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Accessibility 101

By Kathryn Eckartt

What is accessibility and why is it important?

A rectangle flag which has a black background and diagonally across the flag are five zigzag lines colored blue, yellow, white, red, and green.

Disability pride flag (11)

In a broad sense, achieving accessibility requires that opportunities, events, and information, do not preclude people from engagement based on ability. If something is accessible, we can expect that both able-bodied and disabled people are able to participate and feel empowered in that role (1). Disabilities can be outwardly observable, such as a limb difference, or invisible, such as chronic fatigue or mental illness.

Alt text: A cartoon of 4 rows, separated by black lines, and 3 columns, labeled “Permanent,” “Temporary,” and “Situational.” The first row, labeled “Touch,” shows a person with spiky hair and one arm- labeled “One arm-” in the permanent column, a person with an arm in a sling- labeled “Arm injury-” in the temporary column, and a person with a bob holding a baby- labeled “New parent-” in the situational column. The next row, labeled “See”, shows a person with curly hair, a dog, cane, and dark glasses- labeled “Blind-” in the permanent column, a person with a hat and cane- labeled “Cataract-” in the temporary column, and a person looking to the right in front of a steering wheel- labeled “Distracted driver-” in the situational column. The next row, labeled “Hear”, shows a person with a ponytail- labeled “Deaf-” in the permanent column, a person with short hair- labeled “Ear infection-” in the temporary column, and a person holding a drink shaker with curved lines representing noise around their head- labeled “Bartender-” in the situational column. The last row, labeled “Speak”, shows a person with spiky hair- labeled “Non-verbal-” in the permanent column, a person with  afro hair- labeled “Laryngitis-” in the temporary column, and a person wearing a Viking helmet and holding a sword and shield- labeled “Heavy accent-” in the situational column.

Examples of disabilities cartoon (12).

Access needs are dynamic and vary based on situation and disability. For example, one way to make a conference accessible to a wheelchair user is to ensure clear ramp entrances and swift automatic doors. On the other hand, a conference becomes accessible to dyslexic people when information on slides is conveyed through multiple avenues—including images and auditory descriptions—, not just long strings of text. 

The onus of making something accessible should not fall on the disabled person- not only does this force disclosure of a disability, it adds additional barriers to access. As Katie Rose Guest Pryal writes, “Accessibility, [rather than accommodation], means that a space is always, 100% of the time, welcoming to people with disabilities” (4). Accessibility is an ongoing conversation between the able-bodied and disabled communities.

6 cartoon images of ways to make spaces accessible. The top row shows a brown hand below light and dark brown braille cells and a black box with the letters “CC” inside, representing braille writing and closed captioning. The second row shows a black cartoon of an ear and ear plug and a dark blue stick figure in a wheelchair using a ramp, representing sensory-friendly spaces and physical access tools. The bottom row shows a tablet with multicolored images on an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device and a cartoon of two hands signing, representing alternative communication, sign language, and interpretation.

Examples of how to make spaces accessible.

Why do we need accessibility in science?

Disabled scientists are underrepresented at every career stage. Few STEM students have a disclosed disability and the number further declines as students assume faculty positions (3, 4). Just as there is a leaky pipeline in retaining non-white graduate students(14), the academy does a poor job retaining disabled scientists. The number of disabled students enrolled in STEM disciplines drops from 10% to 6% between undergraduate and graduate training. In 2018, people with disabilities account for only 2% of the doctorates awarded to US citizens and permanent residents (15). Science should be representative of the community it operates within. By improving accessibility we can remedy systems in education and academia that preclude disabled people from entering and advancing (5).

A horizontal bar chart showing prevalence of disability declaration as a percentage along the x-axis, ranging from 0 to 25. The overall UK population value of about 20% is marked by a dotted line. A light teal bar labeled “STEM Students” reaches about 15%, a violet bar labeled “STEM Academics” reaches about 4%, and a gray bar labeled “UKRI Applicants” reaches about 1%. The area between the bar and the dotted population line is marked by a double sided arrow.

Disabled people in STEM are underrepresented at all career stages (3).

Diverse scientists bring diverse perspectives and ideas which propel science forward. Take Dr. Wanda Diaz Merced, a blind astronomer pioneering sonification, for example. Her work transforming space-physics data into sound has proven invaluable to deciphering signals from noise (6). Syreeta Nolan, a recent University of California San Diego graduate, uses her experiences as a Black, queer, disabled woman to inform her public health policy and disability advocacy work (7). By following this link you can listen to or read the transcript of an interview with two disabled scientists on the importance of including and elevating scientists from marginalized communities and other topics (8).

The words "Access Is Love" in a black font. The "O" in "Love" is a red heart.

Access is love (13).

Additionally, science and medicine directly affect disabled people. When disabled people lead disability research—as scientists or community collaborators—, progress reflects the wants and needs of the disabled community (9). Scientists with disabilities are advancing the fields of ecology and evolution, neuroscience, paleobiology, and many more (10)! In this miniseries we’ll cover some ways in which we can make science more accessible while highlighting disabled scientists and their work.


  1. Alistair Duggin. “Accessibility in government.” Gov.UK. May 2016.
  2. Pryal, Katie Rose Guest. “Can You Tell the Difference Between Accommodation and Accessibility?” Medium. April 2016. 
  3. J. P. Sarju, Chem. Eur. J. 2021, 27, 10489.
  4. CRAC. “Qualitative research on barriers to progression of disabled scientists.” Oct. 2020
  5. Lopes LE, Waldis SJ, Terrell SM, Lindgren KA, ChLInkarkoudian LK (2018) Vibrant symbiosis: Achieving reciprocal science outreach through biological art. PLOS Biology.
  6. Gibney E. (2020). How one astronomer hears the Universe. Nature, 577(7789), 155.
  7. Syreeta L. Nolan (2021) The compounded burden of being a black and disabled student during the age of COVID-19, Disability & Society
  8. Wong, A. (Host). (2019, June 30). Ep 54: Disabled Scientists (No. 54) [Audio podcast episode]. In Disability Visibility. Disability Visibility Project. 
  9. Check Hayden, E. Should you edit your children’s genes? Nature. 2016. 
  10. Caitlin Karniski. “Disability Pride Month at Communications Biology.” Nature Communications Biology. Jul 2021
  11. .Carlie Rhoads. “Celebrating Disability Pride Month” American Foundation for the Blind. Jul 2021.
  12. Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic. “accessible data viz is better data viz” story telling with data. Jun 2018.
  13. “Access Is Love” Disability Visibility Project. Feb 2019.
  14. Gibbs, K. D., Basson, J., Xierali, I. M., & Broniatowski, D. A. (2016). Decoupling of the minority PhD talent pool and assistant professor hiring in medical school basic science departments in the US. eLife.
  15. Booksh, K., & Madsen, L. (2018). Academic pipeline for scientists with disabilities. MRS Bulletin.
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