As a little kid, I was fascinated by the inner workings of every device in my family’s home. I would spend hours disassembling and reassembling radios, toasters, and other household appliances, trying to figure out how they worked. Some sighted adults marveled at this, but to me, a blind kid exploring the world, it felt perfectly natural. Blindness is a hands-on process.
The model kits for steam engines and rockets I received on birthdays didn’t come with braille instructions. I’d assemble them by trial and error rather than by following the printed instructions which I couldn’t read—how many big screws, how many little screws, four pieces shaped like this, and two pieces shaped like that will form a box. Unfortunately, decades later, very little has changed. Instead of model rockets I now contend with things like IKEA furniture, but assembly is still more like solving a puzzle than a step-by-step process.
With this early understanding of disability-related problem solving, I pursued my interests in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math. My personal story of becoming a successful blind scientist, inventor, accessibility activist, and principal researcher at Amazon is equal parts luck and grit. However, I am once again reminded of the inaccessibility of information, technology, and educational experiences that continues to impede the next generation of disabled students.
I was lucky to be born into a privileged, white, educated family who understood my passion for STEM and supported it from childhood. I was lucky to have teachers who made the extra effort to adapt their science and math curricula for a blind kid who had clear passion and potential for STEM. This led me to the University of California, Berkeley, where I studied physics. Even at Berkeley, the birthplace of the Disability Rights Movement, I faced familiar barriers as a blind student learning and living on a campus designed for sighted students. I distinctly remember one of my courses tasked me with building semiconductor circuits, but the campus lacked accessible lab equipment—they didn’t expect blind kids to be studying physics. Instead, my lab partners would read the gauges and digital readouts, paid assistants would transcribe circuit diagrams, and I was lucky to find blind mentors who taught me to build some of my own accessible test equipment. Through another blind student, I learned about OutSPOKEN, one of the first commercially available screen readers for computers, which ensured I could access the visual information on the screen.
Pursuing an education and career in STEM also required grit to push back against a world that assumed blind students couldn’t succeed in fields where diagrams, maps, equations, and other “visual” media were the ubiquitous tools of record-keeping and communication. But exceptionalism shouldn’t be a requirement for people with disabilities to flourish in science and math. If an average sighted kid can build a career in STEM, shouldn’t an average blind kid be able to, as well?
The struggle of STEM inclusion is still with us. The blind students who attend the electronics and hobby-robotics workshops that I regularly teach usually attend schools that offer similar hands-on learning experiences—but only for sighted students. The blind kids in my workshops are rarely members of the robotics clubs in their schools, not for lack of interest or ability, but because most sighted educators simply can’t conceive of blind students being successful in those clubs.
Certainly, teachers need training, education, and additional resources to support accessible STEM education, but usually the main thing missing is their ability to see students with disabilities as successful future scientists and engineers. In short, the STEM education of most students with disabilities is a low priority because of ableism—biases and preconceptions that assume disabled students can’t succeed.
For many years now, educational policy and practice have recognized that STEM fields lack diversity. There are major research programs and intervention efforts to improve the diversity of students who succeed in STEM fields. Academic journals and conferences are dedicated to the topic. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on programs to encourage diversity in STEM fields across gender, race, culture, and socioeconomic status, but disability is rarely a significant part of the conversation.
From grade schools to tutoring centers and universities, our educational institutions and those who lead them must reimagine their classrooms and campuses. We need schools that support a truly diverse future of engineers, artists, authors, and makers—and that diversity must include disability.
Educators can’t make this change alone. Just as we need to make sure educational materials and technologies are culturally inclusive, we also need to make sure textbooks, websites, and education software are usable by students with disabilities. Science simulations that are purely visual cannot benefit blind students, Deaf students can’t learn from uncaptioned videos, electronic textbooks whose fonts cannot be changed or scaled make it hard for dyslexic students to read, and the list goes on and on. We need to help funders, employers, educators, and parents of students with disabilities understand that disability does not preclude success in STEM or in any other career.
Like any other meaningful effort towards equity, active participation by community members is essential. We must have educators and leaders with disabilities designing the policies and practices that impact our community’s participation in STEM. Designers and engineers with disabilities must have central roles on the teams creating accessible educational materials and technologies used on our campuses. STEM leaders with and without disabilities must make it their responsibility to remove accessibility barriers to welcome the next generation of diverse innovators. They must echo the battle cry of the disability rights movement, “Nothing about us without us.” Disability inclusion takes place when people with disabilities are “in the room where it happens,” from the classroom to the boardroom, and have the power to guide decisions that impact our community and our ability to participate as equals.
Now, I invite us all to reexamine the assumptions we have about disability and success and take the opportunity to raise our expectations for the 1 billion people living with disabilities around the globe. Consider the inadvertent accessibility barriers in your personal or professional world that add unnecessary friction to the successful participation of people with disabilities. Ask yourself how you can help remove that friction.
Just as our society is learning to recognize and call out racism, sexism, and other biases, we need to become more broadly capable of spotting and eradicating ableism in our personal interactions and institutions. Only then can we move toward an inclusive and accessible world where people with disabilities won’t have to be exceptionally lucky and stubborn in order to succeed—in STEM education, in building a career, or in enjoying everyday entertainment. Normalizing disability means changing societal assumptions so that successful people with disabilities, in STEM fields or otherwise, are no longer unusual. Global accessibility and disability inclusion are everyone’s business.
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