Disabilities are created not only by an individual’s circumstances, but also by systems and social processes designed without them in mind. That is according to a new study that calls for more proactive inclusion efforts within science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (Nature Communications 13 7208).
The study was carried out by a team led by Siobhán Mattison of the University of New Mexico, who says that the COVID-19 response proved that substantial changes can be implemented quickly if prioritized. What’s more, the adoption of remote working made work more accessible for some individuals. Building on these insights, Mattison’s team has drawn up an approach to inclusion comprising three strands: flexibility, accommodations and modifications.
“Flexibility” means recognizing that individuals’ needs vary widely, and therefore allowing people to work in a broad range of ways, for example by having a hybrid workforce.
“Accommodations” refers to adjustments to improve accessibility, like designing spaces with ramps, while “modifications” says that job duties should sometimes be altered where flexibility and accommodations are not enough, such as making summer teaching count towards teaching requirements.
“One of the most important things that institutions can do up front is to set aside funding to support recruitment and retention of scholars with disabilities,” Mattison told Physics World. “Conducting listening sessions is essential to evaluate needs and priorities so that money is spent in ways that are informed by people with first-hand experience of disability.”
The benefits of making physics a more accessible discipline
Such activities are likely to have significant long-term benefits. After all, many people will experience disability at some point during their life – as the emergence of long COVID has brought into focus.
Co-author Logan Gin from Brown University highlights the advantages of having diverse perspectives in the workforce. “Researchers get to select the questions that are asked and answered, defining what is important for their disciplines,” he explains.