How is it like to be a disabled women in STEM – WomenHistoryMonth

According to the World Health Organisation, disabilities is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. This is quite a hard sentence to digest with loads of jargon and technicalities. So, let me be a bit more clear! Impairments refer to the dysfunction of one or more parts of your body and also includes malformations. Activity limitations refer to the inability to carry out normal daily activities. Participation restrictions include all the conditions that prevent people from living life to the fullest. Often, we recognise disabilities as physical disabilities, for example, a person in a wheelchair or missing a limb, deafness or blindness. But, actually, you might be surprised to know that people affected by cancer, diabetes, HIV and even mental illness are included in this umbrella term. [1]

Society didn’t make a great scene here. Loads of labels have been put on folks with disabilities. “Monsters”, “Freaks”, “Demons” are just a few. Scientists are usually men of their time and some of them started a sort of classification to define what’s the average man should look like. [2] Hence, the claims whereby body-abled people with some traits and characteristics were “normal” and all the rest was labelled as “abnormal/non-normal”. This led to the idea of eugenics, which literally means good genes, that classified disabled people as having a pool of genes which deviated from the norm and set the basis for the claim that a superior race must be existing. [3] In the early 1970s, disability activists began to challenge how society treated disabled people and the medical approach to disability.

Mike Oliver, in 1983, set up the differences between the physical impairments that needed to be treated medically (medical model of disability) and the social model of disability. The latter identifies systemic barriers, negative attitudes and exclusion by society (purposely or inadvertently) that mean society is the main contributory factor in disabling people. [4] I personally think that I gave enough data, statistics and reference to talk about this topic. There’s no science or piece of evidence that can tell how it is like to live with disabilities. So, I decided to give voice to the people who didn’t give up and decided to do science despite the struggle of living in a society which isn’t really disability-friendly.

“Nobody embarks on a PhD thinking it’s going to be easy, but disability and illness can make researching a thesis that little bit more daunting, exhausting or isolating”.


I will start by sharing my own story. My depression and anxiety started well before I enrolled in a PhD programme. When I started my PhD, I wasn’t even aware of having a problem. I thought that my mood swings, aggressiveness and bad attitude were “normal”. In Italy, the country where I come from, people don’t really talk about this and there’s a profound misunderstanding of mental illness and the different types of conditions (depression anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder etc.). everyone is the same and you are just a freak! Coming to the UK was mind-opening because loads of people are open about their struggle here. It’s okay not to be okay, it’s okay to be on “depression tablets”, it’s okay to be down. Fast forwards, I have been on medications for almost a year and with the help of cognitive therapy, my mood and perception of the world significantly improved. Looking back at the person I was 2 years ago, I can totally tell that leaving with disabilities does prevent you from living your life to the fullest. Pain in the brain is a disability and the fact that it’s invisible doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Plus, it is equally daunting as physical disability. To wrap up my story, I registered myself as a disabled woman in STEM to show that you can do a PhD, become a scientist, being successful and glorious (yes, I am bragging about myself!) even when the struggle of going through even little things in everyday life is real!

Pain in the brain is a disability and the fact that it’s invisible doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.


I do not know to what extent I can call ADHD is disability. At least in the USA, ADHD can be considered a disability under the Equality Act 2010. In the case of science, it requires careful planning and meticulous execution, things that people with ADHD struggle tremendously with. I had always struggled with making sloppy mistakes, forgetting the timeline of projects, forgetting projects, missing deadlines, etc, but somehow with a very humble and apologetic personality, I was always given a chance. That’s how I finished a Master’s degree and later became a PhD student. When I finally found out I had ADHD it didn’t come as a surprise. Upon diagnosis, I immediately started therapy to come up with strategies to manage my symptoms in both the professional and the personal scenarios. Medication a year after also helped greatly. It turns out, there is a large community of scientists out there with ADHD. It also comes with its perks. For example, we’re likely to think outside the box, we can be very energetic when starting new projects, and our ability to hyperfocus on something we’re passionate about comes as a great asset. I encourage those with ADHD to explore their strengths and to look for strategies to manage our issues with executive function. Employers and mentors can do so much to accommodate for our needs including more flexibility, regular meetings, reminders, and spaces free of distractions. When managed properly, ADHD is not an obstacle to pursue science. Shakira recently started an Instagram page called The Scatter Academic to raise awareness of ADHD in graduate school.


Daisy‘s story: I have always loved science right from when I was very young. I studied hard at school but found it difficult to socialise and fell into a deep depression around the age of 16. In hindsight, my lack of social skills probably stems from my autism which I was diagnosed with when I was 21. Moving to uni exacerbated both my anxiety and depression as I was away from home and my familiar routine. I was also constantly frustrated with my examination results as they did not reflect my academic ability. This was because I routinely had panic attacks in exams due to my anxiety and sensory overload. Although I didn’t know it at the time, my autism means that I experience environments very differently to neurotypical people. Essentially I can’t filter out any sensory inputs so my brain goes into overdrive trying to process all of that information at once. This makes it incredibly difficult to concentrate in lectures and exams. When I was finally diagnosed with autism in my final semester I was given ‘reasonable adjustments’ which meant I could take exams in a separate room away from all the additional sensory inputs that come from being in a room of other students. Now, I am a postgraduate researcher in physics studying ways to control the spin of electrons to create semiconductor spin qubits for quantum computing. Although I have developed many coping strategies for managing both my anxiety and autism, I still struggle to cope with communicating effectively with co-workers, ‘office politics’ and suppressing my urges to ‘stim’ in public. Alongside this, it is incredibly fatiguing to socialise and exist out in the world so I often have to retreat to a safe space away from too many stimuli in order to ‘recharge’. Although being autistic poses a lot of additional hurdles that I have to process every day, it’s also one of the reasons why I am a good scientist! The autistic brain is very logical, disciplined and good at recognising patterns and I wouldn’t ever want to change the way I think.

