Getting help from android or personal friends

A young woman is heating up some chemical substance. (photo: wikicommons)
In the UK disabled students can require personal help for their work in the laboratory (photo: wikicommons)

Pursuing a scientific career with a disability can present some challenges on the technical and personal level. In the USA and UK disabled scientists can profit from government programmes and modern technical devices.

This article is adapted, with permission, from an article entitled ‘With a little help from our friends’, originally published in Chemistry World magazine in December 2010 and written by Mike Brown.

Rachel Holdforth has just finished her PhD as chemical engineer at the University of Cambridge (UK). She has dyspraxia. Dyspraxia is an impairment of the ability to perform coordinated movements. “I have more fatigue than my fellow peers. Sitting and standing takes more effort, because I have to think about controlling my muscles”, she says.

Holdforth declared her disability when she wanted to go to University in the UK. Her case was examined at an access centre and a report was sent to her local education authority (LEA). By the time (disabled) students arrive at university the help they require should be in place, she explains. “In the chemistry laboratory, I was provided with someone to help me. This person did things like pouring chemicals for me as I have less control over my muscles and can spill things easily”, Holdforth says.

Creating technology to help people

Helping people with disabilities is something that has inspired the research of Rory Cooper, director of Human Engineering Research laboratories at the University of Pittsburgh in the US. “I am really interested in creating technology to help people with disabilities,” says Cooper. He works with the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Departments of Veterans Affairs to create internships and postdoctoral positions so that after their degree, disabled students can get an introduction to the workplace and gain some experience.

In the US, the main law regarding disability is the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, which has recently been renewed. Cooper explains that a big part of this act focuses on the reasonable accommodation by employers of disabled workers and that universities and schools must be made more accessible so that “they provide the least restrictive environment.” Recent Healthcare reform in the US bear important implications for people with disabilities as well, says Cooper, because in the past America’s healthcare was employer based so a lot of disabled people did not qualify. Now in numerous healthcare provisions that will take effect over the next four years, employees with pre-existing conditions and disabilities should not be discriminated against and will profit from subsidised insurance premiums.

Disabled tend to work harder

Cooper has been paraplegic since 1980. After rehabilitation he started college in 1981 and explains that his professors viewed his disability as “an engineering challenge in order to make the classrooms and laboratories more accessible”. Most of the modifications were pretty simple, he says, such as lowered benches where he could sit rather than stand, and a lower welding table and apron to cover his legs and feet. Cooper explains that he and his team are now working on a prototype personal mobility and manipulation appliance (PerMMA), a robotic arm incorporating a sensor system and simple controls that is able to perform tasks for the disabled researchers.

Cooper highlights that there have been studies in the US, Japan, Germany and Europe that have shown disabled people often tend to work harder than their able-bodied peers. This is a view shared by Vanessa Bird, a chemistry teacher, working in West Sussex in the UK. “Sometimes you have to be better than everyone else to prove it is possible to do,” says Bird.

Access to Work

Bird is confined to a wheelchair as a result of a car accident. She was provided with much needed equipment, such as a motorised wheelchair, by a UK government run scheme called Access to Work. The scheme sets out to assist employers with the costs of support and equipment for disabled employees. “Access to Work is a very important scheme that helps disabled people to realise their full potential in work and their career”, says Marije Davidson, public affairs manager at the Royal Association for Disability Rights (Radar) – a pan-disability organisation led by people experiencing ill health, injury or disability.


Davidson explains that Access to Work needs to be better promoted and needs to provide a broader range of support, especially for people with mental health problems. She goes on to say: “We welcome the UK coalition government’s commitment to an ‘indicative support package’ before employment – this means that disabled people will be told by Access to Work what support they are likely to receive if they get a job.”

Fulfilling careers

Vanessa Bird is very pleased at the prospect of an indicative support package and agrees with Davidson that this will improve the Access to Work scheme for disabled workers. She explains that when it came to teaching chemistry, Access to Work provided some dispensing pumps for individual chemicals so that she did not have to lift and pour them, and a support worker who could demonstrate some of the experiments for her.

Today, disabled scientists can have fulfilling careers whilst coping with disability. UK and US governments are trying to step in when it comes to restore the balance so that disabled scientists have the same opportunities as their able-bodied peers. Even with physical limitations it is possible to carry out practical – and sometimes dangerous – research in a laboratory environment using low-tech gadgets and by obtaining help from colleagues. “As a disabled person, it is possible to lead a very useful life, even though you may have to have some help to do it,” says Vanessa Bird.  

Many thanks to Chemistry World magazine. Read the original article here.

Text/Summary: MyH

Picture: wikicommons