People with disabilities pursuing STEM careers frequently face hardships, discrimination, stereotypes, and ableism that hamper their growth and well-being. Inability to comply with ADA guidelines has created barriers to accessibility, which worsened with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic as the world transitioned to a virtual way of living. In 2020, many organizations, such as DisabledInSTEM, Disabled in Higher Ed, and Disabled Academic Collective took the initiative to support people with disabilities and leveraged social media to voice the necessity of building a more inclusive community in academia. #DisabilityTwitter conversations sparked the need to take proactive steps to support people with disabilities and increased awareness about the wide range of conditions disability covers, many of which may not be visible.
During this time, Oindrila De (then a member of the Career Development Subcommittee) approached the leadership within the Early Career Leadership Program with an idea to increase accessibility at GSA and address the needs of early career scientists with disabilities. “At a young age,” says De, “I became sensitized to the needs of people with disabilities, as I witnessed the challenges of my older brother’s visual impairment. My passion for supporting people with disabilities grew stronger, and I began incorporating accessibility in my professional endeavors. In September 2020, I went to the leadership with a proposal to implement accessibility measures at GSA, which included accessibility of web resources, closed captions for online meetings, and increased visibility of people with disabilities. We briefly discussed the scope of this idea and thought of developing it into an ECLP project. With incredible support and guidance from Molly Matty and Jessica Vélez, I formed the Accessibility and Disability Advocacy Group in April 2021.”
This interest group consisted of members from ECLP subcommittees, who served as liaisons. Meeting bi-monthly, we led discussions to learn about disability, inclusive language, and etiquette, and we ideated ways to improve accessibility of existing projects, resources, conferences, and other programming at GSA by using concepts of universal design. ECLP leaders Gavin Rice, Adelita Mendoza, Madhumala K. Sadanandappa, David Peede, Nele Haelterman, Leire Abalde-Atristain, Corey Calhoun, and Karyn Onyeneho graciously volunteered to serve as members of this group and helped to communicate ideas and disseminate knowledge to ECLP subcommittees.
After realizing that the group’s objectives required proactive long-term efforts as we continue learning about disability and accessibility, the needs of the GSA community, and ways to cater to those needs with current technology, we sought to establish a dedicatedAccessibility Subcommittee, with Oindrila De and Adelita Mendoza serving as Co-chairs. Aside from benefiting the GSA community as a whole, we envisioned that this subcommittee would provide excellent leadership and training opportunities for current and future ECLP members, and it would be a feasible and sustainable way to recruit members annually to lead the endeavor. GSA leadership was extremely supportive of this goal, and within a matter of a few months, the group was officially recognized as an official ECLP subcommittee. In February 2022, the subcommittee onboarded the first cohort of new members Jillian Freese, Peiwei Chen, Alyssa Paparella, Anna Moyer, and Selcan Aydin.
This transition promptly bore fruits, as the subcommittee recruited two advisors with ample experience in matters of accessibility advocacy. Ahna Skop is a professor of genetics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, studying the function of midbody-associated RNA. Skop has a long-standing trajectory as mentor and inclusion advocate, while also suffering from Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. In 2018, she was awarded the first ever Inclusive Excellence Award by the American Society for Cell Biology and Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She recently served as an advisor to the chief diversity officer at the NIH, and she is a diversity consultant to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. In 2019, she was honored as one of 125 women in STEM with an American Association for the Advancement of Science IF/THEN Ambassadorship. The subcommittee is also very fortunate to have Stephen Klusza as an advisor. He is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Clayton State University. Klusza focuses on increasing accessibility to model organism research through the creation of low-cost reagents/protocols and creating quality, low or no-cost educational resources with ADA compliance to remove all barriers to quality education for all students. He also does scientific outreach with neighboring communities and advocates for disability representation in STEM.
Since its inception, the subcommittee has accomplished many milestones and made several recommendations to GSA staff and committees. The first initiative was to have Otter.ai closed captions at all online meetings and virtual events within the ECLP and at GSA conferences. We suggested the inclusion of an open-ended “accommodations request” field in registration forms for online events. We also prepared an exhaustive list of suggestions to improve accessibility at GSA Conferences and presented them to the Conferences Committee. One of the subcommittee’s recommendations, which was included in presenter guidelines in 2022 GSA Conferences, was to use colorblind-friendly palettes and accessible fonts in oral and poster presentations. Additionally, extra seating was made available at poster sessions, per the suggestion of the subcommittee. “Accessibility” was included as a component in ECLP project proposals, and the subcommittee members evaluated accessibility of new project ideas.
The subcommittee collaborated with the Career Development Subcommittee and hosted a #WorkshopWednesday on “Building an Inclusive and Accessible Environment in Academia,” a virtual panel discussion featuring Alyssa Paparella, Stephen Klusza, and Vance Martin, who spoke about ways to be a better ally to people with disabilities. In October 2022, we launched a new workshop series “Accessibility in STEM (AiS),” with the inaugural event on “How to Make Teaching Accessible,” where experts Logan Gin, Ingrid Steiner, and Sheryl Burgstahler discussed best practices in inclusive teaching. The subcommittee’s current ongoing projects include surveying the ECLP community for access needs and knowledge of accommodation requirements, creating a resources blog, and working with the Equity and Inclusion Committee to make GSA events more accessible.
The journey is still a work in progress. The subcommittee’s routine meetings and discussions continue to teach us about the diversity of disability, barriers to access, and the need for accommodations. The subcommittee members and advisors actively advocate for accessibility and have helped foster an inclusive culture and build a safe community, where everyone feels welcome. 2023 marks the second year of recruiting new members, and the subcommittee welcomes Pravrutha Raman, Riya Mahapatra, José Humberto da Cunha, and Meareg Gebreegziabher Amare to the team! The subcommittee hopes to continue expanding efforts to make ECLP and GSA more inclusive and accessible to all scientists.