Welcome to our series: Accessibility in the Lab, where each episode explores the importance of accessibility in the lab, academia, the workforce and other applications.
From our previous episodes, we've learned how accessibility needs compare between academic and professional settings and different approaches to conversating with a colleague or a supervisor. For this episode, we're expanding our look into the conversations that can make all the difference for someone with accessibility needs.
Our guest for this episode is Yujia Ding, M.S., Ed.D., who after being diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) during her undergrad, was paired with her service dog, Griffey, to support her during POTS episodes. Listen as she shares her stories on overcoming accessibility issues and a forward-focused outlook on accessibility accommodations.
For more content, check out Yujia's FYI talk all about Accessibility Needs for Service Dogs in the Lab! Watch the video here.
For a transcript of this episode, please visit this episode's page on Buzzsprout.
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Hannah Rosen: Hello everyone and welcome to New Matter, the SLAS podcast where we interview life science luminaries. I'm your host, Hannah Rosen, and today we are continuing our series on accessibility and the lab. Joining us today is brand new doctor Yujia Ding, also known as The Resourceful Scientist. She's here today to talk to us about some success stories in accessibility. So, welcome to the podcast Yujia.
Yujia Ding: Thank you so much for having me on today!
Hannah Rosen: Oh, it's our pleasure! So, kind of to get us started, I was hoping you could give us just a little bit of your professional background and tell us what got you interested in the topic of accessibility in the lab.
Yujia Ding: Definitely! So, for me as kind of the title I go by The Resourceful Scientist goes, I have training as a scientist. I studied at Northwestern University where I got both my bachelors and my masters, and I did a lot of undergraduate research specifically in protein structure and function, a lot of cell molecular biology and biochemistry tech. And it was a lot of fun and... and it really gave me insight into what research could do and open up the doors. However, kind of in the middle of grad school, I started getting really sick. Just these weird symptoms, and it turns out I had an underlying condition called POTS, so postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome. My updated diagnosis happens to be without tachycardia, but essentially what that means is I just pass out. And I got to the point where I was passing out, falling down stairs and not remembering things, just losing consciousness and it got really dangerous. And so, I actually was very fortunate to be paired with my service dog, Griffey, who I've now had for about 5 1/2 years, but with the service dog obviously comes some issues with working in a research lab, especially as a graduate student, such a stressful, fast-paced environment, it did get a little bit tricky with Griffey. And so ultimately, I decided to leave actually, the program I was in. And I mastered out of that program and went to work in biotech industry. Now, that was another interesting experience that in... in itself, but what I saw was the issue of accessibility. So, while in grad school, while in the industry, I saw that my service dog was not welcome in the lab spaces. There's a lot of pushback.
And ultimately, I followed my passion to go into education, which is kind of where I wanted to go this whole time. But even in the transition to education I saw, there were more accessibility issues and not just in like, a classroom, but even just access outside of the classroom. And that really got me thinking of like, why are there are there these issues? I mean, it's... the service dog, I get he's a dog, I get that, you know, some people don't really enjoy dogs or they're scared of them, but he was really helping me get my independence back to some extent. To be able to really go places and not worry about falling and getting a concussion. Or, you know, having to be sent to the ER because when you pass out, obviously people are alarmed, and so with my service dog Griffey, it’s much easier to say, you know, this is... this is a known condition. It's OK, you know, everything's handled. It wasn't until I started working as an adjunct professor at a local community college where I was living and one of my students, she had traumatic brain injury. And that really opened up the door for me to see I... I can have an influence with my students. And for her, I saw how much of a struggle it was and, you know, speaking with her and her mom who were friends, good friends. Now I noticed and her mom told me like, no professors gave her a chance. I was the first one who gave her a chance to really try to do the lab work. I was teaching an introduction to biotechnology lab skills class and professors would give her a chance. They dismissed her, but I was the first one to give her a chance just to sit and observe. And at the end of the eight weeks I gave her all the accommodations necessary so she could perform my lab practical. And she did fantastic, and you know, I'm happy to say now she's gotten her lab scientists certificate back in California where she's local and is working towards getting back into the lab, but she's facing accessibility and accommodation issues even to this day. And so that was probably the first thing that motivated me to say, I can do something about this.
Hannah Rosen: Yeah, wow, that's an incredible story. I'm curious, you mentioned all the difficulties you had with your service dog in the lab, both at school and in the industry. I'm curious, could you like, kind of just go into, cause that's not something that we've talked about on this podcast much as having a service animal with you in the lab. So, can you kind of go into like, what were some of the objections surrounding having your service animal with.
