In early 2016, Stephen Hawking solved a vexing paradox, showing how black holes miraculously at once obliterate and preserve information. But here on earth, there’s a much simpler paradox that needs solving. This one plagues our campus: In science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the most visible disabilities — the physical ones, such as mobility impairment — are the least visible.
As my suitemate, an erstwhile premed who has been paralyzed from the waist down since the age of 10, explained: “If you were to walk around campus and count the number of permanent wheelchair users in STEM, you would only count two: one chemistry graduate student and one engineering professor.”
And the nationwide statistics aren’t any better. A National Science Foundation study published in 2011 determined that in 2008 alone, just 0.25 to 0.75 percent of most science and engineering Ph.D.s went to physically disabled candidates. This needs to change.
There is a lot of evidence that diverse perspectives facilitate scientific discovery. In 2004, a group of sociologists from the University of Michigan showed that a diverse group of problem solvers consistently outperformed a more intelligent team. In science, approaching problems from new angles can be the key to solving them. And while I don’t want to make blanket claims, disabled students’ unique circumstances almost certainly equip them to approach questions in new ways.
But there is an even more important reason we need students like my suitemate in STEM at Yale: Inclusion is a right, not a privilege. Hawking was paralyzed later in life; by then, he was well on his way to an exceptional career in science. Had he become paralyzed earlier on, he might not have been as fortunate.
As a top-flight research institution, Yale has a profound responsibility to bring physically disabled students into the STEM disciplines. Though most of our labs technically comply with the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act, they still don’t provide adequate access for those who are physically disabled, and certainly don’t signal a commitment to inclusion.
My suitemate described his experience in the organic chemistry lab course as “exasperating,” even though the instructor was extremely helpful and did everything she could to make things accessible, such as allowing him to use a lower bench. For instance, it was difficult for him to see what he was doing, posing a safety concern. Wheelchair users also find it hard to use top-loading centrifuges in labs, limiting their ability to participate in research.
In the wake of plans for the new Yale Science Building to replace the old J.W. Gibbs Laboratory, now is as good a time as ever to work on building a space for all STEM students. We can, for example, lower every lab bench to help students like Ben, while simultaneously providing appropriate removable seats for non-disabled students. More labs could also make the switch to side-loading centrifuges. Additionally, providing physically disabled students with lab assistants — something that Stanford, for instance, is known for doing — would be tremendously helpful, and would enhance safety. These changes would take up a fraction of Yale’s operating budget.
Getting more disabled students into STEM would operate like a positive feedback loop. If we go out of our way to make things more inclusive, more physically disabled students will come to Yale to go into STEM. Accordingly, physical disabilities will become increasingly visible to the wider community.
A lot of attention has been given to attracting and retaining talented women and students of color in STEM. These efforts are important and deserve our continued support. But there are also plenty of physically disabled students who have the potential to excel in STEM. Unfortunately, at Yale, we have yet to create an environment that allows everyone — regardless of their physical capacity — to work hard and test their mettle. If we make a change, other universities will likely follow suit. And, who knows, we might just find the next Stephen Hawking.
Zachary Smithline is a junior in Saybrook College. Contact him at email@example.com .