Accessing Accessibility: Physical Hurdles in STEM

by March for Science

This article is by Marina Zaher Nakhla.


As my experience shows, it is possible to chase your dreams in STEM even with a disability. But you have to know how.

My name is Marina Z. Nakhla, and I am a first-year Master’s student in the Clinical Psychology program at California State University, Northridge. I was born with congenital limb abnormalities, resulting in a bilateral above-knee amputation when I was fourteen months old. Ever since then, I have worn prosthetic legs. In addition, I was born with four fingers on my left hand and three on my right.

Before college I had an assistant who helped me gain access. This included carrying my bags.

Before college I had an assistant who helped me gain access. This included carrying my bags.

Elementary, middle, and high school were very difficult for me. I was bullied and made fun of a lot, especially during elementary and middle school. I also had to miss school here and there for prosthetic leg appointments, physical therapy sessions, and other issues. In spite of all of this, my teachers, family, and school staff advocated on my behalf and were supportive of my academic and creative endeavors in the classroom and beyond. Of great help was my personal assistant (hired by the public education system), who would hold my bags and always walk with me around campus, ensuring that I had full accessibility to the school. She would also help when it came to creative science projects that I struggled with, since it was difficult for me to cut and glue things together. In addition, my family was extremely supportive and attended all my school-related events, comforted me when I was sad, and defended me when people were giving me a hard time. Given these points, I truly believe that the support system of my family, teachers, and personal assistant / school administrators alleviated the physical hurdles I had to endure.

In college, however, I didn’t get that personal assistance. I was on my own. I learned that in the field of STEM, there is no shame in receiving accommodations, that you must choose your mentor wisely, and that you have to address discrimination head on. These three lessons are not only valuable for people with disabilities looking to pursue STEM education and careers. They are also valuable for people without disabilities who want to promote a culture of inclusion.

Lesson 1: There is No Shame in Accommodations

Equipment in research laboratories may be difficult to access for individuals with disabilities. Reasonable accommodations can make is possible for people with disabilities to engage in lab work along with their peers.

Personally, I do not struggle with very many accessibility issues in my lab because the majority of my studies are conducted on human subjects, and I do not have to use much specialized equipment. However, I do struggle with getting around the lab sometimes, especially when it comes to reorganizing drawers and carrying heavy testing kits. I’ve learned to never shy away from asking for help and communicate my needs to others in my lab. When I test participants, I bring another labmate to help me carry the testing kit. When the lab needs to be organized, I make sure to do it with the others. My labmates have made it easier for me to ask for help when I need it because they accept me as I am and do not look down on me.

Other STEM fields such as microbiology, biology, and chemistry labs may be much more difficult to access due to the fact that the research requires technology such as microscopes, pipettes, etc. However thanks to advances in technology and life hacks, there are now more accommodations available than ever before to enable all users to work with this equipment. Obtaining the right kind of accommodation may require some research and investigation, but as scientists, research and investigation are two of the things we love most. The community of individuals associated with research institutions and labs should encourage and support exploration of a variety of accommodations and productivity tools.   

Some STEM fields are harder to access due to the tools used.

Some STEM fields are harder to access due to the tools used.

Not obtaining these accommodations may be very discouraging to someone’s self-esteem and prevent them from being successful in their academics or professional pursuits, especially considering the fact that a path in STEM is a long one. Overall, self-esteem and confidence go a long way in obtaining accessibility. There should be no shame in receiving accommodations.. Needing accommodations doesn’t make anyone less of a person. You’re just as smart as anyone else, and you work twice as hard as your peers. I think it’s also important to make sure that those with disabilities feel that they are working in a safe environment. This means that everything in the lab should be accessible to use, the individual should be able to get around the lab comfortably, and other lab members should be accepting, not hostile. This will encourage individuals with disabilities to be more involved in labs by feeling more welcome in the field.

Lesson 2: Choose Your Mentor Wisely

It is also extremely important to have a mentor who is willing to work with you and will support advocacy for inclusion. To this end learn about your potential advisor before he or she becomes your official mentor. Mentors can influence you and support you throughout academic and professional endeavors, but they can also sometimes hinder your growth. It is important for students with disabilities to ask potential advisors questions about their mentorship style and gain a sense of their disability cultural competency. It is important for potential mentors of students with disabilities to understand the preferred language and characterizations of people with disabilities, types of accommodations, and disability history.

Fortunately, I have had amazing mentors who have provided me with endless support and kindness. They have always informed me of different opportunities that I can partake in as an underrepresented individual in science. They have advocated for me as a physically disabled student when it comes to applications to various research programs and scholarships. They completely understand if I can’t make it to a meeting due to an appointment or personal business. Overall, it is essential for mentors and mentees to maintain a close and open relationship with one another that is built on mutual trust and respect. Mentors are there to guide mentees, make science accessible.

Lesson 3: Address the Problems of Diversity & Inclusion in STEM

In addition to physical barriers and inaccessible curriculum, negative stereotypes and perceptions of people with disabilities create attitudinal barriers that limit students with disabilities’ success.  It’s important to address this discrimination and educate the public. This can be students with disabilities' way of supporting science, sharing their thoughts, and making a difference in society. As an underrepresented group in the sciences, students with disabilities have a unique perspective to bring into the scientific and academic workforce.

It’s important for everyone to work together to conquer misconceptions about #WhatAScientistLooksLike, how scientists learn, or how they work. Scientists with and without disabilities work hard with what they have to chase their dreams, and we must work together to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to chase their dream, even if they are using assistive technology to facilitate their chase.

Disability services make a difference.

Disability services make a difference.

Unfortunately, I’ve been advised to be cautious about how I present my physical disability in applications, research statements, and other prestigious opportunities that I apply to. This recommendation while well intended, is not sound advice. For example, this advice can make me afraid to ask for accommodations until I am accepted into a program. While in truth, I wish I could ask what disability services are offered in order to plan ahead. These services can either encourage or discourage me from accepting an offer. This culture of  “don’t share until necessary” is the opposite of what we want to accomplish. If we want to be encouraging greater accessibility, we need to start as early as the application process.

Disability, like race, gender, or sexual orientation, is something that shapes how people experience their lives and can play a significant role in a person’s values or choice of careers. Disability should be considered a part of the broader diversity that we are trying to encourage in STEM fields. And encouraging diversity is everyone’s responsibility.


About the Author

Marina Z. Nakhla is a first-year Master’s student in the Clinical Psychology Program at California State University, Northridge. She works in Dr. Jill Razani’s Neuropsychology Dementia and Multicultural Research Laboratory, where her primary project examines the extent to which semantic and episodic memory deficits predict dysfunction in activities of daily living in Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment. She will be applying to Ph.D programs in clinical neuropsychology in Fall 2017.