Changing how STEM is taught and accessed for people with disabilities.
Mar 4, 2022
Woman scientist smiling in a lab
President, 3M Canada

Imagine a world where accommodations for people with disabilities are not just an afterthought. Where any child, any student and any STEM professional can fully apply themselves to learn, grow and contribute to solving the challenges Canada is facing today.

This is the world we are imagining and are committed to finding tangible solutions and actions towards making this vision a reality.

But the current pathway for STEM education for people with disabilities is filled with obstacles. Conversations around diversity and inclusion are often centred around gender and ethnicity, and people with disabilities are often overlooked.

As we continue our journey to improve equitable access to STEM education in Canada, we focused our latest 3M STEMtalk workshop to assemble a panel of STEM experts to talk about:

  • How do we remove barriers to STEM education for people with disabilities?
  • How do we change the way STEM is taught and accessed in Canada for the disability community?
  • And how do we achieve true accessibility and inclusion, and what can Canada do to support this kind of change?

We listened carefully and it was a humbling and honest conversation.

It was clear the disability community is feeling left behind and siloed when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM education.

Collectively, we have a responsibility to help normalize differences to ensure that the disability community is included and centered in all discussions that impact their lives. The overwhelming response from participants was when it comes to STEM education, we need to work towards a world where accommodations for disabilities are not just an afterthought, and I was truly inspired by this goal.

Currently, people with disabilities have to ask for accommodations in order to navigate STEM education. The goal is a world where those needs have already been addressed so requests don’t need to be made. To get there, the experts identified three key areas where we can make an impact and affect change.

Watch: STEM experts describe what accessibility really means in STEM education.

Three recommendations for Canada’s path forward on changing the way STEM is taught and accessed in Canada

1. Creating accessible STEM physical spaces

In order to create a universally-inclusive approach to STEM education, start with making the physical spaces where STEM is taught and practiced accessible.

STEM institutions and the broader STEM community need instructions on how to set up lab and workspaces across STEM institutions and the broader STEM industry to ensure accessibility for people with different types of disabilities.

We need to ensure that STEM equipment and procedures are designed in a way that promotes multiple points of interaction for students with disabilities. For example, designing equipment that promotes audio interaction or using robotic technology instead of relying on vision.

We need to ensure preferred language options (for example, sign language) and preferred methods of communication (for example, ensuring captions are on or incorporating verbal cues during virtual meetings) are readily available from the outset in STEM education to better connect people with disabilities.

“We shouldn't be defining a scientist with a white lab coat in a lab. Many students who go on to train at higher education levels eventually stop doing lab work as they become fully qualified scientists. To get to that level, most students have to actually have the ability to perform the lab work. With a significant shortage of accessible equipment, accessible laboratories, and accessible procedures for performing the labs this is a major challenge for students with disabilities in STEM.”

– Ainsley Latour, M.Sc, MLT, B.Ed, Clinical Genetic Technologist, Kingston Health Sciences Centre, Co-founder, IDEA-STEM

2. Having courageous conversations 

Often, we will shy away from asking questions about a person’s disability in fear of drawing attention to the disability or making ourselves appear ignorant.

But the truth is, we can all benefit from educating ourselves about what accessibility truly means.

I implore you to ask questions and have those courageous conversations. The insight will give us a better understanding, allowing us to help lift one another to succeed.

“It’s no longer taboo to talk about what it means to be disabled. It’s about how can we support persons with disabilities to be successful. We’ve heard about this concept of courageous conversations, and I think a lot can come into play here when we address the public and making them aware of what it means to be a person with disability whether its visible, mental, or emotional.”

– Naheda Sahtout, PhD, Science Analyst, Canadian Food Inspection Agency

The need for greater education about what accessibility truly means extends to businesses, governments, and the academic community. We all have roles to play to ensure everyone including people with disabilities can succeed with dignity to the best of their potential.

We need to provide opportunities for hands-on experiences and guidance on career pathways for people with disabilities. We need to encourage organizations to champion equity, diversity, and inclusion that include people with disabilities across all facets of the business from employee training, to bias training and evaluating management hiring practices and policies.

Like physical STEM spaces, the social infrastructure in our organizations can benefit from toolkits and resources that can help us create equity for the disability community.

3. Funding and connections that create impact 

It’s no longer enough to provide funding with hopes that it will make a difference. We need to ensure that funding will create a lasting impact towards the goal of improving equitable access to STEM education.

One of the ways to really understand how funding will make an impact is for organizations and leaders to engage with students with disabilities. Participating in volunteer programs and connecting with students with disabilities can help us better understand the impact they are creating.

This level of connection extends to the boardroom. We need to ensure that diverse perspectives are included in decision-making processes and people with disabilities help lead and provide insight on those discussions. This means building inclusive spaces where people with disabilities don’t need to ask for accommodation to participate, circling back to having the courageous conversations at the outset to ensure all needs are met at the outset.

Our commitment to changing the way STEM is taught and accessed in Canada

As a science company, creating equitable access to STEM education is an issue that 3M cares deeply about. We know that we can continue to do better and are committed to changing the way STEM is taught and accessed in Canada for people with disabilities, through recognizing and implementing the learnings from the STEM experts in the workshop.

A more diverse STEM workforce that includes and lifts all voices and experiences, results in more innovative ideas, and will further enable Canadian businesses, the academic community, and the broader industry to collectively come together to help solve some of our biggest problems.

At 3M Canada, we have an Employee Resource Network (ERN) called Abilities First. This is a cross-functional group of employees who serve as a resource for 3M employees and their families whose lives are touched by disabilities. This support network is in place to help employees by creating safe spaces to talk about vulnerabilities, while identifying and removing barriers through education and action.

The work of this ERN has been instrumental in helping to build greater awareness and appreciation for the experiences and needs of people with visible and invisible disabilities.

Inclusive accessibility can only happen when employers and co-workers appreciate the potential contributions of people with disabilities and create a flexible work environment where productivity is maximized.

We are also looking outward and fostering new initiatives with the disability community related to STEM education. This year, we have partnered with FIRST® Robotics Canada to expand an in-hospital program that will see 300 robotics kits delivered to children with special needs and disabilities. FIRST® Canada staff and volunteers will connect virtually to help children build robotic LEGO® creations. This program helps children and youth develop decision-making and socialization skills while inspiring them to learn STEM skills as they work through health challenges. We are thankful to our partners at FIRST Robotics for their work on this incredible program.

Canada’s path forward

We recognize that changes to accessibility don’t happen overnight, that it’s a continuous effort as we collectively work towards improving equitable access to STEM education.

I continue to appreciative of the honest and courageous conversations and would like to thank this incredible cohort comprised of scientists, scholars, researchers, students, and disability rights and accessibility advocates, for sharing their lived experiences and expertise. The 3M STEMtalk workshop represents just one of the steps to advance conversations and bring forward solutions with the goal of improving equity in access to STEM education. 

The message from the experts was clear: as a country, Canada must find more effective ways to create equitable access to STEM education for people with disabilities.

There is significant work that needs to be done across all sectors to meet the needs of those with different types of disabilities.

I look forward to sharing our progress and invite you to follow and join the journey.

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