National Academies conversation series explores underrepresentation of people with disabilities in STEM

Four from Johns Hopkins participate in panel discussions highlighting the importance and value of embracing inclusive practices to drive scientific progress and discovery

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine hosted a five-part conversation series earlier this month exploring how stigma and ableism limit opportunities for disabled people to contribute and be successful in the nation's STEM ecosystem, and how this exclusion holds back scientific progress.

The series, titled "Disrupting Ableism and Advancing STEM," kicked off on June 5 with a hybrid national leadership summit in Washington, D.C., and online. Over the course of the five events, panelists from a range of disciplines and backgrounds examined ways to promote accessibility and inclusivity for individuals with disabilities within STEM workplaces and STEM education. They also discussed the need to uproot bias and stigma in these settings.

More than 1,000 total participants took part in the series.

"The STEM ecosystem has been built in ways that keep people with disabilities out," said Bonnie Swenor, founder and director of the Johns Hopkins Disability Health Research Center and chair of the committee that organized the event series. "Too often the assumption is that disabled people are not among our STEM colleagues. It's time to take head on the view that disabled people can't succeed or don't belong in STEM."

People with disabilities constitute the largest minority group in the U.S., making up an estimated 27% of the population. But they account for just 3% of the STEM workforce, according to recent data published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and produced by researchers affiliated with the Johns Hopkins Disability Health Research Center.

The June 5 leadership summit included Karen Marrongelle, chief operating officer of the National Science Foundation; Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences; Anjali Forber-Pratt, director of the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research; Barbara Snyder, president of the Association of American Universities; Holden Thorp, editor in chief of Science; among many others. The event included discussions of disability identity, workplace ecosystems, barriers limiting career advancement, and access and inclusion practices and policies that support and advance people with disabilities in STEM.

"To drive scientific advances and innovation in ways never before possible, we need an all hands-on deck approach to STEM," Swenor said. "That means we must remove barriers that are keeping talent out of the STEM education and the STEM workforce, including people with disabilities. It is beyond time that we challenge misperceptions about including people with disabilities in the STEM workforce, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is good for science."

The conversation series included four additional conversations this month:

Three of the events included members of the Johns Hopkins community:

  • On June 7, Cathie Axe, executive director of Student Disability Services, participated in a panel discussion titled "Moving Beyond Compliance with Legal and Employment Policies and Procedures"
  • On June 13, Erica Avery, a doctoral student in Department of Physiology at the School of Medicine participated in a conversation titled "Programs to Foster Mutual Mentorship Among Disabled Individuals," in which she will discuss the Hopkins Equal Access in Science and Medicine (EASM) student group
  • On June 16, Miche Aaron, a doctoral student in Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, participated in a discussion titled "Overcoming Bias and Stigma"

More information about the conversation series, including archived broadcasts of all sessions, is available online.