Yujia Ding: So yeah, I... I think the biggest objection in, and one that I see a lot, is the fact that it's a dog, right? Like, you have to have a sterile environment, whether you're working with bacteria, lab mice, fruit flies, C. elegans, you know, roundworms, whatever it may be, whatever organism you're working with. It's not a sterile environment, right? You can work with cell culture, tissue culture, whatever it may be, and in the struggle is that we want to keep a sterile environment, and I... I fully respect that. And I fully understand that, because having worked with tissue culture having worked with bacteria right, like, everything is such an orchestrated and coordinated step of events that you have to do properly in order to have reproducible results. And so, I'm not discounting that by any means right, cuz that's the biggest push back is “oh well, you're going to contaminate your research” and... and no... no, I'm not trying to contaminate my research, right? When you bring a service dog into the lab and... and there's some recent research, Joey Ramp is one of the scientists who has a service dog who's... who's doing a lot of work in this area specifically for service dogs, not necessarily accessibility, you know, as a whole. She faced a lot of pushback, and so one of the things I always make sure to make clear to either an employer or anybody who is thinking about like, well, I want to go into STEM, but I have a service dog, I can't go to the lab, is... is we actually take precautions. We, as... as service dog handlers who work in labs, there's not a lot of us, but definitely the ones I've connected with.
You know, Griffey has goggles, like lab safety goggles, he will wear a lab coat underneath his harness, he has the booties, and so he has all these things to protect him from contaminating the lab space. And not only that, he doesn't stand by the bench with you, he sits at the desk, right? Or he has a blanket, or you crate it, or whatever it is to contain him, but in a way that if I were to have a medical episode or if the handler were to have a medical episode, the dog can still access you, right? So that means, like, Griffey, if I were to pass out, he would still be able to walk over to me and do his response. Even if I'm in the middle of the lab bench where he doesn't hang out at the lab bench, right? For he's not necessarily a safety hazard, and that's the other thing is “oh well, they're a safety hazard. They're gonna lick things and they're gonna smell things.” Yes, they're dogs. However, they're highly trained dogs, and so he does not sniff things if I tell him no, right? I can give him the command, he doesn't sniff. He doesn't randomly poke his head into a vat of bacteria, right? He... he doesn't do that, right? He doesn't put his head in the incubator where I'm growing like. E. coli just to smell it, because he knows better than that, right? And... and that's the thing, as a service... like, a highly trained service dog knows better than to sniff things and they will respond to commands. I love to compare, so I have two dogs, right? Maddie is my little one. She's my rescue dog, just a cute little corgi/beagle mix that hangs out with me. And I love to compare Griffey to Maddie, only to illustrate that Maddie is not a trained service dog, she is a pet through and through. She is the most curious little dog ever, being part beagle she sniffs everything. If I were to bring Maddie into the lab, that would be an example of a safety hazard because she doesn't respond to commands. She doesn't know, not to smell things, she doesn't know not to go and find every last little nugget of whatever it may be. And so, she can't go in, right? But Griffey, he knows to stay in his place. He knows to stay on the mat or wherever you... you leave him, right? He knows, and so that's the thing. There is pushback, and I get it right, I'm not... I'm not discounting that. However, that... not allowing individuals who need a service dog to work in a research lab is a huge barrier to young scientists who want to go into biology, chemistry, physics who can't take their introductory lab courses because professors and schools don't know how to approach a service dog situation. I'm not saying schools are doing this to just not allow, you know, service dogs. I think it's more of an issue of a lack of understanding and a lack of awareness to the situation. So, if we can show this is how we circumvent these barriers, this is how we can protect not only the dog, but the research, then that's important and that will open up doors and breakdown those barriers to allow all scientists of all abilities to be able to do research if that's what they so choose to do.
Hannah Rosen: I think that that's... that's a fantastic story because I think it's a really good illustration of just a lot of these accommodation requests where you know, to somebody who maybe isn't as informed or educated about these things, they might look at a service dog and think, “well, there's absolutely no way that this can work in a lab space.” But if you are educated about it and understand everything about it, then you can realize pretty quickly like, “oh no, this actually.... it will work. It can all be done within the confines so that the... the science can still progress the way it needs to.” It's just that people need to kind of get over their preconceived notions or prejudices towards whatever accommodations being requested.
Yujia Ding: Absolutely, and I mean people will say “well, what if you work with animals right? Like, what if you work with lab mice?” Well, Griffey, my service dog, would never be allowed to go down there and I know that, right? He would be placed in a crate or somewhere where he is not disrupting the... the subjects which are, in this case, the lab mice, right? When I was doing tissue culture, he was not allowed in the sterile room for tissue culture. And that's OK, right? He has his own space, and if he were able to, you know, be with me through until I'd finished my program, then yes, he would have been in a crate or you know, in another space. And then if anything were to happen, obviously I would have lab mates to be able to help as well, right? It's not like I'm doing this all alone and, you know, I'm in the lab all by myself. It's just that he's there to support because if you think about it, if something were to happen and I were to drop, you know, agar for example, that I took out of the autoclave, well, that's not necessarily safe for anybody. Yes, that would not be a safe situation for him either, but he has his place, right, and he knows where to go. And it's also a matter of getting your lab mates aware. Like, hey, if I have this episode and, you know, I drop something, obviously keep the dog away, but if I'm not holding anything or drop something like, make sure the dog is... is here to respond to whatever it may be. So yeah, there's nuances and everyone's situation is different. But like you said, I think it's just overcoming that barrier of preconceived notions and really prejudices that I think there's a huge issue. People with... or individuals with disabilities, they can and can't do things, right? There’s this whole idea of like oh, when you have a disability, you can't do XYZ. It's actually no. It's not that we can't do it, it's just we need necessary accommodations. But isn't that the point, right? Like, we need to accommodate everybody in this world and... and we're not doing that right now when we exclude huge portions of our population who will have some kind of disability, can be a mental illness, learning disability, physical illness or physical disability, but why are we excluding them? And why are we not giving them the chance? Because, as I argue in my research, in my dissertation, we bring a different perspective. We collectively, as individual disabilities, right? If we approach something from the same perspective, there's nothing that can get done, right? We're solving the problem the same way. And yes, I will get pushed back for saying that. But my biggest example is, in sum, the research shows, and this is not my opinion, right? This is based on the research, STEM is a white male dominant field, right, and I can... I have the research to back it. And initially I was like, oh this is just my perceived conception, right? Or my perceived notions. But then I... I did the research for my dissertation. And no, it's in the data. And if we all approach it from the same perspective, we're not solving problems effectively. But when we have individuals from different perspectives, right, I approach the world differently than someone who may be using a wheelchair, as someone who is visually impaired. If we can all collectively come together to solve problems, then don't you think we'd be able to advance further into society and into the next generation or the next decade, whatever it may be, to... to really keep up with innovation. And so that's... that's a lot of the motivation of... of the work that I... I hope to do. I, you know, with this degree and... and this experience, yeah.
