- According to The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEM, a 2019 consensus study report by the NASEM, mentorship is a catalyst capable of unleashing one’s potential for discovery and participation in STEM.
- Fact sheets from the World Health Organization (WHO) 2023 estimate that a total of 1.3 billion people have at least one disability.
- Unique challenges can be overcome when educational institutions, employers, and national organizations work with mentees and mentors to create a friendly mentorship ground.
Professionals living with disabilities and working in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields face not only physical and psychological challenges but also attitudinal challenges.
However, the challenges do not sprout in the workplace; rather, from the start, when an individual living with a disability takes up a course in STEM.
National government organizations, as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have come up with different solutions to cure this problem at the root.
Prof. Edmund Asiedu of the National Disability Mentoring Coalition (NDMC) suggests fostering mentorship as a strategy for tackling barriers that these individuals face.
“Mentors play crucial roles from being role models to helping mentees (STEM professionals with disabilities) solve workplace challenges,” Prof. Asiedu noted in a virtual session.
The session, the third of a five-part series by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), played a critical element in Disrupting Ableism and Advancing STEM by fostering mentorship in this ecosystem.
Mentorship key to a robust ecosystem
According to The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEM, a 2019 consensus study report by the NASEM, mentorship is a catalyst capable of unleashing one’s potential for discovery and participation in STEM.
Dr. Melissa McDaniels, a co-investigator with the National Research Mentoring Network and a panelist in the virtual session, termed mentorship as a professional working alliance in which the mentee gets career and psychological support.
“Successful mentorships are characterized with outcomes such as identity affirmation of people with disabilities, sense of belonging, productivity and career satisfaction,” she said.
On his part, Prof. Asiedu acknowledged the important roles mentors play in advancing STEM and enhancing better approaches to ableism among professionals with disabilities.
“Most a time, the mentor is at a level where the mentee wants to be, therefore crucial in career guidance,” he said.
Prof. Asiedu clarified that the mentor does not necessarily need to have a disability so as to be a good mentor to a person with disabilities.
“It is the role of the mentee to find the best mentor for them. However, the mentor should have the same expectations for mentees with disabilities as they would for those without,” he stated.
Further, he recognized national mentoring organizations such as the Mentor and the National Disability Mentoring Coalition (NDMC) for raising awareness and expanding opportunities for young people by building a mentoring field.
Amie Sankoh broke all barriers after she became the first deaf, black woman to receive a doctorate in any STEM discipline (Biochemistry) on May 20, 2023.
Ms. Sankoh was born and raised in Sierra Leonne. Unfortunately, at the age of 3, she lost her hearing and was relocated to the United States with the hope for better treatment.
“I am very proud for persisting and very happy that I am able to inspire the next generation of deaf scientists so they can see their potential,” Ms. Sankoh discloses in an interview with Chemistry World news.
BBC’s feature of the deafblind doctor Alexandra Adams is also a success story of PWDs embracing STEM despite the many hurdles they encounter.
Ms. Adams relies on a Bluetooth stethoscope connected to her hearing aids and relies on touch to feel for the veins of her patients.
Fact sheets from the World Health Organization (WHO) 2023 estimate that a total of 1.3 billion people have at least one disability which accounts for 10 percent of the total world population.
Mainstreaming disability through providing resources to learners, implementing disability-related policies, and establishing structures and strategies that accommodate people of all ages living with disabilities is important in the development agenda.
Agendas of PWDs can be mainstreamed by increasing their inclusivity and enhancing accessibility.
In a tweet, Prof. Asiedu terms accessibility as including PWDs in opportunities and treating them as we would people without disabilities.
“Accessibility is not only about getting access in and out of a building, bus or store. Creating access for people with disabilities means we are seen, we are included, we matter, and we deserve inclusive opportunities just like those without disabilities,” he states on his Twitter profile.
Home-based findings, way forward
Closer home, the 2019 population census shows that 0.9 million Kenyans live with a disability.
This accounts for 2.2 percent of Kenyans, with women with disabilities being 0.6% more than men, which sets the ground unleveled for opportunities, particularly in STEM.
Nonetheless, STEM has been included in the overall national agenda and has been well embraced by critical stakeholders and inclusion of learners has been a distinctive agenda for the government.
The recently implemented Competency Based Curriculum (CBC) Framework emphasizes the importance of STEM as an education pathway and all-round support to learners with disability.
In a report, White Paper on Expanding Opportunities for Girls with Disabilities Through Mentorship in STEM, The Action Foundation (TAF), tasked to help close the gaps in opportunities for people living with disabilities in STEM, noted that schools that cater to students with disabilities are not accommodated in national government directives.
“The Centre for Mathematics, Science and Technology Education in Africa (CEMASTEA) was tasked by the Ministry of Education to transform one secondary school in each county into a STEM model school. The implementation of this directive did not accommodate secondary schools that cater to students with disabilities…,” part of the report stated.
While the most critical interventions to the problem were infrastructural investments and teacher capacity enhancement, the project realized that STEM Mentorship for young people with disabilities was crucial.
The TAF project called to action for involved bodies to create opportunities for exposure to STEM-related careers for young people living with disabilities through job shadows and careers.
Educational institutions, employers, national organizations
The intersectional identities such as economic status, location, and type of disability, among others, are a basis for the challenges facing people with disability.
Dr. McDaniels notes the challenges that exist for individuals with disabilities, especially when fostering effective mentorship.
“Access to networks, lack of mentors with similar lived experiences and underrepresentation of people with disabilities in education and work,” she listed.
She explained that not all mentoring relationships lead to positive outcomes but rather negative mentorship experiences, which are barriers to a successful mentorship.
However, these unique challenges can be overcome when educational institutions, employers, and national organizations work with mentees and mentors to create a friendly mentorship ground.
Prof. Asiedu noted that the greatest role the national organizations can partake in is to create awareness and inclusivity.
He advised educational institutions and employers to publicize and create programs around National Disability Mentoring Day, which is very significant but barely known around the world.
“Broader conversations about inclusive mentoring using data, creating mentoring awards, and providing reasonable accommodation to PWDs are among the major roles that employers can play to build a robust mentoring ecosystem,” he added.
Prof. Asiedu also urged mentors and employers to educate themselves on disability etiquette to make interactions with PWDs easy.
According to him, different people living with disabilities prefer to be identified differently.
“Some prefer person-first language, this means that they are more comfortable being identified by what they are before the disability while others are comfortable with an identity-first language which includes mentioning their disability first and then who they are, for example, a deaf doctor,” he explained.
Disability etiquette enhances trust and disclosure.
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Prof. Asiedu urges PWDs to know their abilities and limits as awareness of one’s disability precedes everything and exclusively in complimenting oneself with knowledge and resources within STEM.