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From mobility impairments to intellectual disabilities and mental health disorders, disabilities are more prevalent than most of us may realize. Worldwide, approximately one billion people live with some form of disability, roughly 15% of the total global population, according to data from The World Bank. And within the United States, the percentage is even higher. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 26% of U.S. adults have some form of disability. Mobility impairments are the most common type of functional disability, with cognitive disabilities close behind. In terms of cognition, disabilities can involve impaired decision-making and difficulty concentrating. 

These numbers are of considerable interest to the STEM community, for several reasons. To begin with, we have seen a sizable increase in post-secondary enrollment among those with disabilities in recent years. While post-COVID data is unavailable, the National Center for Educational Statistics found that students with disabilities made up 19% of undergraduate students enrolled in post-secondary institutions during the 2015-2016 school year. 

Unfortunately, however, those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Even as disabled students are an increasing presence on campus, fewer persist to graduation relative to their peers without disabilities. And fewer still graduate with degrees in the STEM fields, and/or continue their education past a bachelor’s degree. 

We’re living in a moment of history wherein a STEM-based education is more accessible than ever before. Advancements in technology are only serving to fuel the future of STEM. More than ever before in history, students with disabilities can pursue STEM education and use their individual perspectives and experiences to help advance their industries. Here’s how tech is leading the charge, and what accessibility in STEM may look like in the future. 

Accommodation in the Classroom Across History

Interestingly, the global COVID-19 pandemic may ultimately serve to improve accessibility in STEM and similar fields. The rise of remote learning and job opportunities opens up the field to a wider range of candidates, in terms of diversity. Those who may not be fully able to navigate a campus or large groups of people due to disability may be better equipped to thrive in a remote environment. 

It’s important to note that the plight of disabled students is far from a modern problem. The exclusion of disabled individuals can be seen throughout much of contemporary American history. And much of that exclusion was declared legal — In the early 1900s, the Wisconsin Supreme Court handed down a verdict that decidedly wouldn’t fly in a modern landscape wherein accessibility is considered a fundamental right. 

In 1919’s Beattie v. Board of Education, a student with cerebral palsy was denied admission to public school based on his disability, despite being eager to learn and with the mental aptitude to do so. The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the decision, issuing a scathing verdict that cited the “depressing and nauseating effect” the student reportedly had on his fellow pupils and teachers. It wasn’t until the 1970s that special education was formally implemented into the U.S. public school system, but private institutions still commonly denied admission to disabled students. 

Fortunately, we’ve come a long way since the early days of U.S. public education and laws that afforded little protection to disabled citizens. And in our post-COVID world, technology and accessibility are likely to be further altered as we navigate the new normal wherein social distancing is a necessary means of survival.

The Role of Current Events in Tech and Accessibility

Post-COVID, social distancing mandates of varying levels have been put in place around the world. On the surface, those regulations serve to help quell the spread of the deadly virus, but there are other unintended benefits as well. For example, those with a disability that makes leaving the house difficult, even to run simple errands like grocery shopping, have more options than ever in terms of getting what they need with little hassle.

Grocery delivery was on the rise even before COVID hit the global scene. Research indicates that, between 2016 and 2018, the grocery delivery industry’s value effectively doubled. But the quick spread of the coronavirus helped elevate the industry even further, and in many ways, COVID-19 served as a wake-up call in terms of access to essential goods and services. 

As COVID-19 quickly spread around the world in early 2020, grocery delivery grew from a niche industry to an essential tool for public health in short order. Early grocery delivery customers, many of whom were living with a disability, touted the numerous benefits of the tech, including a wider range of available products. Those benefits have become crucial in a world forever altered by a deadly pandemic.

So where does STEM fit into all of this? Keep in mind that these types of innovations, such as streamlined grocery delivery apps, wouldn’t be possible without STEM education.

Is True Inclusion Possible in STEM?

What’s more, students with disabilities have a unique worldview wherein accessibility is always a factor. And make no mistake: this diverse subset of humanity will bring their individual experience to the table, which will only serve to drive innovation, in STEM and elsewhere. 

Yet for all of the benefits of remote learning, various challenges exist, and technology can’t solve every problem. Even remote work isn’t foolproof, nor is it necessarily the best option for everyone, whether or not you’re living with a disability. Like their able-bodied counterparts, disabled workers require certain tools to perform remote duties effectively. 

At the bare minimum, remote workers in every industry should have a dedicated workspace equipped with a desk and computer. In a home office setting, ensuring that a workspace is accessible is a much easier task than if you’re working outside the home. Remote workers should also be willing to advocate for themselves, and negotiate individual needs, whether related to a disability, communication, or technology. And within STEM fields, tech-related needs are often of critical importance. 

Key Takeaways

No matter the disability one lives with, it’s important to keep in mind that every facet of daily life can be impacted. In regards to STEM education, post-COVID, accessibility should thus be a key component in every strategic plan, to better provide opportunities for students with disabilities. These students have a unique worldview that shouldn’t be overlooked, in terms of public health, advancements in technology,  and overcoming obstacles every day. 

About Indiana Lee

Indiana Lee is a writer and journalist from the Pacific Northwest with a passion for covering workplace issues, social justice, environmental conservation, and more. You can follow her work on Contently (https://indianaleewrites.contently.com/), or on twitter @indianalee3

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Dr. Koshi Dhingra has dedicated her career to STEM education and is passionate about having every child live up to their potential. Seeing a lack of girls and other underrepresented youth in STEM programs, she founded talkSTEM in 2015 to address the imbalance. She has a doctorate in science education from Teachers College, Columbia University, has years of experience teaching in graduate and undergraduate programs, and has held leadership roles in universities. She advises and collaborates with a broad range of educational institutions globally. Dr. Dhingra began her career teaching science in middle and high school in New York. She lives in Dallas, Texas with her husband, three children, and two dogs.

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