Hannah Rosen: So, so speaking of which, I was wondering, you know, we talk a lot when it comes to accessibility. We talk a lot about the challenges and, you know, the difficulties, and rightly so because we have a long way to go for sure. But I'd also like to hear a little bit about, what are we doing right? What are some of the successes that we're having when it comes to accessibility in the lab. And so I was wondering if maybe you could share an example or two or, you know, however many you have potentially of, you know, instances you've seen where accessibility in the lab has been done properly.
Yujia Ding: Yeah, definitely. So, in terms of accessibility in the lab I have a little bit more limited experience just because I stepped out of the research, but once I stepped out because of the challenges I faced, I mean there was a change of heart. Sort of the, you know, part of the reason why I mastered out of... of my first PhD program because my heart wasn't there. You know one, yeah I was dealing with a lot of chronic conditions and just invisible illnesses, and two, I realized I really liked mentoring high school students. And the research kind of fell off the wayside and... and that's OK, right? Everybody has a change of heart eventually, or you know sometime if they do, it's OK.
So, for me the biggest example is that student that I had with a traumatic brain injury. We didn't have the necessary equipment per se, such as like, ergonomic pipettes for example, but something that she was able to do was she needed more time, she needed more space, right? She needed things laid out for her in a different way, and... and even that little example the... the little accommodation of hey, I need this extra room so I can give my student more space so she can do the assignment, because I can't have everything booked up together, I'd have to have everything laid out for her because the nature of her injury, right? She had to process things differently than maybe myself or another student who didn't have traumatic brain injury. Little things like that, right?
In terms of actual accommodations in the lab, one thing I actually bring up in my dissertation is visual impairment. Why do we have microscopes where people can't actually see through them, right? Why can't we have a bigger screen to magnify what we're looking at through the microscope? And I think this is something that's kind of coming up a little bit more from talks that I've had with individuals who do more of accessibility work, they're starting to see this notion of... of getting more affordable microscopes, or at least recognizing that a microscope doesn't just magnify something. If you're visually impaired, a microscope does nothing for you, right? But the whole purpose of a microscope, yes, to you and I who have relatively normal vision, right, look through the magnifying glass and it's... it's enlarged. For someone with visual impairment, just even looking through the lens of a microscope, they can't focus their eyes, so they can't see what's going on. And this is actually something that a colleague of mine, she has visual impairment, and she was telling me, she was like “I couldn't do my lab work because I couldn't see the microscope well.” An easy fix and something that I think people are noticing is, why don't we just connect an extra screen, right? I read some research on doing the dissertation of recent papers in the past two, three years of students who worked with their principal investigators, or their PIs, in a research lab who were a little bit more on the forefront like, the... of the technology saying, “hey, I need to be able to see this, so what can we do” right, and then so they work together to get this accommodation. Well, what they did was they just projected the image onto a screen. It's a very easy fix right? We all have extra screens, or most of us have extra screens sitting around, like, why not project it onto something and so there is research coming out, right? Anecdotal stories of yes, we can do this.
So that's one thing, and then the other thing that I'm starting to see, at least not... not personally, but definitely in the research, right, in a lot of new labs that are coming through and being designed, are the... the notion of adjustable height lab benches now. Adjustable height has been a thing, sort of in the workspace of like, well, I need to stand more, I need to move around we can't... there are desks, you know, 8 hours a day, that's great. But when we talk about a lab space that's kind of not the norm, right? A lab bench is what, however high it is, but if you're a wheelchair user, or maybe you are someone who has dwarfism for example, right, you can't reach a normal lab bench. So, what do you need to do? Well, we need to be able to adjust the height, right? If you're using a wheelchair, one, you probably can't slide under the bench, right? And... and so, what do we need to do? We need to be able to adjust it, So, those are those are little things that some companies are doing. I'm not saying everybody's there. There is, you know, again, low nuggets here and there. I do think it will take time. A lot of these lab spaces are decades old, so it does take time. Again, it does take money, but I think if the work is being done, if there's enough advocacy around it, I think it becomes the standard, and then when it's the standard then that question of a barrier is removed. Are there other barriers? Most likely. But at least that barrier is not there, right? So... so at least we break down a little bit of the barriers and then we keep chipping away at it so we can have a fully accessible world, which is what I hope to see.
