A diverse team which includes a team member sitting in a wheelchair working together around a laptop

We need to think about different abilities, not disabilities in STEMM

by Dr Alison Stokes, Lecturer in Earth and Environmental Science at Plymouth University

At the STEMM DAC conference in March, important steps were taken to identify areas for improvement in supporting people with disabilities to access a STEMM career.

Challenging perceptions about disability in STEMM

‘Diversity’ is a broad subject and there is a perception that issues around gender and race often attract greater attention than disability. But science is not just for the able-bodied. As Philip Connolly from Disability Rights UK reminded delegates at last week’s STEMM Disability Advisory Committee’s annual conference, we are all on a path to disability, be it fading eyesight, decreasing memory, or increasingly limited mobility!

Built around the theme of ‘transitions’, the conference provided a forum to discuss, debate, and exchange ideas and experiences around a range of education and work-related issues, with the aim of generating recommendations for future actions and directions.

Developing a common focus

What I found particularly encouraging throughout the day was the emergence of common themes for future action. These include:

  • greater focus on ability rather than disability
  • the development of open and inclusive environments
  • positive role-models
  • better careers advice and work placement/experience opportunities
  • increased collaboration and partnership working between professional bodies, schools, universities, business and other stakeholder groups.

Sharing best practice

Nor is learning a STEMM subject just about ‘knowing’ things. It’s also about developing the practical and technical skills that are necessary for professional practice and valued by employers. So negotiating the barriers to both ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’ is vital in helping learners with disabilities to realise their full potential.

These issues formed the focus for targeted, small-group discussions over the course of the day. Discussions inevitably broadened into the exploration of more general viewpoints, experiences and individual journeys around disability, which generated a real sense of energy and enthusiasm among delegates.

Working together for a more diverse science workforce

This emphasis on discussion between diverse interest groups was key to the event’s success. As a practitioner in higher education, my focus is on helping learners with disabilities negotiate the pathway through an academic degree programme so that they graduate with the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to succeed in the workplace. The forthcoming changes to the Disabled Students Allowance present significant challenges for universities, the true nature and magnitude of which have yet to become clear. This prompted a lot of discussion around the potential negative impacts which, while useful, did somewhat overshadow the opportunities to explore more positive ways forward.

Future directions

The conference gave me a real sense of optimism for the future, and it signified a clear desire from delegates to all pull in the same direction, while also recognising the importance of working together and learning from each other. The task now is to maintain the motivation generated by the conference, and move forward towards these ‘future directions’.

Dr Alison Stokes is an expert in teaching and learning through fieldwork and laboratory work. She is currently undertaking research into accessible fieldwork for students with disabilities in association with the International Association for Geoscience Diversity, for whom she is Executive Counsellor.

STEMM Disability Advisory Committee

The STEMM Disability Advisory Committee is a collaboration of professional bodies, learned societies and charities aiming to strengthen the inclusion of people with disabilities in Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine (STEMM).

For more information about STEMM DAC contact Brian Wagenbach.