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Addressing barriers for STEM students and staff with disabilities

12 Apr 2021 | Lori Frecker New research commissioned by the Royal Society examines the experiences of staff and students with disabilities in STEM. On behalf of the Disabled Students' Commission, Lori Frecker, the Royal Society’s Diversity and Inclusion Programme Manager, highlights key findings from two recently published reports.

Students and staff with disabilities are currently under-represented across science, technology, engineering and maths (‘STEM’). The Royal Society commissioned two reports to try to find out where and why under-representation is occurring, and identify practical action that could be taken to address the causes.  

Analysis of Higher Education Statistics Authority data (HESA) provides a detailed picture of the changing numbers of students and staff with disabilities in STEM between 2007/08 and 2018/19. It shows that, despite huge growth in the overall number of students with a known disability, the proportion of those declaring physical disabilities hardly changed over this period. A significant disparity between the proportion of students declaring disabilities and the proportion of staff doing so is also highlighted. 

A complex picture 

At a quick glance, the findings on students look positive. The proportion of STEM students with known disabilities has more than doubled, from 7.5% (12,585 students) in 2007/8 to 15.5% (33,530 students) in 2018/19. This suggests that STEM subjects are appealing to students with disabilities.  

However, breaking down this statistic shows a more complex picture. The overall increase is being driven by an exponential rise in the proportion of students declaring learning differences and mental health conditions. From 2007/8 to 2018/19, the number of first-degree STEM students reporting mental health conditions rose from 675 to 8,695 – a 1,184% increase. The number of first-degree STEM students reporting a learning difference went up from 6,500 to 12,000 in the same period – an 84.7% increase. This upward trend also occurred in non-STEM subjects, and likely reflects greater awareness of, and improved support for, students with learning differences and mental health issues at universities.  

Over the same period, however, the proportion of students with physical disabilities has hardly changed, and in some instances, has actually decreased slightly. For example, the number and proportion of STEM students who are blind or have a serious visual impairment has decreased from 0.2% (285 students) in 2007/08 to 0.1% (270 students) in 2018/19. Students who are deaf or have a serious hearing impairment made up 0.3% of STEM students in 2007/08 (470 students) and 0.3% in 2018/19 (590 students). Despite improvements in assistive technology and student support, considerable barriers clearly remain for students with disabilities who wish to study in STEM. 

What about STEM staff? 

The situation is different when looking at STEM staff. While the proportion of STEM academic staff declaring disabilities has increased over the time period (from 2% in 2007/08 to 3.8% in 2018/19), compared to students, the data shows a much smaller percentage of STEM staff with disabilities. In addition, the data shows decreasing representation at each major career transition stage in STEM. We know that the percentage of people with a known disability in the general population increases with age, but academic staff with a disability are less represented at each level of seniority.  

The reasons for the differences in the proportion of disabled staff and students is not clear from the data. The Society commissioned the Careers Research and Advisory Centre (CRAC) to investigate these questions. CRAC completed an extensive review of available literature, analysed the HESA data for staff, and carried out interviews with disabled STEM staff to investigate the barriers to scientists declaring their disability and what could be done to overcome them. 

CRAC identified various barriers to declaring disability for STEM staff, including fear of stigma or discrimination, lack of clarity about the process for obtaining reasonable adjustments, and few role models with disabilities for early career scientists. Several factors appeared to have a positive impact on declaration rates, including institutions providing clear definitions of disability and detailed information about available adjustments. 

Breaking down barriers 

Supporting scientists with disabilities across STEM is a key priority for the Royal Society and its Diversity Committee. Developing a greater understanding of where under-representation is occurring among students and staff is one vital step in identifying practical action to address barriers to participation.  

Among the Society’s other work in this area, we have produced a series of case studies of scientists with disabilities. These aim to address the lack of role models by highlighting accomplished individuals who have had disabilities during their careers. These include early Fellows of the Royal Society such as Nicholas Saunderson, a blind mathematician who held one of the most eminent positions in academia, to contemporary figures such as Daisy Shearer, a quantum physicist who was diagnosed with autism in adulthood.  

By building a scientific workforce that includes the widest range of backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences, we can maximise innovation and creativity in science. However, there is still much more to do. 

What’s next? 

Both reports make recommendations for further research and practical action that could be carried out to address the inequalities highlighted. For example, the Jisc report recommends that the science sector investigate ways to improve support for STEM postgraduate students with disabilities to ensure they are able to complete their studies.  

We hope that higher education institutions, funders and other STEM organisations will work independently and with the Society to take forward the recommendations in the reports. Please share the reports with your institutions and contact if you’d like to work with us to take the recommendations forward. 



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