cord injury and requires a wheelchair. She said one of the biggest challenges was most lecture halls have steps. So during an exam, she has to wait for the professor to come to her if she has a question or wishes to turn in her exam. She also stated most of her psychology courses cover topics such as anxiety and depression, but lack topics such as growing up with a disability or trauma related to an injury.
Dr. Caroline Solomon, a professor at Gallaudet University and a member of the deaf community, said one of the biggest difficulties was the “coffee-chats” that occur in the hallways of conferences and universities. “There's so much learning and exchange of information that happens during that time in addition to the formal presentations, classes,” she said; “There's also the unintentional action of leaving us out - we deaf scientists always have to be the one going up to people and introducing ourselves and talk science.” She also discussed how if she doesn’t go out of her way to talk to people, almost no one comes and talks to her at conferences. COVID-19 has made it very difficult for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. Masks are the biggest hurdle. They make it hard to lipread or pick up on expressive cues.
What are ways to improve how science is conducted?
According to Joci, the one way to improve the field is training to help educate individuals on how to interact with people with diverse abilities. She often needs to get scans at medical facilities that are not equipped for people who are paralyzed. If the staff had some sort of training, they would be aware and able to properly help people like Joci. We also discussed some modifications to allow wheelchair users to perform research in a laboratory. Lower counters with space underneath to fit a wheelchair as well as a way to cover a person’s lap and wheelchair from chemical spills are just a few of the ideas we came up with.
Dr. Solomon said she has been lucky to attend large conferences with interpreters, but they are not always provided. She also has difficulty getting access to captions for webinars as more conferences have been moved online due to COVID-19. Captions allow her to participate in the webinar without the need of an interpreter. The biggest change, according to Dr. Solomon, is “people need to be more open minded about including [individuals with diverse abilities] in the labs - not viewing them as barriers but contributors of great new ideas.”
The Bottom Line: Science is for Everyone
Both of my interviewees agreed that representation is important in all fields, including science. Joci’s platform as Ms. Wheelchair Northern USA is equal representation in the arts. 95% of disabled characters are played by able-bodied actors. Representation in the media allows individuals to share their stories and allows people to feel seen. According to Dr. Solomon, “there's a lot of discussion about diversity and inclusion and it tends to focus on gender, race, but often forgets people with disabilities.” Including those with disabilities in the field will cause a ripple effect. It will inspire others with disabilities to become excited about science as well as improve methods of science education.
To learn about more ways to include those with diverse abilities in science, click here.
To learn about an example of inclusive science education, click here.
This article was written by Emma Ives
Emma Ives is a biology major at The Ohio State University and plans to become a pharmacist. She hosts a pharmacy inspired podcast "Chill Pill with Emma Ives", which hopes to inform and inspire others about the diversity of the field.
Personal Instagram: @emma_sparks43
Podcast: Chill Pill with Emma Ives