Hannah Rosen: Yeah absolutely. And I was just thinking, you know, when you were talking about the adjustable lab benches. I was thinking back to my days, you know, doing my PhD work, which is the last time I was in the lab, and... and just thinking about spending hours pipetting at a lab bench. And like, the height is just not good for anybody in my opinion like, I remember just being so uncomfortable, hunched over that lab bench. So, I was just thinking man, this is... this would be great for everybody.
Yujia Ding: And... and that's the thing is, you bring up a great point Hannah that when you are using your lab bench, right, you.... I presume right, and obviously let me know, but you're of average height, right, and... and don't necessarily need accommodations. It's painful, right? It is absolutely painful. I have those moments where I've done the same thing as, you're just sitting there pipetting, you know, like gosh, my back hurts, my arm hurt, you know, and... and why not make these accommodations? I mean, there's certain accommodations, or if we make these little changes, everybody benefits. I know one thing universal design for learning, or UDL, that's a huge thing in education, right? Being a K-12 educator, that's something we go to trainings on UDL, UDL, UDL. OK, that's great. Well, what are we doing about it, right? There's a lot of pushback of like, well, I don't want to change the curriculum. I don't want to do this. They're very easy modifications. I'm no expert in universal design for learning, but I do know that it's something that I would love to see more of, right? With more time now that my dissertation is done, I would love to see, how can we make these little changes so everybody benefits, like you said, right? Everybody could benefit from an adjustable height bench because then you bring the bench up to where you need to, so you're not hunched over, right? It's a more ergonomic position for pipetting, for example.
Hannah Rosen: Yeah absolutely, and you know you mentioned, cause I know, especially in academia, a lot of the times I feel like what you come up against, and it's not just with accessibility but with so many things, it's always a money issue. It's always well we... we can't afford this newest thing, you know. A lot of academic labs are still, you know, they're using the same equipment they were using when the lab got started 30 years ago, right? So, you know, you've given some examples, it sounds like a lot of these accommodations though don't necessarily require expensive fancy equipment.
Yujia Ding: Absolutely not. And one thing, this is from my... again from my dissertation, I guess it's on my mind, so a lot of it's research that I have with the accommodations, right? One of the pieces of research that I found was actually how much it costs to provide an accommodation. And this is something that I guess I'll pose this to you right, how much do you think it costs an employer to provide an accommodation for an individual disability, just... just generally speaking, how much do you think it costs?
Hannah Rosen: That would be hard, because I know that it would depend on the disability but...
Yujia Ding: Ballpark. Let's just say someone maybe who uses a wheelchair or, yeah, let's just use the wheelchair example. How much do you think that cost?
Hannah Rosen: Let's say a couple thousand dollars.
Yujia Ding: Cool. So you're actually giving more and more generous estimates. Some people I talked to in the process of writing my dissertation said 10,000, some people said it was like 5000 a year. I will tell you this from the job accommodation network, and I'm happy to share this research. The survey was, I would say it was published in like 2020. So, kind of done ahead of time roughly 1,030 companies, around there, were surveyed. One time cost, right, one time, cost the average, and again this is an average, right, because it's like, you said it's very hard to determine, you know, each combination, one time cost is $500 for the accommodation. Now, I think... I want to say like 1% of the companies of the 1,000 something that were surveyed, 1% had a one-time cost and a recurring cost. And then 4% I think, said they had, I want to say like a one-time cost of 500 average, and then, maybe my numbers are a little skewed here, but, you know, very much like more than half said they cost nothing. And then I think like... like I said 4%, I want to say was a one-time cost, and I want to say 1% was, you know, one-time cost and a recurring cost, and I can, you know, verify those numbers for you. Point being, it's not that much. And then on top of that, the survey showed that more than 90% of the respondents felt an increase in company culture, felt that they learned something new, that they benefitted from this different perspective.
