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Opening Doors: An Accessibility in Science Event

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

Nadia Farag takes a look at how disability should be recognised and considered in everyday life.

SATNAV, in collaboration with ChemSoc and SignSoc, organised an event centred around accessibility in science and how we can work to improve this. The event comprised two sections; the first being three individuals speaking on meeting accessibility needs in science, two of whom spoke based on personal experience. The second section provided an opportunity for attendees and speakers to have conversations on the topics previously discussed and included demonstrations of some of the work the chemistry department has been doing to adapt experiments and teaching. Anonymous personal experiences of people working in chemistry with an accessibility need were also distributed.

The first speaker, Dr Naomi Green, discussed her experiences living with a chronic pain condition, her difficult journey to diagnosis, and how it currently affects her day to day life. We then heard from Dr Toria Stafford from the University of Manchester, who spoke about how she manages living with OCD and how it has impacted her work in the lab. Finally, the third speaker was University of Birmingham masters student (and SATNAV chair!) Emily Hayward, who gave a brief summary of some of her research into adapting experiments and taught science for visually impaired students.

Later, we were able to engage with not only Emily’s work but also fellow masters student, Joe Davies’ work on demonstrations centred around experiments and teaching for visually impaired chemists. These ranged from using giant textured Jenga to explain battery defects, to swell paper, that swells where the ink is as a response to heat, and demonstrating activated carbon and its water purification abilities through scent. Additionally, the sign society attended and collaborated, allowing their committee members to teach basic British Sign Language and some specific chemistry signs.

There were a lot of great moments at the event, but one of the most insightful and poignant was an analogy comparing energy levels to a phone battery. Dr Green asked us to divide the average day into 10 tasks; this could be anything from getting up, showering, working in the labs, etc. We were then asked to assign a percentage to each one in relation to how much of our energy they required, until they added up to 100. This was to represent our ‘battery life,’ assuming we were starting on full charge. This highlighted the differences in the daily experiences of someone with a chronic condition compared to someone without and how the individuals may require different levels of energy for the same task.

Dr Green expanded the analogy by asking us to consider what part of our day we would get rid of if we weren’t starting at 100%. What would happen if we had a bad night’s sleep? We now only had 80% instead of 100% - what gets cut? For someone with a disability, it’s not just a bad night's sleep that could reduce their energy; there are so many more things to consider which are often out of their control. What if today is a high pain day? Or there is an unexpected energy expenditure during the day, such as having to park far away or having to take the stairs because the lift is broken. Whilst having to re-evaluate and micromanage our energy levels throughout the day isn’t something everyone has to do, it is a daily requirement for many living with a disability.

The final factor we were asked to consider was if we had a sudden boost in energy, someone handing us a metaphorical charger. Dr Green gave examples of this in her own life; a meeting being moved to a more accessible location, assistive aids being provided to reduce the difficulty of certain tasks, even something as simple as PhD students getting her mail. Most of these were relatively minor things for someone else to do that could make a real difference to her day as she now might be able to cook a nice meal or see friends in the evening.

In the wake of coronavirus, we have seen a rapid change to distance learning, with the implementation of online teaching resources, fully recorded lectures and the option to Skype in office hours. These are provisions that disabled students have been repeatedly asking for only to be told it’s not possible, but if there is one thing that we can learn from this pandemic it’s that this is clearly not the case. When planning events, check if the location and time is accessible for everyone, even if you aren’t aware that someone has a disability (invisible disability is very much a thing). Ask people if they need anything rather than just assuming that they don’t. With a little bit more consideration we can all make small changes to make life a lot easier for disabled students.

From Issue 20

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