Jennifer Keelan left her wheelchair at the bottom of the Capitol building steps. She was eight years old, the youngest person participating in the "Capitol Crawl." She stuffed a pamphlet into the pocket of her pinstripe jeans. She intended to hand it to a member of Congress, urging them to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act. As she dragged herself up the steps she exclaimed, "I'll take all night if I have to."
There was anger in her voice and it is an anger that I, and many other disabled scientists, can relate to.
The ADA prohibits discrimination against disabled people. Yet here we are, thirty years after its passage, and disabled scientists still don't have access to our work and learning spaces. And when we say we don't have access, we mean that quite literally.
At UC Davis, there is an outdoor teaching area that may appear unremarkable to most. But it caught the eye of Megan Lynch, a Master's student in Horticulture and Agronomy. She took a picture and posted it on Twitter, asking able-bodied folks to #SpotTheAccessibilityFail, a hashtag she created.
Uneven stones, a small step, a faded map - all barriers that prevent disabled people from using this space. "It was not designed with the idea that horticulture students at a public university would include disabled people,” Lynch said via email.
Administrations treat the ADA as if it is the gold standard for accessibility. But disabled people know that it mandates only the bare minimum and most campuses fail to meet it.
Lynch isn't impressed. She has had trouble getting anyone at UC Davis to care about disability inclusion, even her union. So she founded UC Access Now, a campaign for universal design, accessibility, and inclusion for disabled people on the University of California campuses.
This campaign is important. But as Lynch says, "It's hard enough to survive as a disabled student without adding on unpaid DEI work in the form of activism." It isn't the responsibility of disabled scientists to break down the barriers meant to exclude us.
"The assumption that no one with a disability could ever possibly do [horticulture and agronomy] is part of what keeps the field so inaccessible." Abled people refuse to change and that is why there are so few disabled people in science, Lynch said. And she is right.
It's time to show up for disabled scientists. To fulfill the promise made to us thirty years ago. It's time for change.
[Ed: An earlier version of this article misused the term "able-bodied" in the 8th paragraph. This has been replaced with the appropriate term, "abled." The distinction is important as there are some disabled people who are able-bodied. Dan Samorodnitsky, Senior Editor]