US scientists with disabilities paid significantly less

Johns Hopkins team uses salary data to highlight longstanding failures across education and workplaces to provide equal opportunities for career advancement

November 28, 2023
disabled academic
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US doctoral graduates in science and technology fields are paid considerably less than their colleagues if they have an early-life disability, suggesting a critical need for greater inclusion efforts, a Johns Hopkins University study concludes.

The STEM doctoral graduates who suffered a disability before age 25 earn $14,360 (£11,400) less per year in academia than those who did not have that experience, and $10,580 less across all career pathways, the Johns Hopkins team reported, citing an analysis of federal data on more than 700,000 doctorate recipients.

The study team was led by Bonnielin Swenor, an associate professor of ophthalmology, and the founder and director of the Johns Hopkins University Disability Health Research Centre, which sees its data as affirming calls for better conditions for scientists with disabilities.

STEM professionals are known to face multiple barriers, said Dr Swenor, whose team published its work in Nature Human Behaviour. “Focusing on accessibility and universal design in STEM is critical for including more disabled scientists,” she told Times Higher Education, “but we cannot ignore the myriad of other biases and barriers that squeeze researchers with disabilities out of the workforce – and inequity in salaries is one of them.”

Past studies have reached similar conclusions. The US National Science Foundation reported its own salary comparisons earlier this year, showing that workers in STEM fields earned an average of $56,906 if they had at least one disability and $64,969 if they did not.

The NSF also reported in 2021 that scientists and engineers with disabilities have a higher unemployment rate than those without disabilities, and a higher unemployment rate than the nation’s overall rate, and that a smaller share of scientists with disabilities received research assistantships, traineeships, internships, fellowships, scholarships and grants than did those without disabilities.

Nearly 9 per cent of all graduates awarded doctoral degrees in the biological and biomedical sciences in the US in 2019 reported having one or more disabilities, the NSF study showed.

Barriers facing such scientists, according to an analysis by the US National Institutes of Health, include a lack of systemwide recruitment, engagement and relevant training for individuals with disabilities; low numbers of such individuals in decision-making roles; and a broad lack of data on such workers.

Other studies have shown the problem has origins throughout the US educational process, with students with disabilities facing significant differences in opportunities in the sciences starting in schools.

Dr Swenor’s team notes data showing that more than a quarter of US adults have some kind of disability, yet they account for only 10 per cent of the workforce in STEM fields.

“Disability inclusion in STEM is critical to the diversification of the sciences, and a matter of both economic development and equity,” the team says in its article. “Engaging the full range of diverse talent in STEM leads to gains for the country’s scientific landscape, as research and innovation are strengthened when people with diverse life experiences and knowledge contribute to the solution of complex problems.”

The Swenor team used 2019 data from a biennial survey conducted by the NSF.

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