It doesn't hurt much and... and that's the one thing I always get is well, it costs a lot to retrofit something. Yes, that's absolutely true. It costs a lot to retrofit something, but I don't think it costs that much to put in at least one adjustable lab bench, right? And if it's just one, well, at least then we can accommodate someone, and.... and why not? When we retrofit labs, like you said, and some labs are 30 years old, right, when we retrofit, why not incorporate that design into the retrofitting? Why not say, OK, well, you need to add a new lab bench, why not put one that's adjustable height, right? Why not? When we look at lab equipment, why not consider how do we get a screen to project the image from the microscope onto the screen that doesn't cost $30,000? I mean, I’m no tech expert, but realistically thinking, and with our computers, you plug in a USB and then it connects to another screen, right? Couldn't we put a USB on a microscope and somehow put a camera and then that camera products onto a screen? Isn't that a pretty simple fix? I mean, again, I'm no tech expert, but putting two and two together, I think someone could come up with that. Maybe... maybe I should patent that. Like, you know, what I'm saying is... is these little fixes, ergonomic pipettes, right, how about a pipette that is automatic, where it maybe if you're visually impaired it reads out uh, the volume to you, right? If you're hard of hearing then why don't we have like, silent alarms for like, the minus 80? Little things like that, that people don't necessarily think of. And... and so it's something that was really enlightening when I was doing my research, there's a lot of these little things that, you know, I... I'm not hard of hearing, I'm not visually impaired, but I thought of a lot of these things, and when I started talking with other researchers they're like, you considered these? I was like, why not? Like... and people don't think about. That, and I think, maybe I'm going on a tangent here, but one thing that I do want to bring up and... and that's something that people don't think of, is colorblind. So, like, color blindness is not necessarily a disability, but so many things in science is red, green, right? Red, green channels on a western blot, how many westerns have I done in my life? All red, green, red, green, red, green. You’re red-green color blind, you can't do that experiment, and nobody thinks about that. I mean I talked to so many educators, and they're like, well, my student couldn't do the labrador paternity lab that we had for, you know, DNA gels and... and the student wouldn't do it, and I couldn't figure out why. Well, the student was color blind. They couldn't tell their colors. You know, little things like that. So why can't pharmaceutical companies put a different source of protein? I mean genetic engineering, right? You can make a fluorescent protein, it's not that difficult with the technology these days to just modify the sequence and get purple or pink or something like that. So, little things like that where we don't think about it. We... what we think about it as like, collectively we as like, a society, like, that's a lot of money. But really, in the long run it probably saves more money because the research shows individuals with disabilities who are of working capacity, they actually pull from the government funds, right? They... they have to get these disability waivers and things like that, that they're actually pulling resources where they could be giving back. And to the contrary of what people think, individuals with disabilities want to work, right, as long as they're capable of contributing, they want to contribute, so they're actually giving back to society rather than pulling from resources, that most of them that I know, and I'm not speaking for everybody, but the friends that I know who have some sort of indivisible condition or a disability, they want to work, but they struggle to find that job because of all these barriers.
Hannah Rosen: Yeah, I mean, and it... it's awful that this may be the situation as it stands but, I mean, do you think that, unfortunately, right now some of the onus is on the individuals with disabilities to come into a work or an academic situation and know what those... what accommodations are available and to be prepared for that push back, for somebody to say, well, that's gonna be too expensive, and for them to then be able to say no, here's what it's actually gonna cost, and it's really actually not as expensive as you think.
Yujia Ding: 110,000% Hannah, you touched on a great point that I look at in my research. One thing that you mentioned was individuals disabilities going into the workplace, right? What I... what I have found is, it doesn't even start at the workplace, it starts from the transition from K-12 to college. What happens is in K-12 education, right, public schools, we're just talking to traditional public school here in the United States, and again, I'm not looking at any other country. In the United States itself, in K-12 you have your special education teacher, you have probably an advocate or some kind of liaison at your school that helps you with your paperwork, that helps you get those accommodations for your IEP, or individualized education plan, meeting or your 504 plan meeting. Somebody is helping you with this, right? Your guidance councilor or your parents, somebody is getting all this paperwork for you. And as a child, you don't understand that, right? But as you get into high school, you've probably been in enough of these meetings that you go OK, I know what accommodations work, I know what doesn’t, now have, you know, our annual review etcetera, etcetera.
However, once they leave that K-12 space, it's like falling off a cliff. I mean I hate that analogy, but that's what it is. You get to college as an individual with a disability, doesn't matter if it's a physical disability or a learning disability. Whatever it is, and it... and you are on your own. And this is probably more probable in... in learning disabilities than in maybe someone with a physical condition. But even then, right, even if you had like visual impaired or hard of hearing, it's still hard to speak up, right? Because you don't look like you have the disability, right? These like, invisible conditions, or even someone who's diabetic, type 1 diabetics, something you don't look as if you have that. So, what happens is you have to go advocate you as a student with disabilities, have to go advocate for yourself. Now, advocating for yourself in college is hard enough as it is, or just somebody who wants to, I don't know, get a ticket to a football game, that's already hard enough as it is, right? Now, imagine if you have... maybe you’re on the spectrum and you have some, maybe learning disability or communication struggles. And now you have to go talk to someone in this office where you're like, “oh my gosh, I've never done this before. I'm 18 living away from home for the first time.” I mean, I would be like OK, no, we're just gonna tough it out. We're just gonna tough it out these four years and... and hope I don't fail or hope I don't need an accommodation and we'll just suck it up, right? That's what a lot of students do and... and the data shows that... is that, by the time they get to college, they don't speak up because they're afraid of the stigma and that gets, you know, highlighted even more instead, where it's like, oh you, you have a disability, you can't get a higher degree because you have a disability, right? And this stigma is like, Oh well, OK, now I can't let people know I have accommodation, so I need to suck it up and I need to just... So then what happens, as we get to year 2, sophomore year, and now you're taking upper division classes by your junior year. You're like wow, I can't... I can't do my lab work because I can't... I can't see the paper, I need a large text and I can't see because I'm visually impaired. Well, I guess I can't do STEM because I can't see the microscope, right? And then they drop out, right, and not only do they drop out of STEM specifically, which is the research that I did, umm, or the focus of my work, they drop out of college completely. I mean it... just... they just... they just drop out and they get discouraged and then... and then we get into the cycle of like OK, well now I can't advocate for myself and... and I didn't finish my degree and... and all these different barriers.
