Disability is diversity: How to increase accessibility in science


The pandemic has changed the world as everyone knows it. The general public has come to understand social distancing, better handwashing, and the effectiveness of masking for infectious disease control. With the prominence of video conferencing tools like Zoom, WebEx, and Google Meet, more attention has been drawn to the needs of a hidden community: disabled people. Disabled people are a prominent part of the population, and the burden of requesting and following through with proper accommodations is put on their shoulders. To relieve this burden, calls for universal accessibility have been loud and hard to ignore. Although individual needs for accommodations can be vastly different, even for people with the same diagnosis, there are bare minimum changes allies can make to support the disabled community in science and beyond.

Discrimination Is Rampant against Disabled People

Disability is prevalent in the general population. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 25% of the population is disabled, even if individuals don’t identify with the label themselves. This percentage will continue to grow with the newest influx of long COVID patients. Disabled and disability continue to be a dirty words, with many in the community continuing to be infantilized for our conditions, when in fact, we just need a little help to get by. Just because we need some time extensions to get work done, devices to be mobile, or literally a helping hand, many of us are seen as lesser humans. We often suffer in silence, lacking the energy (commonly referred to as spoons) to advocate for ourselves and our community.

Unintentionally or not, the actions of the scientific community perpetuate ableism by supporting discriminatory systems that work against the disabled community. Most universities only require self-reporting of disabilities, even if a person isn’t interested in filing for formal accommodations. Most disabled people prefer not to self-identify as they are afraid of backlash and retaliation.

Once a person decides to seek out formal accommodations, they are required to get a functional capacity evaluation (FCE; for physical disabilities), mental evaluations and surveys (for mental disabilities), and several certified letters from their healthcare providers as proof and documentation of their disability and the accommodations they require. Even with good insurance, the FCE or mental evaluations probably are not covered, and they can cost $500 or more. Once these evaluations are secured, there is additional time and money required to see a physician to go over these evaluations, sign paperwork, and identify the person to receive the certified letters.

Once the application forms are filled out, they must go through the 504 Disability Office, Human Resources, and the department/school to coordinate the (hopefully) approved accommodations. With the cross-office coordination that is required, applications can take weeks to months for approval. It is then the responsibility of the disabled person to report these accommodations to their professors and supervisors. Furthermore, these accommodations don’t follow the person during their tenure at the university. They must renew these accommodations at different time points arbitrarily determined by the university. Professors and supervisors all too often do not honor legally required work accommodations; this creates uncomfortable environments, perpetuating discrimination and upholding ableist systems for trainees and those with lesser positions of power. These undue burdens make it harder for disabled people to continue their work and receive the education they rightfully deserve.

Seeking and receiving accommodations shouldn’t be a struggle, embarrassing, or burdensome. Ableism keeps out some of the brightest minds and causes many to leave yet another unwelcoming space. If more education and community were provided for disabled academics, it would become apparent how critically universal accessibility is needed. Universal accessibility is a great way to start helping and advocating for the disabled community. This would remove the burden on disabled people to seek out the essential tools they need to thrive in their environments and eliminate the need to out themselves in otherwise hostile environments.

Accessibility: It’s Always Important

Accessibility is creating equitable spaces for all individuals to access and understand information in the same manner as everyone else. The Center for Excellence in Universal Design has outlined seven principles to guide accessibility measures: equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, and size and space for approach for use. This means accessibility efforts should create equivalent, if not identical, means for everyone; options for diverse disabilities; accommodation for those with different literary and intelligence backgrounds; redundancy in the information presented; minimal hazards and fatigue; and an understanding of different body sizes and abilities. My rules to building presentations assume I have one deaf, one blind, and one junior high individual in the room. Providing a space for just these three individuals ensures a welcoming environment for most, if not all.

Here are some crucial steps to creating accessible presentations:

  • Keep data simple and redundant using both visuals and simple wording
  • Speak slowly and clearly while projecting so your voice can carry across rooms and be picked up by microphones
  • Avoid jargon and unnecessary advanced wording
  • Describe any and all visuals verbally in your presentations and in alt-text in images (written)
  • Provide a copy of your slides in advance
  • Utilize color-blind friendly colors and/or differing patterns, styles, and shapes of data points
  • Allow open (always available) or closed (available as an option) captioning for all video and in-person events
  • Provide transcripts after the event is over
  • Provide American Sign Language interpreters at all events and during video conferencing
  • Maintain hybrid events for those that have financial, caretaking, and health responsibilities that restrict travel

There are many tools available to implement accessibility within your life. These tools have made it easier for disabled people and provide more opportunities for abled people by making attendance at meetings easier or remote work more common. That in and of itself is enough to show that this technology is available, has been tested, and can be readily employed to increase the well-being of everyone. Microsoft has started to provide accessibility checks, captions in their PowerPoint presentations, presentation practice with Presentation Coaching, and review of your writing to ensure it is within a certain grade point/intellectual ability level. Zoom and Google Meet provide free captioning within their services. Most people prefer to pay for more accurate captioning using services like Rev or Otter.ai. Programs like Prism can provide quick, simple changes to your data visuals, or use color-blind color palettes available in R. Once you are alert to it, accessibility is not hard to incorporate, but there is some work and money required to integrate it. 

Unfortunately, not everyone in academia welcomes these changes. What can scientists and allies do to advocate and ensure equitable spaces for their disabled colleagues? Accommodations will cost money; therefore, budget for them within events and see it as an investment to include otherwise isolated groups of people. Demand accessible spaces when given the opportunity to do so and help elevate the burden placed on disabled individuals. If invited to give a presentation, require that captions be there. Ask for a transcript of the talk after the event, which can be posed as a way to review any questions or answers for further research or evaluation. Listen to and believe the stories of disabled colleagues. There are many great resources and hashtags that you can follow on Twitter like #DisabledInSTEM, #DisabledInHigherEd, and #BlackAndDisabled.

Working toward universal accessibility requires an investment. By creating equitable environments, the increased diversity means more robust ideas. Not only that, but the increase of accessibility will also increase stakeholder participation leading to more meaningful and translational research from the academy. Those that did not previously participate in science now have an easier chance to do so, and this increases the diversity of ideas present. If the proverbial table doesn’t have a chair for the marginalized, bring extra chairs. We are in an era where we can easily make bigger tables, so let’s do so by including universal accessibility and inviting more disabled people to our spaces.

Resources on Accessibility










About the Author:

Alexis Mobley is a graduate student at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. She investigates immune cell communication in the brain in sex differences and age-related diseases.