In Fall 2016, AIChE’s ChemEs with Disabilities Task Force, an offshoot of the Institute’s Societal Impact Operating Council, extended its outreach across professional disciplines at a Disability Unity Community Convocation. The event, held on November 15 at AIChE’s 2016 Annual Meeting in San Francisco, CA, set out to raise awareness within the AIChE community regarding the professional needs and unique contributions of people with disabilities.
The program was supported by a grant from the AIChE Foundation and featured chemical engineers, chemists, and others who presented thoughtful insights and candid personal anecdotes about their experiences living and working with disabilities. They also described the associated unique abilities that arise within people living with disabilities.
Chris Pope, a chemical engineering consultant and independent researcher, and founder of AIChE’s ChemEs with Disabilities Taskforce, organized the program. In addition to Pope, speakers included Bill Byers, retired Vice President and Technology Fellow at CH2M, and AIChE’s 2004 President; John Johnston, a food toxicologist at the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, and Chair of the American Chemical Society’s Chemists with Disabilities Committee; Cathy Kudlick, Professor of History at San Francisco State University; Ashley Neybert, a chemist and Curriculum Specialist at Independence Science; and Henry (Hoby) Wedler, an organic chemist and recent PhD recipient at the University of California, Davis.
Cathy Cudlick, who directs the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State, discussed two competing views of disability — the medical model and the social model — that shape people’s perceptions of disabled people, and proposed for consideration the iconic image of a battle-scared pirate.
“When we fail to interpret understand the peg-legged, eye-patch-wearing pirate as a disability action figure, it’s because we’re shaped by the medical pathology model of disability. And yet, a pirate, historically, is portrayed as a dynamic figure that functions fine -- and in no way would a pirate inspire pity. You never think, ‘poor Captain Hook.’"
She also reflected on disabled chemical engineers as innovators. “We with disabilities, by necessity, have to size up our environments, and figure out different ways to work around a system that’s not made for us. Talk about a perfect recipe for innovation!”
Reflecting on Louis Pasteur, Cudlick theorized that the microbiologist’s severe vision impairment shaped his ability to view the world on a small scale — as tiny particles in relation to a whole system. “In this way,” Cudlick said, “I think that Pasteur was a great scientist not despite his disability but precisely because of it.”
Hoby Wedler, a blind chemist and sensory scientist, reflected on the nature of disabilities, and suggested that all people, in one way or another, are less able than others. “All of us have different ways of looking at problems, or different ways of doing those things that we’re less good at,” said Wedler. “It all boils down to developing tools to achieve results differently — and to achieve, sometimes, the same results in a slightly different fashion.” He added, “It doesn’t really matter, the means in which you go about solving a problem, as long as a solution is approachable and intelligent and useable.”
Wedler also agreed with the other panelists when he said that, for disabled people, “there are abilities that we gain by having to think about things, and having to do things, differently.”
John Johnson explained how the stutter that he dealt with as a young student helped prepare him for his life in science. Because of his stutter, says Johnson, “when the teacher called on me, you’d better believe that I wanted my answer to be as short and concise as possible. So, I perfected going from point A to point B to point C as efficiently as possible. I think that serves me well as a scientist.” Similarly, Johnson says that his stuttering impelled him to become an intent listener — in order to avoid having to ask clarifying questions in the classroom. In these ways, Johnson suggested, “having a disability has in some way given me some unique abilities.”
Byers, who experienced a disabling injury in 2004, credits his affiliation with AIChE — and the friendships and profession connection he’d established there — with helping him to regain his footing and reenter the chemical engineering community. Today, as a member of AIChE’s Disability Task Force, Byers said, “It would be my dream that AIChE can help chemical engineers with disabilities find a professional home, like the one I’ve had in AIChE throughout my career. For those people, knowing that the profession, as represented by the Institute, supports them in whatever unique way will help them to be a more fulfilled professional, and allow them to step past their disabilities and enter the profession fully and ably.”
“Anyone can become disabled at any time,” says Chris Pope, who found his chronic health problems worsening while completing his chemical engineering doctorate at MIT. In describing his particular challenges, Pope noted that “among the resources any chemical engineer has, if the mind and body are not working reliably, then success is not a guarantee.” Nor, he added is recovery from a disability a guaranteed. “There is this notion that if you work hard enough anything is possible. But that’s not entirely true. Having a disability is not one’s fault. It’s not a moral issue. The level of functioning or the extent of recovery is not something that a person can decide or will to happen. And failure to attain complete recovery is not an indication of lack of will or any other character failing.”
Speaking for his disabled colleagues, Pope said, “We are always learning, and we are always strengthening our abilities in different ways.” These differing approaches to working and living prompted Pope to recall the familiar abductive reasoning test that states “if it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, and looks like a duck, then it’s certainly a duck.” This led Pope to offer the challenge, “But what if the duck can’t walk? What if someone can’t see to describe what the duck looks like? Or what if he duck can’t talk.” Along these lines, said Pope, “We need to redefine what constitutes being a person.”
A complete transcript of the presentations and panel discussion is available here.
Panel Discussion on Chemical Professionals with Disabilities Discuss Their Experiences
Professor Catherine Kudlick on Disability as a Creative, Ingenious, and Interesting Force
The Disability Unity Convocation was made possible by the AIChE's Foundation's Doing a World of Good Campaign.
To learn more about the Disability Unity Convocation, click here.