Disability as Diversity in STEM: A New Perspective

July 26, 2023

The story of disability sits at the heart of the human experience. In fact, one could argue that the narrative of disability is essential to chronicling the nature of diversity through the culture of the 21st Century. In a vastly changing world where science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professions are at the forefront of human endeavor, it is important to be mindful of the complexity and nuances that characterize the value of disability and to explore how continued transformation is redefining diversity and its significant impact on the landscape of STEM.

Intersectionality and Disability

Disability should be viewed through an intersectional lens of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, economics and beyond—connective tissue, which highlights the fact that the disability community can connect to all demographic groups. This concept of human variability dovetails with the larger narrative that disability, which, by its definition, is identified in relation to attitudes, various types of social exclusion and architectural barriers. Offering a broader humanist perspective gives many an entrée into a more comprehensive understanding of the relationship between disability and diversity.

The Colors of the Disability Community

The Disability Pride flag, designed by writer Ann Magill in 2019, provides a sound roadmap for institutions and individuals to gain greater insight into the breadth of the disability construct. The flag accentuates several bands of color, each symbolizing distinct experiences across the disability community:

Flag with a black background and five colors diagonally across. The five colors shown are red, yellow, while, blue, and green.
The Disability Pride flag accentuates several bands of color, each symbolizing distinct experiences across the disability community.
Source: www.goodhousekeeping.com
  • Red: physical disabilities.
  • Gold: cognitive and intellectual disabilities.
  • White: nonvisible and undiagnosed disabilities.
  • Blue: psychiatric disabilities.
  • Green: sensory disabilities.

While the flag represents the broader elements defining the disability construct, neurodiversity, a term coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer in the 1990s and popularized in her book Neurodiversity: Birth of An Idea, frames diversity from a neurocognitive perspective, which intersects with many of the lived experiences across the disability community.

Framing Neurodiversity

Neurodiversity encourages the use of language that describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many ways, arguing there is no one "right" way of thinking, learning and behaving, while emphasizing that differences should not be viewed as deficits. Though primarily referring to the autism community, the definition has broadened over time to indicate a multitude of other neuro-cognitive variabilities, such as dyslexia, bipolar, Tourette’s, epilepsy and more.

As diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) has become recognized as a valuable tool within the STEM community, institutions have become more aware of the need for inclusion of people across the spectrum of neurodiversity, as well as the broader disability community. A study published by The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that students with autism choose STEM majors at a higher rate than the general population. The study emphasized that those on the autism spectrum had a greater aptitude toward systemization and analysis. While it is harmful and exclusionary to generalize about the truly unique skill sets that people on the autism spectrum have, the study shows that there is a higher propensity for core skills, such as attention to detail, high levels of concentration and the ability to solve complex problems—all of which are beneficial to STEM professions. Acknowledging the results from this study, and others like it, promotes a host of innovative ways to think about the future and create a culture of inclusion.

Steps to Creating a More Inclusive Environment

As the STEM environment awaits changes that will help create a more inclusive environment for the neurodiverse community, institutions and neurodivergent students, faculty and others must have the support necessary to engage in an ongoing dialogue to find meaningful opportunities and develop a culture that allows them to be their best selves. However, to leverage this opportunity, institutions must consider the following modifications to their regular approach.

Educate, Educate, Educate!

Educate your team about the term and spectrum of neurodiversity. Explore further the strengths and weaknesses of potential neurodivergent candidates.

Rethink Interviewing Processes

For neurodiverse candidates, it may be necessary to rethink traditional interview approaches. For example:

  • Try sending interview questions in advance so that candidates can prepare.
  • Offer the option of a face-to-face or video interview.
  • Avoid open-ended questions, like, “Tell me about yourself” and instead ask specific questions, like, “What data analysis and research skills did you use in graduate school?”
  • Be patient and clarify your questions as needed.

Think About Various Reasonable Accommodations and Skill Testing

These include (but are not limited to) extra breaks, extra time and/or an alternate test format.

Offer the Right Infrastructure for Neurodivergent Individuals to Thrive

Consider providing assistive technologies for reading and writing, such as speech-to-text and text-to-speech software as well as transcription software.

A Movement of Change

Recognizing the diverse components and variability of the disability community offers institutions the potential to meet the goals of building what is known in the U.K. as a Disability Confident organization. Disability Confident organizations encourage employers to think differently about disability and take action to improve how they recruit, retain and support people with disabilities.

Yet, even as they lean in toward this culture of inclusion, institutions must pace themselves and be intentional in their approach. A good example of this is the numerous tech companies that have cultivated the Neurodiversity @Work Employer Roundtable, “a collection of employers committed to neurodiversity-focused hiring initiatives” that launched in 2017. Its founding members included companies such as DXC Technology, Ernst and Young, Ford Motor Company, JP Morgan Chase, Microsoft and SAP.

Since its inception, the roundtable has continued to evolve with a growing number of employers dedicated to neurodiversity hiring initiatives. The unwavering commitment, shown by the roundtable, has given way to a new recognition elevating the powerful union between the STEM space and neurodiversity, which should be a fundamental part of industry growth.

In this new digital age and post-pandemic reality, the future of work is transforming quickly, and the need for problem-solving, original thinking and innovation are part of the fundamental building blocks for developing the STEM field while building a culture of inclusion. Seeing neurodiversity as an asset will be an essential element in reframing disability and embracing DEI as the key to institutional growth. The time has come for industries across a multitude of STEM fields to recognize the value of disability both as a benefit in terms of human capital, as well as an opportunity to explore new strategies for the mechanics of work.

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Author: Jonathan Kaufman, Ph.D.

Jonathan Kaufman, Ph.D.
Jonathan Kaufman, Ph.D., is the President of J Kaufman Consulting. Kaufman is an innovative thought leader, business educator and strategist.