And so, it's not even that people don't understand the accommodation. Yes, that is a huge component, right? It's a huge component of like, what is an accommodation? What does it look like? But another piece of the puzzle is, individuals with disabilities don't have the ability to advocate for themselves at 18 because it's literally like, you learn to walk and then all of a sudden you're like OK, well, now you need to go do high jump and you haven't learned how to jump, right? You don't know any of the steps, and you're going from walking to a high jump. And you're like, how do I even get there, right? It's... it's a step by step process. So why at 18... right now I use 18 as like the... the average, you know, high school graduation age, right, you had all this support. Well, why don't... why doesn't your file get go with you? Why does it just drop off the face of the Earth? I mean, that's what it is, right? It, just it just drops off and... and you don't have it with you. And then you, as an 18 year old, have to go “well, I need to go see this doctor and this” because if you move out of state, for example, you need another doctor evaluation, all these things. Why can't we support students, because then we give them the courage to be able to advocate for themselves, and then we can slowly pull back the reins, right? I mean, isn't that how we all do it? We start with training wheels and then we take off our training wheels, right? So... so, why not start there, right? Like, why not give them a little bit more support, because that's a big piece of the puzzle, and then yes, like you said, not knowing your accommodations. Well, I think when I push back on that, because I think if a student with disabilities is able to advocate for themselves, then they know their accommodation, then they can speak up, and then they can advocate by the time they get to their employers. So we, you know, there's a couple of pieces here, but definitely understanding accommodations is one, but also that advocacy piece which yes, we need to have our students advocate for ourselves. But we also, as a society, need to better support them in this transition, because if we're not supporting anyone in any transition we're doing... we're not doing anyone any good.
Hannah Rosen: Yeah, definitely. Do you think... does it seem to you, especially, you know, with your work and with your experiences as a faculty member, you know, did it... does it seem like we're making steps towards getting... helping with this transition and making it easier? Does it seem like... did it seem like other faculty were... especially perhaps, after seeing your success with your student, becoming a little bit more open minded to adopting some of these accommodations and helping students with this transition?
Yujia Ding: Umm, I... I will say I'm not sure, because after that year COVID hit. Uh, so we were all out of the lab or out of... out of school and I had moved out of state, so I'm not quite sure. That's actually a really good thing I could probably follow up with my student. I will say, talking with that specific student that I referenced earlier, I do know that they were able to better have more confidence, so they were able to better advocate for themselves. So, while I don't know the story from like, the faculty side or professors they had, I know that student gained more confidence to advocate for herself and... and to really... to get to that piece. So... so, maybe that's two fold, right? Maybe you have to have a teacher who's there to support you and to say, “hey, you can do this. Let me... let me give you the confidence” and then that will perpetuate itself in other classes, and then maybe that will show other faculty. But I can't really speak to that, only because one, that was the summer before COVID and then I moved out of state. But I will say, as you know, I... I work as adjunct faculty at community college and I also teach, you know, K-12, specifically high school students. What I do see is that there's a lot of fear in my students with those IEPs and 504s of like, what do I do when I graduate? I mean, I can tell you where to go, I can... well, you... you know, here's an e-mail, but I can't... my hands are tied. I can't do anything beyond that because again, their file doesn't go with them. Some of them just say, “well, I mean, if I can't get my accommodation then I guess I just won't go to college” and it's like no, no, no you can, here's the resources, I'll help you craft the e-mail, but again, my hands are tied because I can only do so much as their, you know, high school teacher.
Hannah Rosen: Yeah, I mean, so what... what changes would you like to see? You know, does this... would this require, you know, like, legislative action to make, you know, change the laws, or do you think that there's something that, you know, we can do at a lower level to kind of help students with this transition from K-12 into higher education?
Yujia Ding: It's a really good question. I don't think... well, I shouldn't say I don't think, I know I didn't delve into the legislative side as much, only because there's so much to talk about, right? My dissertation is focused on making STEM accessible and what we can do, you know, through the lab space or accommodations, right? And yes, there are federal legislation, right, Section 504, ADA, IDEA, which is the individual Disabilities Education Act, and all these three acts, the... the main three, they govern a little bit different pieces. So, I don't want to quote myself here and misquote myself, but you know 504 and ADA I want to say are the two similar ones, that IDEA, the IDEA Act, is a little bit more geared towards like K-12. Now, what the nuances are in terms of, you know, health information, right, that's protected by HIPAA. We all... we all are aware of that, there's nothing in the legislation, at least from what I did my research, and maybe I do need to do more digging, but from what I saw there's nothing that says we can't transfer that paperwork, right? There's... there's nothing that I saw on, you know, the kind of the surface level that says a student can't take their own information and... and take it with them. Have I read accounts of students trying to access that information? Yes, I've read anecdotal accounts which I can't verify, right. What I can say, I've read articles and I've read stories of students trying to access their own medical information and being told by their K-12, you know, school “well, we can't give that to you.” OK, well then, I don't know. I... and I told you like, I... I don't... I can't verify that because I read the story, right. So, is there more digging to do? Absolutely, right? Is this something I want to look into? Absolutely. Now, obviously with the dissertation is... is you're probably well aware, you can't cover everything at once, right? So, I... I had to choose something to focus on, but do I think legislative action is something that can get widespread change, absolutely. Do I think it's necessary for accessibility to be on the forefront of this conversation of making change and... and more inclusivity for individuals with disabilities? Absolutely. How I get there, I have no idea. I don't have a law degree. Someone suggested to me I should go get a law degree, but after being in school for like, 25 years, I was like, maybe not. So... but definitely yes, I... I... I think there are widespread changes, and also local changes that can be done, I... it's just I can't really be one to speak on that, you know, specifically. Obviously just time and... and lack of expertise.
