By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association


Did you know that of the world’s human population of 8 billion, over 1 billion live with some form of disability?

Disabled people work and participate in every professional and recreation field, including STEM*. However, as with many other minority groups, disabled people are underrepresented - while 20% of the working-age population in the UK are registered disabled, they make up just 11% of the STEM workforce.

As champions of equality, diversity and inclusion in STEM - and indeed society - at the British Science Association (BSA), we work with and for disabled people.

To inspire STEM engagement we work with disabled children and young people, their teachers and community groups supporting disabled people to develop accessible programmes and resources. We also provide a platform to showcase the amazing work of disabled scientists, researchers and engineers, and those whose innovations improve the lives of disabled people.

To mark the 30th annual International Day of Persons with Disabilities on 3 December, we want to introduce you to disabled scientists from our network and also highlight work supporting the disabled community in 2022.

Disability and creativity are not mutually exclusive

Each year as part of British Science Week, we run our Smashing Stereotypes campaign to share the stories of STEM professionals who break the mould, either by coming from a background underrepresented in STEM and making huge strides in their field, or by working on innovations that support underrepresented audiences.

Pete Barr and Eli Heath, who were profiled as part of Smashing Stereotypes in 2022, fall into the latter camp. After working on a university project together to create a prototype to allow wheelchair users to create art, they founded Enayball in 2018.

At Enayball they have perfected their initial design to create a sleek product which attaches to wheelchairs so users can either create large scale artwork on the floor or use the hand-held table top version.

Pete Barr and Eli Heath

Pete told us:

“I’m really interested in the world of socially-led design, creating things that actually help people rather than just producing products that can be sold - Enayball is a really great way of being part of that world. For me, the most important thing about this project is sticking to the vision behind it: to make art accessible to everyone.”

Creativity, STEM and a desire to see a world where disability doesn’t hold people back collide in Enayball and we can’t wait to see what they do next!

Read our Smashing Stereotypes profile of Eli and Pete here.

Children with SEND celebrate British Science Week

Way back in March, we spoke to Rebecca Lees, a teacher at Bardwell School for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). Her school received a Kick Start Grant from the BSA to fund science engagement activities at the school for British Science Week.

Rebecca told us how they invited public-facing STEM professionals into the school to put on workshops and show the children what they do.

We looked at the types of careers that our students will have access to throughout their lives as opposed to the jobs they might go into. So, for example we looked at audiology, emergency services, nurses, dentists, opticians, physiotherapists... we had a professional from each of these careers come in to the school…

The idea was that it would help break down barriers our students have, because they will meet each of these people in their life…we wanted them to feel really confident when that happened, and that these are people we know and can trust.

STEM learning and engagement doesn’t have to be about working in the field, it can be about understanding and feeling connected to how the world works, and your place in it.

Read our blog and watch the interview with Rebecca here.

As Rebecca explains, teaching children with SEND, while rewarding, presents unique challenges.

Some of the biggest problems we have are that you’re catering for such a wide range of abilities, so I might have a student who’s got really complex needs, who’s in a wheelchair who needs support to do absolutely everything… and then in that same lesson you might have students …who could, with the right support achieve quite substantial amounts, and really work on the scientific aspects and the content of knowledge.

We want to support teachers, like Rebecca, as much as possible.

Through our Underrepresented Audiences Network for teachers, we connect teachers from schools in challenging circumstances with other experienced educators who can provide help and advice. A third of our Network are from SEND schools. As part of Network Conference this summer, we ran a SEND Teaching CPD session with Rob Butler, a secondary science teacher who has worked in special education for 20 years.

Rob offered tips on creating a classroom culture that is conducive for learning (such as using a reward system), avoiding an overload of information and working on retrieval practice.

Watch the recording of the SEND Teaching CPD session here.

Celebrating innovation at the British Science Festival

A strong theme running through the British Science Festival 2022 was how innovations in STEM can improve our futures, including for disabled people. Two events on this theme stood out.

At Crip AI: disability led design, access researcher Dr Louise Hickman, from the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy at the University of Oxford, spoke to Clio Heslop, our Head of Policy, Partnerships and Impact, about the space between algorithms and people.

Dr Louise Hickman

Dr Hickman explained how artificial technology (AI), ostensibly created to make our lives easier, is not always necessarily designed with disabled users in mind. She used examples, such as captioning, to demonstrate the sometimes fraught relationship between technology and the people who use it, and shine a light on the importance of disability-led design.

Another talk at the Festival showcased how some scientists are focusing their efforts on technology to aid the lives of disabled people and help to protect the planet at the same time!

At Recycled Prosthetics, Dr Farukh Farukh, an engineer at De Montfort University, spoke about how he is using recycled plastic to create prosthetic limbs, providing access to life-changing prosthetics in developing countries.

He talked through how plastic bottles can be processed and manipulated into perfect light-weight materials for prosthetics.

The next British Science Festival will take place in Exeter in September 2023, so look out for more talks and workshops on disability-led design.

Living with a disability should never mean exclusion from STEM, becoming a scientist or being creative.

We believe that science should be open to everyone, regardless of background or experience. There are persistent structural barriers to equality in many areas of UK society, culture and work, and we believe that transforming the diversity and inclusivity of science can play a part in tackling them.

Find out more about our commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion

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*STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and maths