March 2013

Are scientists with disabilities the forgotten underrepresented minority?

The U.S. has recognized that maintaining its status as a leader in innovation and discovery requires that it tap all potential educators and researchers in the science, technology, engineering and math disciplines. The diminishing employment opportunities in the once-strong manufacturing sector and the increasing number of opportunities in the technology sector suggest a vital need to support STEM training to maintain a robust workforce for continued economic growth and investment. Given that certain racial and ethnic minorities have been historically underrepresented in STEM, these groups have been targeted with strategies to increase their numbers. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the disabled are also a rich source of talent that has been underutilized.

The traditional definition of a disabled person referred to someone who required routine use of a wheelchair or who was visually or hearing impaired. Now the definition has been broadened to include people with learning disabilities and psychiatric disorders. A 2011 study by the National Science Foundation of students and employees in science and engineering showed that the disabled consistently have higher unemployment rates than those of the general population, and many leave the labor force prematurely (1). Furthermore, it is believed that disabilities are underreported for fear of discrimination.

Much of the past discrimination against the disabled in science has been rooted in misperceptions that they cannot work successfully in a laboratory environment. However, laws that ensure equal access for the disabled as well as new advances in technology have enabled them to perform at the highest echelons of the scientific establishment. We marvel, for example, at the genius of Stephen Hawking, who has provided penetrating insight into the deepest workings of the cosmos despite having Lou Gehrig’s disease. John W. Cornforth, who won the 1975 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work on the stereochemistry of enzyme-catalyzed reactions, was deaf, as was the great American inventor Thomas Edison. In fact, It has been said that because people with disabilities have to come up quickly with creative approaches to navigate daily challenges, this creativity may make them particularly valuable for solving problems that require outside-the-box approaches. Although the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 has done much to break down barriers associated with equal access for people with disabilities, much more needs to be done to realize the full potential of this source of talent within the STEM disciplines.

Given that most disabled people were not born with their disabilities but acquired them at some point in their lives, it would be wasteful to have them leave the scientific labor force or STEM majors after many years of personal and societal investment in their education and training when adjustments can be made to accommodate them. Therefore, efforts must be continued to create welcoming and accessible environments for people with disabilities. Scientific organizations, such as the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, can play a role by facilitating networking opportunities for scientists with disabilities and by helping them to identify suitable mentors. Moreover, providing enhanced accessibility to scientific meetings and incentives to attend will allow the disabled to engage in the many professional-development activities provided at these events.

Peter Blumberg 

With this in mind, the ASBMB Minority Affairs Committee is delighted to have Peter Blumberg of the National Cancer Institute named the winner of this year’s Ruth Kirschstein Diversity in Science Award. Blumberg is an internationally recognized expert in the field of cell signaling and has made an enormous commitment to the training and mentoring of scientists who are hearing impaired. Click here to read more about this honor for Dr. Blumberg.

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Squire J. BookerSquire J. Booker ( is associate professor of chemistry and associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at The Pennsylvania State University. He is also chairman of the ASBMB Minority Affairs Committee.


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  • thank you so much for this very important commentary. People with disabilities are far too often under-represented in important domains of society, and STEM is no exception.

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