Hannah Rosen: Yeah no, absolutely, I appreciate that. So I'm curious, you know, what do you see as the future of accessibility in STEM and, you know, what are you hoping to achieve in this field going forward?
Yujia Ding: I want I... I want everybody to try STEM, and... and here is the thing I tell, not only my students, but the kids that I coach, you know, at the rock climbing gym where I work part time, where the kids that I see doing whatever activity that I'm... I'm dabbling in this particular weekend. I tell them don't tell me no if you've never tried. You can't tell me no, no. If you try, and you try a couple of times, you're like, “yeah, I don't like it”, fine, don't do it. But I think part of the issue is we're not even getting kids a chance to try, right? Because “oh well, you... you can't hold the pipette, I guess you can't do the experiment.” Now, no, we need to find a way to let them hold the pipette and let them try whatever the experiment is, and if they still don't like it then we can say OK, let's try something else. So my goal is... is to really start from, you know, let's... let's go way back, right, K-12, we're talking like K through three, four, through six lower grades. What can we do there to allow for kids to explore? My thing is, and... and... and maybe I'll get pushback from, you know, hardcore scientists, but I think STEM is everywhere. I mean, STEM is... is not necessarily a science, technology, engineering, mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology, right? STEM is a way of thinking. STEM is a critical thinking skill, so there's inquiry, there's critical inquiry and everything that you do, whether it's looking at a piece of art, or looking at architecture, or looking at how to combine colors, or designing a space, whatever it is, there's critical thinking, so we need to teach those critical thinking skills, right, and then let them apply these critical thinking skills.
So my goal is yes, I looked at STEM and accessibility because that's what I know. That's my training, that's my background, and then I have that lived experience with accessibility. But my goal is to... to break down all barriers so kids can try everything, right? Whether it's STEM related, whether it's social sciences related, whether it's physical activity, I don't care what it is. I want to have a world where I don't have students telling me I can't do it because I've been told no, right? When I first started in K-12 I had a student who had visual impairment, and this student had failed their previous science classes. And the only reason why they failed was because the teacher wasn't accommodating them, and so they were in my class because they had to retake the class. And I sat down with a student, I... I observed for a couple of weeks, and I was like, “hey, bud, why are you sitting here? Why, you know, why aren't you engage?” and he goes “I... I'm embarrassed to use my accommodations. I'm embarrassed to have enlarged font, I'm embarrassed” and I was like, “why are you embarrassed?” and he told me, he was like “because my past teachers, you know, made, not necessarily made fun of me, but just weren't accommodating. They... they weren't patient with me.” And I... I had a frank conversation with him. I was like, “so, you... you know, frankly put it, you can hide the fact that you have a visual impairment” and he goes “yes, I agree.” And I go, “I can't hide my 75-pound Labrador. How do you think that makes me feel?” And he goes “ohhhhh”. And so for him, the first time he passed the science class was second semester of that year. The first time, like, kind of almost a years, because he was able to say, “there's nothing to hide, right? Miss Ding can't... can't hide her dog, so I'm going to go sit with my aid”. And then he started sitting with his aid and he started using the enlarged print and then he started talking in group work. I mean, it was such a drastic change.
