Accessibility January 11, 2021
Prof Stephen Hawking is the inspiration for this budding astrophysicist with CP
Tuhin Dey was recently in the news for cracking the competitive engineering entrance exam, JEE. He draws inspiration from late Professor Stephen Hawking. The path, however, for scientists with disabilities worldwide is far from easy. Lack of access is a major challenge.
Just 21 years old, Tuhin Dey has set his target high. Born with arthrogryposis, a rare form of cerebral palsy that limits joint and muscular movement, Tuhin wants to do a Ph.D at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States.
“Like Professor Stephen Hawking who could achieve so much in the world of science from his wheelchair, I too am trying to achieve my target of becoming an astrophysicist like him”, says Tuhin.
Many of us may not understand all of Professor Hawking’s theories but there’s no doubt he played a huge role in challenging the many misconceptions attached to disability. A chief one being that subjects like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are beyond the scope of people with disabilities.
While Prof Hawking may be the first person who comes to mind when you think of a disabled scientist, he is not the only disabled person to have ever contributed to science. Take chemistry for instance. Disabled scientists were responsible for discovering at least 22 elements of the periodic table, including helium, oxygen, sodium, radium, and hafnium. Yet they are rarely talked about.
Inaccessibility a major barrier
While great strides have been made in opening STEM to students with disabilities, inaccessibility continues to push disabled scientists out of science.
“When I look around a room, I don’t often see anybody else like me”, writes Eleanor Beidatsch, a disabled scientist from Australia in an opinion piece published in ABC News last December. Eleanor was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), a genetic disability. She has SMA-Type 1, the most severe and is usually fatal. She spent her childhood dreaming of becoming a palaeontologist but almost gave up on her dream. Despite getting top marks in biology, she couldn’t take a crucial exam as the schooling system was not geared to address her needs. She persisted and went on to do her degree.
Some of the challenges faced by disabled people in STEM are highlighted in the book – ‘Perspectives of STEM Students with Disabilities: Our Journeys, Communities, & Big Ideas’, a book brought out by the University of Washington, United States. It features biographies of people with disabilities in the U.S pursuing education and careers in STEM. It talks about their journeys as students, and the importance of a larger community support community, among other things. You can read it here.
Perspectives of disabled scientists
“In a crowded professional field, I see my disability as a slight but valuable distinction and an opportunity to be a positive representation to colleagues who may not know others with cerebral palsy”, says Ivan, among the people featured in the book. He has a Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Illinois. Chicago.
“Research reveals that people with disabilities experience a lower level of career success than those without disabilities. They are less likely to attend college, pursue STEM majors, and earn degrees”, say the editors Scott Bellman and Dr. Sheryl Burgstahler. “However, the success stories of the relatively low numbers of individuals with disabilities in STEM demonstrate that opportunities do exist for those prepared to meet the challenges that they encounter..Successful people with disabilities can pave the way for students with disabilities who are ready to take on challenges in pursuit of STEM majors and careers, and they can demonstrate to educators, employers, and other stakeholders the unique contributions that talented students and employees bring to STEM fields”.
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