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Success in STEM

NEADS Project Envisions More Careers in Science

by Ingrid Phaneuf, Jobpostings Magazine (Winter 2009, pg. 13)

Mahadeo Sukhai’s interest in science was sparked when he was six, thanks to a book on astronomy, given to him by his parents. Now he’s a 30-something post-doctoral cancer researcher at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto.

The years in between were spent hurdling the barriers that could easily have prevented the legally blind Sukhai from pursuing his dream of conducting scientific research for a living.

Given Canada’s meagre employment rates for people with disabilities, it’s pretty safe to assume there aren’t a lot of scientists like Sukhai out there. But exactly how many there are and how they managed to overcome the barriers to their success remains a mystery. Digging deeper is just one goal of a study recently launched by the National Educational Association for Disabled Students (NEADS).

“It’s something I’ve wanted to look into ever since I joined NEADS in 2004,” says Sukhai, who was elected president of the organization in 2006.

The new two-year initiative, developed through a funding partnership with Imperial Oil Foundation, and titled “Enhancing Opportunities for Post-Secondary Students and Graduates with Disabilities in Science and Technology Related Fields,“ launched last April and is slated to conclude in March 2010. NEADS will receive $120,000 from the foundation for the project.

“While research has been conducted on factors affecting the inclusion of the general student population in science and technology-related programs, very little work has been done to highlight the issues and challenges faced by students and employees with disabilities within this sector,” says a press release from NEADS. “Furthermore, the identification of role models or success stories in science and technology is not encouraged – every student and educator, or every employer and employee, facing these issues may well believe that they are the first, ever, to do so.”

Indeed research on the number of Canadian scientists with disabilities currently employed is next to non-existent. According to the most recent Participation and Activity Limitation Survey (PALS) conducted by Statistics Canada, 96,610 people with disabilities work in Canada’s professional, scientific and technical services industry. But this sector includes people working in legal services, accounting, architecture and engineering, surveying and mapping, design, advertising, management, scientific and technical consulting and last but not least, scientific research and development.

The NEADS study aims to leverage its network of college and university service providers, students and recent graduates with disabilities to obtain more useful and extensive information, with the end goal of developing a guidebook for students, employers and recent graduates. The project also aims to research and develop a national science and technology fair for students with disabilities as an outreach tool to encourage their participation and visibility in the science and technology sector. It also seeks to establish a network of stakeholders and existing organizations to examine the research findings in the guidebook and develop strategies for communication, dissemination and implementation of strategies to counter barriers by students with disabilities in science and technology.

In short, the project aims to make Mahadeo Sukhai’s success in obtaining the education and accommodations he needed to pursue his career less of an exception and more of a rule.

Opportunities Scarce

According to the project’s early findings, such is not currently the case for Canadians students with disabilities who want to pursue careers in science and technology.

A first phase literature review and environmental scan of programs available to aspiring scientists with disabilities reveals Canada falls far behind the U.S. when it comes to opportunities for young scientists who are disabled, says researcher Jessica Cowan Dewar.

“I didn’t find very much out there at all for Canada, but I found quite a lot of literature on programs in the U.S.,” says Cowan-Dewar, citing internship programs at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Microsoft outreach programs and the Entry Point! program, created by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. AAAS offers internship opportunities for students with disabilities in science, engineering, mathematics, computer science and some fields of business in partnership with major companies. Companies include IBM, NASA, Merck, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Google, Lockheed Martin, CVS (pharmaceuticals), NAVAIR (the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command), Pfizer, Infosys and university science laboratories across the U.S.

And while statistical information regarding the number of scientists with disabilities employed in Canada is scarce, Cowan-Dewar hopes to gather some useful anecdotal data in the second phase of the study, by interviewing 30 volunteers, all of them recent grads with disabilities trying to find jobs in science and technology.

Sukhai, in the meantime, has some of his own anecdotes about climbing the research ladder, every rung rendered slippery with the perceptions of colleagues and professors and the battle for accommodations that would allow him to ply his trade.

“Luckily, I didn’t have a limiting attitude and neither did my family,” says Sukhai. “But that attitude does exist in the scientific community. I have had some professors who just shook their heads and said they’d never seen anyone like me in a lab before. But they were flexible enough to change their minds over time.”

Sukhai currently conducts his research with the aid of a lab assistant and a special microscope provided for him by alma mater, the University of Toronto.

“It took some time and there was some discussion, but we got it done,” says Sukhai. He’s hoping that his experience is one that soon can be shared by more aspiring scientists with disabilities.

“I was lucky, in that I had a family and a community early on in life that did nothing to limit my expectations,” says Sukhai. “But the same can’t be said for everyone.”

While navigating through academia and the job hunt, it is important to discuss the larger social issues that impact this process. Unfortunately, prejudice and discrimination towards individuals with disabilities continues to persist.

Prejudice can take many forms. It is often easier to recognize and label blatant and overt discrimination. Following such an experience, there is a recognizable path to counter such actions (as found in the Legal Rights section of this guide). However, subtle prejudices are trickier and more pervasive. Individuals with disabilities within science and technology related fields are often faced with situations where undertones of prejudices leak into their experience. This pervasive and subtle tone can often be couched within seemingly ambiguous situations. Some students face attitudinal barriers within laboratory settings that imply that they are incapable due to their disability. Others may wonder whether they were denied a job based upon selection criteria or prejudice. Understandably, the process of interpreting situations in terms of prejudice is unsettling, confusing and can greatly impact one’s self-esteem and motivation.

Dr. Gregor Wolbring, a prominent academic, biochemist, bioethicist, health policy researcher, ability scholar and assistant professor at the University of Calgary Faculty of Medicine, offers this advice to individuals who experience discrimination:

“Never take anything personal. If people treat you badly, it’s not because of you, it’s because they are bad or ignorant or stupid people. They just don’t get it and they will do the same to others. If someone treats you badly because they are a bully, they will also bully other people. So never take it personal. Because then you just become bitter and then you are cutting into your enjoyment of life.”

While we continue to press on with changing these attitudes at a societal level, many individuals will unfortunately continue to encounter these experiences of discrimination or attitudinal barriers to access. It is important to recognize that they are not alone in this fight, and that many very successful individuals with disabilities have been faced with these injustices and have persevered to triumph within their science and technology careers. Follow your own goals and disregard the ignorance of those who tell you it cannot be done.


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