From the Margins to the Center: NE CASC Fellow Helps Dismantle Accessibility Barriers for Scientists with Disabilities
Although participation in STEM fields by people with disabilities almost doubled between 1999 and 2019, this group remains underrepresented within the sciences and engineering. Compounding this underrepresentation is, as the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) has reported, an inequitable distribution of resources that favors people without disabilities at the expense of those with disabilities. According to NCSES, “a smaller share of scientists with disabilities receives research assistantships, traineeships, internships or...fellowships, scholarships, or grants than [do] those without disabilities”. Aly Putnam, a doctoral candidate in the UMass organismic and evolutionary biology program and an NE CASC fellow, has joined a growing chorus of scientists with disabilities who are combating their marginalization within academia by calling attention to barriers that limit their participation in STEM fields. Putnam’s growing profile as an activist-researcher has allowed her to amplify her voice on this issue. She was recently invited to participate in the “Conversations with Scientists” podcast and appeared in a nature.com article where she discussed the experience of working within and attempting to change the STEM working environment.
Putnam, who struggles with invisible illnesses including Crohn’s disease and a chronic demyelinating condition that result in a suppressed immune system, recurring fatigue, brain fog, and impaired speech, has become a dedicated chronicler of the pervasive challenges she faces in pursuing her degree. By sharing her experiences on social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram via the hashtag #DisabledinSTEM, she is both challenging an institutional status quo that has historically accepted the exclusion of researchers with disabilities from STEM fields and facilitating the development of a community focused on enhancing accessibility for all people. To complement her online activism, she recently co-founded a disability affinity group for graduate and undergraduate students in the UMass Department of Environmental Conservation.
“I want to help develop a sense of community among students with disabilities and/or chronic illness, to foster a sense of belonging, and to encourage students who fit into these categories to support one another as we advance towards our degrees,” Putnam says. “My hope is that in sharing my experiences, someone might feel seen, connected, or heard. They know there’s someone else out there who can relate to what they’re going through.”
“I want to help develop a sense of community among students with disabilities and/or chronic illness, to foster a sense of belonging, and to encourage students who fit into these categories to support one another as we advance towards our degrees. My hope is that in sharing my experiences, someone might feel seen, connected, or heard. They know there’s someone else out there who can relate to what they’re going through.”
NE CASC Graduate Fellow
For Putnam, the challenge of pursuing a STEM degree as a person with disabilities consists of both physical and mental components. A marine ecologist investigating climate change impacts on coastal intertidal communities (in Narragansett Bay, Boston Harbor, and the Long Island Sound), she conducts research that requires a combination of field manipulation, lab experiments, and mathematical modeling. But this type of work is not necessarily accessible for people with disabilities. “Field work is physically demanding and really takes a toll on you, and labs are not always designed with an accessibility component,” Putnam says. This issue is compounded by the added stress of tight deadlines that may impose daunting barriers to inclusion for researchers with disabilities. “In STEM disciplines specifically,” she notes, “there is a pressure for work to be done at a fast pace, which does not allow for the participation of people who might need extra time to complete their studies but can nevertheless contribute significantly to their fields.”
These barriers to accessibility have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has complicated the academic landscape for many with disabilities. “The current phase of the pandemic is especially challenging because people with disabilities are being pushed to work according to the same standards that were in place prior to the pandemic,” Putnam says. “The virus remains a threat for the immunocompromised but many organizations are, for example, no longer organizing hybrid conferences that offer both in-person and remote participation options. As a result, many immunocompromised people like me are faced with hard decisions: Should I put myself at risk by attending this event? Or should I not go at all and limit my opportunities to learn, network, and advance my career? Academic and professional organizations could take a major step forward in the area of accessibility by ensuring that remote participation is widely available at their events.”
In navigating the many barriers to inclusion for people with disabilities, Putnam says that it is impossible to overestimate the importance of cultivating a supportive network of advisors, colleagues, and working groups. “Folks with disabilities need allies to support them as much as possible,” she says. Putnam has been fortunate to find such an ally in her advisor, Michelle Staudinger, who has a faculty appointment at UMass Amherst in addition to serving as NE CASC science coordinator. “Michelle is just an incredible person who has been super supportive,” she says. “I feel lucky that I have someone like her to work with me.” Putnam hopes other advisors will serve as a similar source of support and encouragement for their advisees. “When we have more diverse people at the STEM table, science is better because of it,” she says. “Including folks with disabilities and making accommodations for their participation and success creates better, more innovative, more interesting science.”