Hey Everyone, I’m beyond honoured to be able to share my story and hopefully inspire others to do the same and fulfil their dreams. My name is Wilma.


I’m a 1st-year student in biology. I have always been interested in science and as a kid I questioned EVERYTHING. It was not until 7th grade I knew what I wanted to research on: spinal cord injuries. The main reason I want to focus on spinal cord injuries is that I was born with a malformation on my spine. It caused paralysis and I am mostly bounded to a wheelchair but I am able to walk with leg braces for short periods of time. When I meet people and tell them I am studying science and want to become a cell biologist, I get a lot of weird faces. That’s because, as a disabled person, you are very often underestimated. There is a preconception about us that we are stupid, aren’t capable of anything. The list goes on. But we are not any of those things. We are worthy, We are smart and, above all, we are capable to achieve great things as long as we believe that we can. Its time for the world to see us, believe in us and INCLUDE US.

For those out there who are struggling with accepting themself as they are, you are not alone. Get out there. Raise your voice. Fullfill your dream. I believe in You. Lots of love.

image16879990238092223032.jpegI’m Autumn Gavora and I am a Microbiology Instructor at a university. I also have cancer. I was first diagnosed my first semester of graduate school. I thought that by staying in school while going through treatments and surgery would should how strong my character was. I graduated in December of 2018. I was given my instructor position the day I graduated. The schedule worked out perfect for me with still having to go to doctor’s appointments all the time. Right now, I am considered living with cancer because it’s under control, but they cannot pinpoint the exact location. Which means, I’m stuck for the time being. It’s so small they cannot see it so every six months I have to go through a week’s worth of scans. I have two doctor’s appointments every month on top of that. Going through one of the hardest parts of my life, I honestly thought getting my dream job would be a little easier. Less emotional, less straining, less making me feel like I’m nothing. I was very very wrong. I have applied for almost 200 positions. I have gotten up to the third interview on multiple jobs. I get down to the part about my availability…. all the years of schooling, my 3.8 GPA, my years of research, my years of teaching a subject I’m applying for, come down to “we cannot accommodate the time off you need as a new hire”. It’s one of those feelings of everything you worked so hard for ended up being for absolutely nothing. The last rejection was last week. This one hurt pretty hard as the lab director was so interested that they rushed everything only to come to a screeching halt. My dreams shattered again. This time they were so close that I got so excited I could see myself in the lab. I could see myself doing the research that I applied for.
I took a few days off from applying. Then I saw Lady Gaga’s acceptance speech at The Oscar’s. It was exactly what I needed to start applying again. Seventeen more applications are in. By the time the balls get rolling on most of these my scan will be done and over with. My husband wants me to not say anything until I need the time off in November and I think that’s exactly what I’m going to do. Try and get hired first and then ask for the time off. You’d think getting the cancer diagnosis was the hard part. Nope, it’s just a never-ending fight to try and make your dreams come true after your world was shattered. But I know, one day, my application will be successful, and I can guarantee you that I’ll be the happiest person on the planet that day. I cannot wait.

My applications are constantly rejected because I have cancer and taking a week off to see the doctor is too much time away from research.

4ZOTT4xbI am a physicist and a science teacher, and I am also disabled. The type of science I specialise in is particle physics – specifically neutrinos! – and my disability is of the mental health variety. I also like to get involved in science communication. I’ve been involved in the academic science world for seven-ish years, and whilst I have loved that time, it has also been a very difficult period, and often incredibly isolating. Being a disabled woman in physics, I’m a part of at least two STEM minorities, but as a woman there is at least a lot of action going on there and many movements to increase the visibility and power of women in science. Being disabled, however, has been a lot more isolating. I can easily count on the fingers of one hand the number of people I actually personally know who are working in science with a disability. Even when you take the whole community into account, there is still very little visibility: one time I took part in the Wiki-thon with the intention of trying to add a disabled scientist to Wikipedia, but failed because after searching for 45 minutes I couldn’t find anyone with the right level of “noteworthiness”. My journey to complete my science degree and graduate felt like – and often was – a constant fight, to the point that I switched from getting a MSc to a BSc just because I was so scared of just not getting any qualification at all. Now I’m doing teacher training (which is still quite stressful!) it’s so different because the people in power actually really want me to become a teacher, and so, instead of me constantly fighting, they actually offer solutions and suggest adjustments and I’m not constantly having to prove that I’m disabled. Saying all this, I still do love science so much, and I am planning to return to academia to continue my studies, but probably on a part-time basis. It still feels to me, to an extent, that the scientific academic world is not prepared to accommodate and support me in the ways I need and to look after myself I need to distance myself from that. However, I do just love particle physics and neutrinos so much that I doubt I’ll be able to stay away for very long – I’m already looking into where I would want to do my Master’s degree – especially since there are some really exciting experiments in the works!

I switched my career from research to teaching because I don’t think academia will accept someone with mental illness.

This is article is nowhere near to be a detailed description of how it is like to be a disabled woman in STEM but I hope it’tt give food for thought! Finally thanks to my friends and their contribution to this article. I wouldn’t have made it on wmy own! Their support has been immense.



[2] Eiseley, Loren (1961). Darwin’s Century. Anchor Books (Doubleday). p. 227.

[3] Eugenics; Its Definition, Scope and Aims, Nature volume 70, page 82, 26 May 1904.
[4] Shakespeare, Tom. “The Social Model of Disability.” In The Disability Studies Reader, ed. Lennard Davis (New York: Routledge, 2006, 2d ed.), 197–204 (