Hands-on STEM degrees must be adapted for physical disabilities

According to the University of Washington, although disabled and non-disabled students pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors at similar rates, disabled students achieve less academic and professional success. As a result, they are underrepresented in the field; 26% of the U.S. population identifies as disabled, but less than 3% of workers with one or more disabilities represent the workforce. Only 21% of those people work in STEM occupations.

Common barriers for those with physical and mobility-related disabilities are hands-on labs and field work. Accommodations become a balance of ensuring students meet degree requirements, but are not expected to work beyond their means.

The convener of Ramapo’s environmental science major, Dr. Emma Rainforth, described what goes into designing a major. “It is constrained by the expectations of what do employers, what do graduate schools expect of a degree in a particular discipline? What particular skills and knowledge do they expect?”

Eighteen percent of students affiliated with the Office of Specialized Services (OSS) are STEM majors, according to OSS Assistant Director Missy Long. When the curriculum conflicts with their abilities, faculty and staff collaborate.

“Disability is so diverse… I don’t think there is one common challenge that is faced,” Long said. Over the years, Ramapo has renovated and purchased assistive technology to offer solutions as diverse as these challenges, from specialized stethoscopes for students with hearing impairments to lab hoods accessible to wheelchair users.

However, the costs add up quickly. “Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of funding to help people with disabilities,” Long said. She described how the state budget for organizations like the Division of Vocational Rehab, which has funded OSS in the past, has declined.

As a result, professors often must get creative with accommodations, especially for field classes.

Ramapo Valley County Reservation is a great site for learning about different plant species and rock types, but much of its terrain is uneven. Photo by William Jackson

“You can’t just pick a site that’s accessible if it doesn’t have what you’re trying to teach the students about,” Rainforth said. When selecting a location, she balances how many students can easily get there and how many course components are present. “It may be a less optimal learning experience for the whole because it doesn’t necessarily have all the features you wanted to see, but it’s got at least some of them.”

When there is no compromise, she streams on her phone for remote students while leading the rest of the class over rough terrain. “It would be easier if we had a dedicated videographer [but] it becomes a resource issue to a degree.”

Not all environmental science majors work in the field or a lab, but the degree requirements mandate field and lab skills. Junior Connor Sweeny envisioned himself working on marine wildlife conservation behind a desk or teaching in a classroom, but to get there he was required to take classes that were not designed with wheelchair users and mobility issues in mind.

“I would prefer to be in alternative classes — especially if I already knew that I inevitably don’t want to go into field work — because there’s really nothing that you could do for me to go into the water. There’s just no way that could be accessible enough,” Sweeny said.

From navigating uneven terrain in a field class to writing on paper lab reports, his mobility issues presented an array of difficulties that led to him swapping to a Bachelor of Arts in sustainability.

“Not all disabilities can be solved by just one or two common accommodations,” Sweeny said.

After being diagnosed with a non-celiac gluten sensitivity, junior Karolyn Garcia also decided to switch. “My issue isn’t solely me needing a bathroom. I can’t predict when I’m going to suffer, and any of the other associated symptoms. I would just rather not have to experience pain in the middle of nowhere.”

Meetings with OSS and faculty made her realize setting up accommodations would require time she did not have if she wanted to graduate within four years, so she changed to a Bachelor of Arts in environmental studies.

Students with disabilities cannot complete STEM degrees when their needs are not being met due to resource shortages and degree programs designed around assumptions of what physical tasks their holders should be able to perform.

“When the bare minimum thing that you need is not easily offered, it will likely not allow you to succeed,” Garcia said.

Leveling the playing field starts with academics and professionals alike acknowledging the need for diverse perspectives in STEM and making them feel welcome.

“As the faculty turn-over, we’re seeing a much greater appreciation of these issues, and ‘How do we make it work? We have to make it work, so let’s get as creative as we possibly can.’ As opposed to 20 years ago a faculty member might have been ‘Well, if you can’t do it, you can’t do it, so just change your major now,’” Rainforth said.



Featured photo by Danielle Bongiovanni