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Let’s Talk Science and the Royal Society of Canada have partnered to provide Globe and Mail readers with relevant coverage about issues that affect us all – from education to the impact of leading-edge scientific discoveries.

Ainsley Latour is president, IDEA-STEM

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

When we are younger, we all get asked this question in one way or another – and when we’re older, we often ask it to the next generation. Sometimes, the responses are whimsical: a pizza maker, a princess, or Spiderman. Other times, kids will cheerfully rhyme off well known STEM careers like a doctor, nurse, veterinarian or astronaut (who doesn’t want to be an astronaut when they are five years old?). Despite these early aspirations for a career in STEM, many high-school students drop science and math courses, closing doors to future opportunities. This is even more likely for students from under-represented groups, including those with disabilities. With the majority of careers now requiring some STEM training, the gap between labour needs and skilled workers in science careers will continue to grow unless we are intentional about introducing students to diverse career pathways in STEM, and we work to change perceptions about who can be a scientist.

For students from under-represented groups, a STEM education should include exposure to scientists who are like them. But when students have a disability or chronic health condition (about 1 student in 8, according to the most recent data from Statistics Canada), identifying role models beyond Stephen Hawking can be a challenge.

Although the path can be difficult for scientists with disabilities, many ground-breaking discoveries can be attributed to deaf, blind, neurodiverse, and chronically ill professionals in a variety of STEM fields. The Nobel Prize winner in medicine in physiology in 1928, Dr. Charles Henri Nicolle was deaf. He identified the mechanism of transmission of Typhus through body lice. Many high-school students learn about John Dalton, who introduced atomic theory into chemistry. But did you know that Dalton was colour blind? Realizing that he saw things differently than his colleagues led him to make progress in our understanding of human optics. Or how about Dr. Temple Grandin, a present day scientist who studies animal behaviour, and identifies as neurodiverse? Dr. Grandin’s inventions have eliminated a great deal of inhumane treatment of animals from the meat processing industry.

Black, Indigenous and people of colour scientists with disabilities are even more difficult to find. Dr. Jazmin Scarlett is a volcanologist from the West Indies. Due to arthritis from childhood, she experiences chronic pain and fatigue, which are particularly significant for her during fieldwork. NASA Engineer and physicist Dr. Renee Horton identifies as a Black woman with hearing loss.

Yet despite making significant contributions, people with disabilities remain significantly under-represented in STEM. Accessible lab equipment is often not procured by schools or does not exist, and students with disabilities are often discouraged from participating in science activities from a very young age.

Mars is not accessible to human travel. Yet, the scientific literature on Mars is considerable. The moon wasn’t accessible to humans initially, so we built the spaceship. Travel to space became accessible because we decided we needed to get there. By analogy, we must be intentional about our choices to build inclusion for people with disabilities in STEM.

December 3rd each year is internationally recognized by the United Nations as International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD), a global event to recognize the contributions that people living with disabilities have made, and continue to make, to communities and society at large. IDPD is also an opportunity for us all to acknowledge something that is both a human right (participation in our communities and society) and an often-unrealized potential for persons with disabilities. For all of us, IDPD offers a moment to pause and reflect on the inclusion of persons with disabilities in careers where they can be of value, including STEM careers.

How can parents and educators best do this? Parents can help their children with disabilities to identify role models in STEM who are like them. When children with disabilities express interest in participating in exploratory science activities, parents need to enthusiastically support them. Most importantly, parents and educators may need to change their perceptions of risk, and what it means to be a scientist.

Not all scientists work in labs, work with their hands, peer down microscopes or even do algebra. One can be a scientist without performing an experiment, as it is the creation of the experiment, the interpretation of results and the clarification of the question that are hallmarks of doing science. Most importantly, never say “no, you can’t” if a child or student says “I want to do science!” With a little creativity and a desire to be inclusive, most people with disabilities can participate in STEM activities.