Bringing People with Disabilities into the Research Community

Photo of some of the REU Canopy Explorers, 2013
Photo of some of the REU Canopy Explorers, 2013 (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Tripp.)

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Rebecca Tripp, a scientist with experience in canopy biology. Tripp is also paralyzed from the waist down, and writes here about what can be done to encourage students and scientists with disabilities to participate in scientific research.

Growing up on the rugged coast of Maine, I developed a deep love of nature at a young age, and a strong desire to preserve it as I grew to understand the innumerable and increasingly devastating threats it faces. As the world continues to be bombarded with seemingly insurmountable challenges, it is more apparent than ever that we need a population equipped with the education, tools and experiences necessary to find solutions and create change.

Several years after earning my undergraduate degree in psychology, I decided that it was time to do my part, and I began looking into university programs and internships that were geared toward protecting our planet. I wasn’t expecting it to be easy, but the challenge I didn’t anticipate was the pervasive lack of awareness and accessibility.

Having sustained a spinal cord injury six years ago that left me paralyzed from the waist down and dependent on a wheelchair, it became increasingly evident that any difference I was going to make in this world would have to be done from behind a desk. It was automatically assumed – by professors, by employers, by society at large – that my disability rendered me incapable of anything but the simplest of tasks, and I struggled to find programs that were willing to accommodate me.

Rebecca Tripp
Rebecca Tripp

Then I came across an internship at Baker University in Kansas that was actively recruiting students with ambulatory disabilities to engage in biological field research. To find an opportunity where those with disabilities were not only welcome, but were sought out, was practically unheard of, and I jumped at the chance. Dr. Randy Miller, an expert on tardigrades at Baker, and Dr. Meg Lowman (then at North Carolina State University), a pioneer in canopy biology, together proposed that students with physical disabilities could ascend into the canopy to conduct research.

I spent that summer climbing trees, using ropes and a harness, and collecting microscopic organisms to study later on in the lab. It turned out to be a life-changing 10 weeks, and it got me thinking: How can we, as a society, promote more opportunities like this? How do we motivate employers, teachers, scientists, etc., to broaden their horizons and make the sciences more inclusive? How do we encourage the disabled community to participate in these opportunities?

As with any important issue that needs to be addressed, we must begin by raising the level of awareness. There are many people with a variety of disabilities who are interested in science and who, with proper accommodations, are perfectly capable of being contributing members of the scientific community. We need to start thinking more holistically, and understand that a disability does not prevent someone from engaging in a particular activity, the disability only means that adjustments may need to be made to ensure success.

When we begin excluding people due to their physical, mental or developmental limitations, we suffer as a society, and we miss out on potentially valuable contributions to science. There have been many technological advancements over the years that make life easier for all of us, and we should be utilizing these tools to promote a scientifically literate global community, to which everyone can contribute.

Science communicators, many of whom are scientists themselves, are perfectly positioned to play a prominent role in initiating change.

Specifically, science communicators can use their platform to promote ideas to colleagues, students and learning institutions, and to disseminate information to large audiences. They can also showcase and/or interview those with disabilities doing extraordinary things, in science or otherwise, so these individuals might serve as role models to those who question their own abilities, giving them someone who they can look up to and say, “If she can do it, so can I.”

Change doesn’t occur overnight, but with dedication, perseverance, and a little creativity, amazing things can happen.

After speaking with Drs. Lowman and Miller, it became evident that when creating a program geared toward those with physical limitations, finding prospective applicants was one of the biggest challenges. In their case, they decided to draw attention to the canopy project by putting the word “wheelchair” directly in the title. And, given that it was being funded by the National Science Foundation, the project was featured on NSF’s website as well. The American Association for the Advancement of Science was informed of the project, as were other REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) principal investigators and the Wounded Warrior Project, Sigma Xi, the Council on Undergraduate Research, and the Semper Fi Fund, with mixed results. There are groups such as AccessSTEM and the National Science Teachers Association who provide resources for making the sciences more inclusive to those with disabilities, but encouraging scientists to create accessible programs, and finding the right venue for disseminating information is still an uphill battle, albeit one worth fighting.

Ultimately, all suggestions and assistance in spreading the word and raising awareness are welcome.


2 thoughts on “Bringing People with Disabilities into the Research Community

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