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How can labs become more accessible?

Image: University of East Anglia

New project aims to make science facilities more hospitable to disabled researchers, says Katherine Deane

When people walk into a building, they assume they will be able to open doors, use stairs to get to the next level and go to the toilet when needed. Unfortunately, disabled people cannot make these assumptions in many buildings, even modern ones.

Buildings that house technical facilities such as laboratories are often even more inaccessible. This lack of access means there are too few disabled scientists in labs today. While about one in five working-age adults has a disability, only about 4 per cent of UK academics working in science, technology, engineering and maths are disabled.

To do something to redress that imbalance, I’m leading a project called Access All Areas in Labs, aimed at understanding the barriers that disabled scientists face and how labs can be made more accessible. The project’s first phase is an online survey, running until 24 February. If you are a disabled scientist who has worked in a laboratory, now or in the past, or you have an interest in making labs accessible, we would love to hear from you.

Overlooked diversity

As a wheelchair-using researcher in healthcare, I know that I design my research very differently. I make sure I have information sheets in accessible formats; I provide videos with British Sign Language interpreters to explain the project; I budget for higher travel costs for any wheelchair-using participants.

I know a lot about disability—enough to know that I always need lay advisers to make sure I tailor my projects to fit the patients I’m working with. All of this improves recruitment and retention of research participants, as well as the relevance and quality of my data. For much research, though, the lack of accommodations for this often-overlooked aspect of diversity has the opposite effect.

Scientists who are deaf, disabled or have long-term illnesses should be able to work in laboratory settings. Some solutions may be simple, such as a contrasting-colour fascia for a power socket that helps a visually impaired scientist find where to plug in their equipment, or a fire alarm that uses both audible and visual signals.

Some accommodations are a bit more complex, but address very basic needs. Scientists who have limited mobility and who need to use incontinence pads often have to compromise their safety and dignity by lying on a toilet floor to have their pads changed. The solution is an accessible toilet with a bench and hoist. Over a quarter of a million people in the UK need such facilities.

Our project aims to look at every aspect of laboratory science to find out how to adapt furniture, equipment, working practices, training, protocols and culture to ensure maximum accessibility. We also want to find out how to ensure consultations, conferences, publications and web pages are accessible.

The results will feed into a set of access guidelines covering all aspects of working in laboratory settings. We hope to persuade funding councils, universities, pharmaceutical companies and others to use these guidelines to enhance disability access.

Katherine Deane is access ambassador at the University of East Anglia, Norwich

A version of this article appeared in Research Fortnight