Adapting for Inclusion


When most people see someone with a disability, they tend to discount the person focusing only on their limitations. But in doing so, both parties are losing out. I am lucky in that my disability is invisible most of the time. But when I have to confess it a stigma is always attached.

Recently, I attended a strategic planning meeting facilitated by an external consultant. The set-up for the meeting was amazingly high-tech with five projection screens and a transcriber providing real-time documentation of what was said.

Excited, I sat forward in my seat in anticipation. However, as we began to use the system, I realized that I couldn’t read the text. There was too much to fit in my field of view, and my dyslexia was at its mischievous best.

I requested a printout so that I could read the items to be prioritized. I didn’t want to make a big deal, and I was embarrassed to ask, but I wanted to contribute to the process. The response was immediately no. We were running behind and printing out the two-page document would take too long. So, staring into the faces of 32 of my closest colleagues, I acquiesced.

My fears were not without warrant. After being diagnosed with dyslexia in grad school, I was instructed to distribute an “official notice” to each of my professors, and to attend a student support group.

One of my profs reacted very badly to the notice. He looked at me as though I was mentally deficient, and spoke the words, “I c-a-n-‘t h-e-l-p y-o-u!” very slowly and loudly. He refused to answer my questions during office hours and avoided me during class. Rather than file a complaint, I buckled down, read every book I could find, and I looked through the literature until I found all of the source articles for his questions. I finished first in the class with a 98 % average, but to this day he looks the other way when our paths cross.

As for the support group, it was anything but. We were asked to state our names and disabilities as introductions went around the table. (I looked for a 12-Step poster.) Then, a councilor addressed the group explaining why we should all lower our expectations and asked each of us to state our intended majors. When I said chemistry, she chastised me for not listening to her advice. My only response was that I had already finished my undergraduate degree, and that I was nearly finished with grad school. I could hardly change my major once the diploma had been issued, but I digress.

At the first available break in our strategic planning meeting, I explained my problem more clearly to the facilitator, and she was able to furnish me with a printout. It was a good thing, too. The transcriber had transposed two of the letters in the title thereby spelling a word not commonly used in polite conversation.

To find out more about working with disabilities, visit the ACS Committee on Chemists with Disabilities webpages. They have published a variety of books and other support materials in accessible formats.

This article was written by David Harwell, Ph.D., Assistant Director of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development. Originally published in the chemistry.org newsletter May 21, 2007.

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