But I hate seeing... seeing my students in that position where they're like, “well, I've been told no, so I'm not going to”. No let's... let's break down these barriers, let's give everybody a chance. And again, if you don't like it, you don't like it. I'm not going to force you to do anything you don't like, but we have to give you that chance to say, do you want to try, right? Can you try this? What can we do to remove all obstacles so you can, full faith, give it a try, and then you can tell me yes or no? Because that, I think, will reduce this stigma. One, right, the stigma of having any kind of disability, and then two, gives student with disability, is the courage to say, let's try it. Let me try again. Let me try this thing or let me... let me come up with a unique solution to my accommodations, right? What works for me? Because the other piece of the puzzle is, accommodations are not one-size-fits-all, contrary to what people will tell you. No, every accommodation is different. My visual impairment versus person B’s visual impairment versus person C is going to be completely different, even if we have the same diagnosis because our needs are different, right? As an example, whether there's an impairment, everybody has a different unique need, so why not let the individual with the disability advocate for themselves? But in order to get there, we have to create a space where everybody feels welcome to try and try and try again. And I always tell my kids, failure is not, not doing it well, right, to fail is the first attempt in learning, right? The acronym FAIL, First Attempt In Learning. And... and while, well, we probably seen these posters and like, you know, inspirational posts and stuff, I... I firmly believe that, I mean, to fail is not to stop trying. I played softball my whole life, and maybe this is another tangent I'm going on, but softball was probably my biggest life lesson in how to accept failure, because being a 300 hitter, which means you're successful on base 3 out of 10 times is a fantastic batting average in softball, baseball, but that's failing in every other aspect of life, right, 3 out fo 10, any other time you're like, “oh my gosh, that's terrible”, right? Anybody in academia is like “3 out of 10, ohh there, that's not good”. But people make millions of dollars playing baseball and have a 300 batting average in their career, right? And that's what I like to liken it to is, there are places to try and not succeed. As long as you're learning from that, then we can move forward. And... and part of that is giving individuals with disabilities specifically the chance to say, “oh, I tried and it didn't work, but I'm going to get up and try again because nobody's holding me back” because right now it's “oh, I tried and there's a barrier, OK I'm done trying” and that's not fair. Not fair to you, not... not fair to the individual with the disability.
Hannah Rosen: Yeah, well, I think it, I mean, that's just a fantastic point. And I think that you've put it in a way that is... just really kind of is great because it gives us all a solid foundation of... of action, of what to do is just to give people the freedom to try things and make mistakes and try something else and move on from there, which is something that I think, you know, we... it's... it's... it's a privilege that we give to some and not to others. So, I think that yeah, the idea is almost to just, yeah, give people with disabilities the same opportunities and freedoms that we give people without disabilities.
Yujia Ding: I mean, and... and we can argue everybody has some kind of quirk, right? And maybe some is, it's a medical condition, and others it’s “I just don't like the color black”. OK, cool that's great, but... but don't we accommodate that? Like, isn't there a reason why there's clothes in every single color, right? Because if we all... they didn't have that accommodation, we'd all be wearing like, black all the time, for example, right? Like, that's the first color that popped in my mind, but... but the idea of being like, we all have some quirk, right, some... some kind of quirk, indifference. So, why not do that in... in a scale that's actually, I venture to say, more important, right? Supporting all individuals of all abilities versus just choosing a color to wear, right? Like, I mean, that's not apples to apples, but point being, right, like, why, why are we doing that, right? Like, why aren't we giving individuals with disabilities an option to be able to advocate for themselves and... and have the... the courage, right? It's not even about not being able to advocate, it's about having the courage to try and having the space to say, “OK, this accommodation didn't work. So, what do I need to do next”, right? It's... it's not about running into this wall and saying, “well, I tried this accommodation, it didn't work and then I was told no”, because I can't tell you how many times I've heard stories that “oh well, the student tried this accommodation and it didn't work for them, so we just closed the book and moved on”. No, we have to try again. We have to work with the student to say “OK, well this didn't work, how can we modify this”, right? We have to do that work and yes, it takes time. But once we do it more and more, it becomes natural and then you start to see well, I'm going to do that with everybody, right? It... it's not... it's not even gonna take your time, it's just part of observing your classroom culture, it's part of getting to know your students, it's part of being open to having the difficult conversations and having a a growth mindset. And, you know, like, having a growth mindset to say “yes, I want to learn, your accommodation may never be used ever again, but the process of getting there will help me in the future. And then maybe I'll get ideas to help another student. While you may not have the same accommodations, but I've been through this process so we can have a conversation and I can support you”. Because not everybody has lived through the conditions that individuals with disabilities have, but I think everybody can sympathize and everybody can be an advocate and be a supporter and say, “OK, well, I can't have this lived experience, how can I support you?” Right, and... and one final thought here, I know I'm like, rambling a little bit, but my favorite example when I talk to students is, do you know somebody with type one diabetes? Probably a lot of people know someone or once removed, right? Well, what can we do? I mean, that's an easy example because I talk about bioengineering and... and genetic engineering with my students, and how insulin was made, right? Because that's part of the content of my class. Well, OK, that's great. So why can't we apply that principle, where we all probably know someone or know someone who knows someone, right? Why can't we apply that? Because we've sympathized, so why can't we apply that principle to someone in a wheelchair, or someone with a learning disability, or mental illness, right? Because that's part of the... the puzzle is not dismissing them that they can't do anything, and giving them the chance to... to contribute in a way that they can, that works for them, and that is supportive of... of the individual disability.
Hannah Rosen: Well, unfortunately we're just about out of time here, but Yujia, thank you so much for joining us today. I mean, it's been a really fantastic conversation and one that I hope, as with all of these discussions around accessibility, that we can keep going long after this podcast has ended.
Yujia Ding: So, thank you. Definitely, yeah, thank you so much for having me on and I... I think this is a great conversation. I hope it sparks some discussion. I'd love to connect with listeners and... and really be supportive of... of this work, because like I said before, you know, like, I... I truly believe this work needs to be done and it needs to be done in a way that everybody can benefit. And I think part of that is is starting the conversation. We're having those hard conversations, and I think this is this podcast series is a great start to that.