Conference focuses on removing barriers facing disabled students in science

29 March 2016

More must be done to remove the barriers preventing disabled people from entering careers in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM), especially as the Disabled Students Allowance is about to end and the onus will be on universities to support disabled students, a conference heard on 17 March.

Disabled students in science

The conference, “Future directions in STEMM for people with disabilities”, was held in London at the Royal Society and organised by the STEMM Disability Advisory Committee, of which the IOP is a member.

The conference panel included Dr Alison Stokes, a lecturer in earth and environmental science education at the University of Plymouth, who is researching ways to make fieldwork – a mandatory part of many courses – accessible to disabled students. She said that when disabled people were deterred from science courses, not only were they unable to fulfil their potential, but society also lost out on the talents that they could contribute.

Panel member Margaret Meehan, manager of specialist tuition for academic success at Swansea University, said there were still “pockets of stigma” in higher education, and many disabilities, such as medical conditions or specific learning difficulties, were essentially invisible. Speaking on the day before the launch of the Dyslexic Academic Network, she said it could be helpful for students to know that academic staff themselves had disabilities.

Also on the panel were Duncan Shrewsbury, who has dyslexia and is training to be a GP, Loraine Martins, director of diversity and inclusion at Network Rail, and Rachel Bashabe, a graduate of Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) and assistant accountant at Babcock International Group. She has a long-term health condition and said that if it were not for the disability team at QMUL she would have been unable to finish her degree.

After small group discussions participants fed back ideas for tackling barriers to disabled people taking part in higher education and employment in STEMM. These included re-examining the use of lectures as a key method for delivering learning and looking at alternatives, better informing students about the support available to them and having disabled students go into schools to talk to school students, as well as school leaders giving talks about the problems they had overcome in going into STEMM.

Other suggestions included a kitemark for universities and employers to declare that they were disability-friendly, better signage across universities and in employment, and unconscious bias training for all senior managers. Many argued that removing barriers to disabled people entering STEMM careers had to start at the stage of advertising and recruitment to posts, and noted that some employers used third-party recruiters who were not always aware of diversity issues and had to meet targets based on other criteria. Some said there should be alternatives to psychometric tests and mechanisms for disabled people to ask for reasonable adjustments at the application stage.

Participants said disabled applicants to universities or employment should be encouraged to disclose their disabilities, while recognising that there was considerable fear around disclosure. Some said that an understanding attitude and suitable adjustments in activities such as fieldwork were down to luck in choosing a sympathetic institution, but felt that this should not be the case.

The conference was introduced by Martin Hollins, chair of the STEMM Disability Advisory Committee, who said that the committee hoped to produce a report of the event.

The introductory speaker was Philip Connolly, policy development manager for Disability Rights UK. He said that society was living through a period of adversity since the recent financial collapse and we were in “an age of loss” as people lost jobs, the ability to afford a home, and so on. Disabled people were “the experts in loss” he said, as 95% of disabilities were acquired and disabled people had had to go on a journey requiring resilience, resourcefulness, adaptation and creativity. They had much to offer to society and to employers, yet most decisions were still being made for them, he said.