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How Can We Make Undergraduate Research More Inclusive For Students With Disabilities?

Individuals with disabilities are underrepresented in undergraduate science and in science careers. While it is becoming increasingly clear that students with disabilities experience unique challenges in undergraduate science classrooms, little is known about the experiences of students with disabilities in undergraduate research. However, a recent national study has begun to shed light on the experiences of students with disabilities in research. 

Here are some of the main takeaways:

Science students with disabilities are underrepresented in undergraduate research

Researchers found that 12% of undergraduate researchers that were surveyed self-identified as having a disability, which is lower than the percentage of undergraduate science students with disabilities, indicating that undergraduate science students with disabilities are not participating in undergraduate research at the same rate.

Students with disabilities tended to describe their functional limitations in research, but did not discuss how research labs and norms tend to inaccessible

Students reported challenges related to their disabilities that can make it difficult for them to carry out specific research-related tasks due to the symptoms or effects of their disabilities impeded their ability to do research-related tasks. Students often described their disabilities as functional limitations resulting in impairment, preventing them from completing a certain task.
But students rarely described their challenges from the social model perspective, which would identify societal norms, attitudes, or structures that are barriers for students given their disabilities.

Undergraduate researchers with concealable disabilities experienced unique challenges related to whether they revealed their disabilities in undergraduate research

Students who had disabilities that they described as invisible reported experiencing unique stress related to their disabilities because they had to choose to when, how, and if to reveal their disability in the context of undergraduate research. This included students with conditions such as depression, ADHD, or autism. Students discussed how they often chose not to disclose or discuss their disabilities with members of their research groups, which is similar to what is seen in previous studies focused on students with depression in research. Some students reported instances where disability was mentioned negatively in conversations with other members of their research groups, which discouraged them from revealing their disabilities.

Students with disabilities lack support and accommodations from university centers when engaging in undergraduate research

Few students reported that they have received formal accommodations in undergraduate research through their university’s disability resource center and most tried to adapt to the lab research environment without formal accommodations. This also means that students with disabilities have to self-advocate and disclose their specific disability to their research mentor to get any accommodation.

Students with disabilities recognize that they bring unique perspectives to research environments

Students with disabilities described that they felt as though their disabilities gave them unique viewpoints and perspectives that influenced the ways in which they approached their research. In particular, some students described that they were able to provide a unique lens for solving problems in science that they would not have if not for their own lived experiences as individuals with disabilities.

How can we better support undergraduate researchers with disabilities?

Informed by this study, we propose the following three concrete recommendations for research mentors looking to make undergraduate research more inclusive and accessible for students with disabilities:
  1. Provide all undergraduate researchers with flexibility in deadlines, meetings, and schedules so that students do not need to disclose or self-advocate.
  2. Get to know students and understand their accessibility needs and the accessibility of the research space and community. You can collect this information with anonymous surveys at the beginning of each term.
  3. Take time to learn more about students with disabilities and accommodations to better support individuals with disabilities.

For more resources see:

Gin, L. E., Pais, D., Cooper, K. M., &; Brownell, S. E. (2022). Students with Disabilities in Life Science Undergraduate Research Experiences: Challenges and Opportunities. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 21(2), ar32.

Post Author 

Tasneem Mohammed is a Ph.D. student in the Research for Inclusive STEMEducation (RISE) Center at ASU. Her research focuses on the mismatch between students' cultures and the culture of academia affects their experiences in science.


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