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Dr Katherine Deane on making science labs accessible to all

Image described in caption
In a brightly lit room with big windows overlooking leafy green trees outside, a group of young people wearing white lab coats and safety glasses are sat on one side of a desk, looking enthusiastically at a person on the opposite side of the desk, who is also wearing a white lab coat and safety glasses. This person has short brown hair, uses a power wheelchair and appears to be demonstrating something sciencey, dipping an item in a cylindrical glass object.

Equal Lives shared a guest blog back in February, encouraging our members and the wider disability community to participate in the Access All Areas in Labs survey, which the University of East Anglia had produced, to formulate a set of comprehensive, universal guidelines on creating an accessible lab workplace for those will all kinds of disabilities. Following the publishing of these guidelines, which focused on the key areas; structural access, equipment access, protocol access, dissemination access and general working practices, we updated the blog to direct visitors to them.

It is our pleasure to have Dr Katherine Deane, Associate Professor & Access Ambassador, UEA, speaking at our Annual General Meeting (AGM) later this month, and we felt it only right to re-share her guest blog.


Back in 1998 when I acquired my disability, I was working in a university research lab. My colleagues and I automatically assumed that disability was incompatible with working in a lab, and I shifted my research out of the labs as a result. No one I knew (and that included me) was aware of the Disability Discrimination Act. Even if I had known of my rights, health and safety concerns would have trumped my right to stay working in a lab.

But times have moved on, technology in particular has expanded the capacity of disabled researchers to work in lab environments. However, I know that as a wheelchair user there are a significant proportion of labs that still have steps in them, insufficient space for me to work safely, and many other barriers. Needless to say, this impacts on the number of scientists working whilst disabled. Whilst over one in five people of working age have a disability, only around 4% of academics working in science, technology, engineering or maths is disabled. That’s a massive gap, a massive lost opportunity of thinking, experience and expertise.

So when I was asked to advise on the creation of a “universal design” lab to showcase access solutions I was incredibly excited. The funder, Cell Therapy Catapult Ltd are funded by the government to promote innovation and enterprise in pharmaceutical research. They found it challenging to find anyone who could advise them on how to design a lab that was as accessible as possible to disabled researchers. So many of the people involved in designing and building these facilities have no knowledge, no confidence and no clue where to start. So as well as designing the lab, I am running a research project to identify the access barriers and solutions to working in labs, and create a set of access guidelines. These will include how to adapt lab protocols, equipment, working practices, training, and culture to ensure maximum accessibility.

The Access All Areas in Labs survey is open to anyone who is disabled and has worked (now or in the past) in laboratories, manufacturing and production lines, engineering facilities or who has an interest in access in these environments. By “disabled” we mean people who are disabled, D/deaf, have long term health conditions (both physical and mental), have long term injuries, or who are neurodivergent. The survey closed at 6pm on Friday February 24, 2023.

It does appear that this is a project whose time has come. We have had interest in the guidelines from research funders, universities, lab designers, equipment manufacturers, and disability advocates. We hope the guidelines will enable a shift from well-meant mission statements to actual practices that build disability access into all aspects of research.


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