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Doing science sitting down, and other thoughts about universal design

I’m writing this post one-handed. Last week, I cut my finger badly in the lab, and I’m wearing a splint to protect the tendon from further damage. This marks the second time in my academic career that I’ve had an injury that involved some form of modified work or accommodation (the first was a stress fracture that involved an 8-week stint on crutches). Both times, I was struck by a general lack of accessibility in my environment, and how hard it is to move around in a world designed for able-bodied people.

I identify as able-bodied, and I don’t want to give the impression that a few weeks of impairment means I know what it’s like to be a person with disabilities (PWD). But these experiences are, for me, a close encounter with the idea of universal design, the idea that our buildings, products, and environments should be accessible to everyone, regardless of age or ability. When I was on crutches, and even now, working one-handed, I take advantage of a lot of universal design elements that were originally put into place for people with disabilities (things like buttons to open doors). I’ve also noticed places where universal design is utterly lacking.

I think about design and accessibility both as a scientist and a teacher. (I have now turned on my computer’s speech to text feature. Let’s see how this goes.) I have taught in classrooms that were not accessible to wheelchairs, or with seats that couldn’t accommodate all body types, or had door buttons blocked by furniture. From paper towel dispensers that require the use of two hands to function, to campuses that have meetings in rooms that aren’t accessible to wheelchairs, to scientists who refused to use a microphone during a lecture, our actions and our infrastructures create barriers that prevent access to education, shut people out from careers, or just make it difficult for some people to function in everyday ways.

Everybody benefits from universal design!

Everybody benefits from universal design!

A lack of universal design has major implications to the diversity of our workforce. Conversations about diversity in STEM are often limited to discussions of barriers to women. In this great piece at XO Jane, SE Smith asked, where all the disabled scientists? It’s a great post, and you should all read it if you haven’t already– it’s a much more thorough treatment of this topic and what I’m doing here*. I generally don’t advocate reading comments, but in this case it’s quite illuminating to see what many of my colleagues think about universal design. A lot of folks seem to think it’s perfectly reasonable to prevent someone from becoming a scientist if they need a basic accommodation like sitting at a lab bench. That particular example really stuck with me, because I did a large portion of my thesis research sitting on a stool at the fume hood. I was on crutches, and no one thought twice about making this accommodation for me. In fact, the science that I did on crutches was published in a high-profile journal, and became my most-cited paper to date. In my case, accommodation was temporary, but it illustrates how removing a symbol barrier to access can be all it takes for someone to be successful.

I’m the co-chair of the Access team at Wiscon, a feminist science fiction convention in Madison, Wisconsin. Every year, we work on expanding our accessibility. We line the hallways with blue painters tape to create lanes for walking or standing, so that wheelchairs are able to pass unhindered. We stock the bathrooms with unscented soap and provide a quiet room for people to retreat to without fluorescent lighting. We have a strict policy requiring panelists to use microphones, which moderators enforce. We ask panelists to make sure that they don’t cover their mouth, so that lip readers can see what’s being said. And we block out parking spots for wheelchairs in conference rooms, and tape off seats in the front rows and aisle seats, so that people who need them have access to seats where you can park scooter, or hear or see panelists better. We’ve recently added captioning at our plenary event, and we provide ASL interpreters.

A large proportion of our attendees use these accommodations. I don’t think that this is because PWD’s have a particular love of feminist science fiction; rather, it shows the power of an “if you build it, they will come” approach. We’re developing a reputation for being an accessible convention, so people attend who otherwise wouldn’t. What’s more, we are a small convention, with attendance capped at 1000; our budget is much smaller in Academic conventions or universities, and we are 100% run by volunteers.

I’ll go back to two-handed work one day, just as I now no longer need crutches. My experiences, though, have led me to see the world differently. I notice accessibility (or lack thereof) in ways I never did before I hurt my hip in 2008. We have a long way to go to achieve universal design, and some of that starts with able-bodied people recognizing that the world is not as easy to navigate for everyone else as it is as it is for us, and our attitude about that makes a major difference in how accessible are labs, classrooms, and workplaces are. For starters, I may not be able to have an influence on the paper towel dispensers in my university’s bathrooms, but I can choose where I hold my meetings and classes, how I treat and support my students, what I speak up for in meetings, and even what I’m mindful of as I go through my day (like, not blocking the door button with a desk).

About to hear your thoughts about this. How successful is your university at achieving universal design? What can advisors and professors do better? Does your scientific society offer accessibility accommodations at meetings? Would you consider it? I’d love to hear from you. For now, I’m to try out this whole speech to text thing on a manuscript. It definitely beats one-finger typing!

