What institutional strategies can reduce barriers to academic STEM careers faced by women with disabilities?

Date Updated

Women with disabilities in academic science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers face a variety of challenges. These are often related to institutional constraints (such as a lack of centralized funding, a need for campus-wide education and support on accommodations, or inflexible tenure tracks), biases (such as the belief that women with disabilities aren’t competent, faculty not being willing to change departmental methods, or departments not requesting or hiring accessibility experts), and individual constraints (such as women with disabilities often being made to feel like their needs create an inconvenience, expectations for women to take on more work than others, imposter syndrome, and difficulties with travel or conferences).

At the AccessADVANCE capacity building institute, STEM department staff and faculty came together to discuss solutions for all three of these issues. The following ideas were generated as ways that schools and departments could better support faculty with disabilities.

  • Track how many faculty members have disabilities and address disability in campus climate surveys. This step can lead to greater accountability for universities and departments. Keep in mind, however, that people may not disclose age-related disabilities and some may not even identify as having a disability. 
  • Proactively work to promote disability inclusion. For example, at the University of Washington, within the Information Technology organization, multiple proactive practices are applied to ensure PDF documents are accessible, videos are captioned, and accessible technology is available to students, faculty, and staff.
  • Centralize services and funding for accessibility and accommodations. This saves time, cost, and risk by streamlining the process. This office could also be the unit tasked with encouraging the application of universal design to all campus offerings in order to make the entire campus more accessible and inclusive.
  • Use universal design checklists to create institutional change that is equitable; include universal design when designing facilities, courses, IT, and facilities. 
  • Adopt the social model of disability and consider disability-related issues when discussing department successes and conducting individual performance reviews.
  • Create/update policies and procedures that support people with disabilities within departments that move beyond minimum compliance; it could include more funding and resources to support faculty requests.
  • Promote more widespread knowledge and connections with the nationwide networks of disability service centers in order to share knowledge, resources, and best practices.
  • Fund staff support to help ensure departmental websites, documents, videos, and course materials are accessible. 
  • Provide training and education for human resources, faculty, support staff, and teaching assistants about their roles related to accessibility.
  • Increase equity by providing more staff support, teaching release, and summer funding for people with disabilities.
  • Offer opportunities for faculty members to learn ways to disclose their disabilities, negotiate accommodations, and build other self-advocacy skills.
  • Consider removing the expectation of negotiation: Allow faculty and staff to be offered all the resources and accommodations available, and let them turn down what they don’t need.
  • Provide a contingency fund to cover new challenges that arise unexpectedly.
  • Encourage funding agencies to think about the accessibility of the application process and provide the funding for disability accommodations into their published solicitation processes. 
  • Increase awareness of NSF’s Facilitation Awards for Scientists and Engineers with Disabilities.
  • Encourage universities to implement an institutional housework benefit for all faculty (see Housework Is an Academic Issue article).
  • Promote a faster accommodation system; keep in mind that faculty often have to switch buildings, rooms, and labs quickly from quarter to quarter and don’t have the time to wait weeks for accommodations at each location.

For more information on how to address access issues regarding faculty members with disabilities, check out AccessADVANCE's checklist Equal Access: Making STEM Departments More Accessible to and Inclusive of Faculty with Disabilities or find more information and advice on these topics at the AccessADVANCE resources page.