Community helps overcome challenges of disability in science
7 Dec 2023
Chantelle Minchin was forced by illness to drop out of her previous university course and decided to pursue a career instead in chemistry. In this account by the Royal Society of Chemistry, she discusses the challenges in the profession for scientists with disabilities…
“When I was well enough, I wanted to start working, so I got myself my first job in a lab. This felt like a ‘revolving door’ job, where you’re hired with no experience and you leave as soon as you've got experience.
“In my second job, I was happy until I was diagnosed with autism. I approached my employer about reasonable adjustments, and it didn’t go well," says Chantelle, who adds she was asked to wear a lanyard to identify her as disabled.
She was left feeling "iced out" from colleagues and management seemed unwilling to discuss disability: "I couldn't be myself and it just made me feel uncomfortable and really unhappy.”
Things started to pick up for Minchin when she joined Royal Society of Chemistry’s ‘Belonging in the Chemical Sciences’ focus group. Through this, she heard from other scientists, which inspired herto create her own network for disabled scientists.
“It was one of those ideas I was planning to action in the future, but then the RSC did a disability and accessibility call and I thought, well, this is a really good opportunity to apply for the funding,” she explains
She then decided to start an apprenticeship as this allowed her to combine studying and working. Balancing work and studying has been difficult but being part of The RSC has been beneficial, she thinks.
She says: “I think for me, it’s helped me feel part of a community and like I belong in science. The fact that I've been able to go to some Royal Society of Chemistry events and presented when I've not even got my degree yet is fantastic. It's nice to feel able to be involved.”
Minchin is now using her voice to shine a light on the issues faced by disabled people in science and says universities and workplaces need to do more to provide reasonable adjustments and flexible working requests to those who need it.
She said: “I think now is such a good time to drive forward these inclusion and diversity issues. We have an ageing workforce in a lot of the chemical industries, and to counteract that, we really need to be attracting and retaining young talent.
“As a workplace, if you have a flexible working policy, when someone requests reasonable adjustments, they’re less likely to get negative reactions from colleagues. A lot of workplaces also have reasonable adjustment procedures, but employees aren’t aware of them, or don’t know how to find them. They should be sent out to new employees regardless of whether they declare having a disability or not.
“Disabled individuals are probably going to have more reasonable adjustments requests and it may seem like they’re getting preferential treatment, but if everyone can apply for those adjustments and it's part of the workplace culture, it's less likely to be seen as special treatment and I think that's important. Not always being reactive but showing that you're proactive is also important because it makes people feel more comfortable requesting reasonable adjustments.”
Minchin notes there’s no quality control for how reasonable adjustments should be implemented: “A lot of things that can be put in place will benefit everybody – things like disability accessibility and having a quiet room, for example.
“The way you communicate within your business and the way you train people should also benefit everybody including people with disabilities. That will show how receptive a business is and it makes people more likely to engage with them.”
Overall, the RSC has helped Chantelle feel validated and given her a platform where she can make a difference to other people’s lives.
She said: “You start to internalise a lot of the ableism that you're facing and think why can't I just put up and shut up? Why am I making a fuss? A lot of the time when you face inequalities you can feel powerless, but the RSC validated me so that I could stand by what I believed in and feel good about who I was.
“I feel really privileged to have had this opportunity to make a difference.”
Chantelle Minchin is a QC Apprentice at manufacturer Stepan, studying at Manchester Metropolitan University