* I should note that I mostly focusing on accommodations for physical disabilities in this post. Lots of disabilities are invisible.

Categories: Commentary Diversity

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Jacquelyn Gill

23 replies

  1. Yeah its correct .. I am a great lover of science and love to read about the universe not only do I read but I note down some great facts and how science of today is different from olden days in my blo- “” …


  2. The day they put handicap access door buttons on the loading dock doors at work was the Best Day Ever for the able bodied. You could open the door with a hip bump while carrying bulky objects requiring two hands or pushing a cart. Oh, and it was also helpful to folks on crutches or in wheel chairs too. Universal design: make things better for everyone.


  3. I’ve been astonished how much work, embarrassment, and disclosure of personal health details was involved in getting even small accommodations in my workplaces. In many cases, I just choose to work from home if possible.


  4. This is a great post. I would challenge some of those commenting to embrace the term disabled rather than using euphemisms for it. In the social model of disability, it is society that disables us: so, we are disabled by society. I’m not differently abled by my fatigue; I’m disabled. And I also do science sitting in a chair, at a desk, most of the time; using a phone and a computer and a printer.


  5. The point of this post misses the notion of universal inclusion. Reads more about how enlightened and special the author is. While perhaps intending to promote access and inclusion of the differently-abled within the meritocracy aka conventions and academic research… the post takes on an egotistical self-appreciative vanity, not “contemplation” in the progressive manner that is necessary. The injured but able-bodied author has clearly bought into the system that elevates the existing expectations about high achievement; the author underscores value-assessments and emphasizes deliverables and performing while on crutches and publishing in top tier journals that are well cited. BUT A vision of inclusion and universal access should not preclude that, or being awesome like Hawking. Inclusion and universal access embraces all — at all levels.


    1. I’m sorry that I gave that impression; it was not my intention. I certainly don’t think that high achievement (or my achievement) is the only worthwhile goal. I was speaking directly to people who assume that you can’t achieve those things if you need accommodation (which does not assume that those things are the only reasons for universal design). I strongly believe that access is a fundamental right for everyone. I spoke from my position as an academic and educator, and this is a blog about science and academia, so it’s certainly not an inclusive post. To my knowledge, nothing I’ve stated indicates that universal access is only for high achievers or folks who “deliver.” Just because I mentioned those things doesn’t mean I think they’re the only worthwhile things (and I think what I write about Wiscon underscores that).

      And I don’t think I’m particularly enlightened or special. I think I’ve had life experiences and great mentors within the disabled community who I’ve learned a lot from (particularly my Access co-chair, Sandy Olson). I make mistakes, I learn, and I try to be a good ally. That’s it.


      1. An exception as a data point to support your stand? Come, come, professor…you make my point (‘most science’), and I note that you did not wish to disagree personally. Besides, my comment was only to provide an alternate, somewhat humorous perspective…but I see hornets buzzing, which is entertaining. 😉

        Best wishes for your efforts to bring about universal access!


        1. No, I think my post was enough of a point. I can do science quite easily sitting down, and so can many of my colleagues. Geerat Vermeij has had a brilliant career as a blind evolutionary ecologist and paleontologist. There are lots of other examples. Your perspective is mainstream, not alternative, and it’s ableist. I don’t find ableism funny.


          1. Jacquelyn, could it be that gentle and well-meaning comments are being interpreted too literally, or through a constrained perspective? I am sure you are very good at what you do, whatever your circumstances (which I do not know) are.

            These terms: “ableism,” “ableist” are entirely new to me! Nevertheless, I fear that a simple and humorous comment appears to have led to unintended implications…take care, I meant, and mean, well. -rn


    1. Err, no – I do most of mine sat behind a desk at a computer, sat in a comfy chair reading, sat behind a microscope. I suppose I do “move” between those locations and from time to time I might have some insight as I wander back and forth between my office & home or along the corridors. On occasion I do get out into the field and there I usually ponder on my research whilst hiking to my study lakes. I even ruminate whilst lying on my back in bed, as I did last night at 2am after being woken by my two-year-old.

      Science is done wherever I happen to have time to think, compute, or count; most often that’s whilst I’m sat on my arse. Food for thought, no…?


      1. I, too, recommend the IAGD. I’ve been a member for several years and have gotten to know a lot of PWD geologists…I’d call most of them “differentially enabled,” rather than “disabled.” One of my most brilliant collaborators in geochemistry is mobility impaired – doesn’t stop his BRAIN one bit. 🙂 Let’s encourage good scientists & universal design to support all of them!


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