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Is "American Exceptionalism" perhaps Hypocritical when it comes to Employment Opportunities for our Nation's Highly-Educated Disabled?

Posted by acsprofessionalrelations on September 19, 2011 at 1:15 PM

By David Pushkin

Are you a fan of nostalgia? Do you keep a warm place in your heart for golden oldies, blasts from the past, and other reminders from previous eras? Well, I am. Give me a few hours of Beatles music to listen to, re-runs of my favorite movies on cable television, or old highlight films on the ESPN Classic Network. Reconnecting with your old memories, or the old memories of others, represents more than merely turning back the clock; it allows us to renew an appreciation perhaps not as fully developed years earlier. Sometimes memories are indeed sweeter the second time around.

As most CWD and PROF members well know, I may have loved teaching chemistry and physics for 25 years, but sports is my one true

passion before I ever became a scientist and science educator, throughout my professional academic career, and now in this newest phase of my life. As a lifelong New York Mets since their bumbling birth, one of the simplest joys in life for me is to relax near a television or radio and listen to endless stories by Ralph Kiner during a baseball game. For those unfamiliar with Mr. Kiner, please let me give you a quick biography of his 10-year major-league career:


Played 1946-1952 for the Pittsburgh Pirates, lead the National League in home runs every season

Played 1953-1954 for the Chicago Cubs

Played 1955 for the Cleveland Indians

Retired after a back injury at age 32

Hit 50 or more home runs (HRs) twice during career

Knocked in 100 or more runs (RBIs) six times during career

Lead the National League in slugging percentage three times during career

Played in the All-Star game six times during his career

Only player in MLB history to hit a home run in three straight All-Star games (1949-1951)

369 total HRs and 1,015 RBIs for ten-year career.

Career average/percentage of 7.1 HR for every 100 at-bats second only to Babe Ruth

Professional Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, 1975



Even if not a baseball fan you could surmise that Ralph Kiner was among Major-League baseball’s most-prolific sluggers in history, no matter the era. However, what makes Mr. Kiner such a “golden treasure” to baseball is the historical era that he played in, following World War II. Think about it: Kiner played during the time of baseball’s integration, which means he not only played at the same time as many of baseball’s consensus greats, like Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle, but he also played with and against great social pioneers like Hank Greenberg and Jackie Robinson when racial and religious bigotry were the norm and standard not only in baseball but in the United States.

Now 88 years young (he’ll turn 89 October 27), Kiner has been a mainstay of the Mets broadcast team since 1962. Although his appearances and travel have decreased over the past two decades, Kiner can still captivate my attention with stories of baseball’s “golden era”, even if I’ve heard some of the stories a few times now.

Ever wonder why Kiner was traded from the Pirates to the Cubs during the winter of 1952? Way back then, the Pirates were not a very good team, operating on a limited payroll budget (okay, perhaps this sounds a bit too familiar to current long-suffering Pittsburgh baseball fans). The Pirates general manager, Branch Rickey (yes, the very same man who ran the old Brooklyn Dodgers during their heyday and who signed Jackie Robinson to break Major-League baseball’s color barrier in 1947. Isn’t it a small world?) called Kiner into his office to discuss salary for the 1953 season. Kiner, having just lead the National League in home runs for the seventh straight season, asked for a raise to an unheard $100,000.

Rickey, the legendary tightwad he was, asked Kiner where the Pirates finished during the 1952 season, which happened to be last place (the Pirates finished in either last place or second-to-last in five of Kiner’s seven seasons in Pittsburgh). His point? The Pirates could finish in last place with or without Kiner and his “superstar” salary (indeed true, as the Pirates finished in either last or second-to-last place for the next five seasons), hence the trading of the Pirates best offensive player to Chicago’s north side, where the Cubs are still seeking their first World Series title since 1908. My point? Stories like this are what remind us of baseball’s long and colorful history, and thankfully we have people like Ralph Kiner still around to share and regale us in these stories and many more.

There’s been a growing contingent of Mets fans over recent years who would rather see Mr. Kiner “put out to pasture” in order to “spare” younger audiences from having to “endure” the occasional three-inning stints he makes in the broadcast booth. However, the reasons are not that Kiner is soon to celebrate his 89th birthday or that many of his stories are older than the people listening to them on television and radio. No, the primary reason for wanting Kiner kicked to the curb is due to his speech being affected by a 1998 battle with Bell’s Palsy. Even with rehabilitation and speech therapy, Kiner’s words don’t come out as quickly or smoothly as they did years ago, and many of today’s baseball fans have the patience and attention span of a peach pit, no longer willing or able to tolerate or appreciate the vast volume of stories Kiner has told Mets fans for approximately fifty years. This isn’t really a “new” story among New York baseball fans; folks have been griping about Kiner’s diction for approximately a dozen years. Thankfully, the Mets organization continues to include Kiner each season for as much or as little as he feels he can handle.

Hopefully you now see where my story about baseball and nostalgia is leading us with regards to CWD, so allow me to indulge us with the following question: What if our employers wanted to get rid of any of us because our mouths struggled to speak the words our gifted minds were articulating?




Baseball‘s relevance to CWD?

I realize many might deem my story-analogy of Ralph Kiner irrelevant, and some of you might be feeling a bit of intellectual or moral discomfort as my writings generally intend, but Mr. Kiner’s experience is more relevant than we think in terms of the big picture of how we include the disabled and treat them as worthwhile entities in society. Considering Mr. Kiner is 88 years old and has adjusted his life fairly well the past dozen or so years after Bell’s Palsy, one might wonder why his situation is an issue for anyone to discuss. Well, all it takes is one jackass newspaper reporter or a snarky blogger to tell Mets fans how Mr. Kiner is a drag on Mets game broadcasts, and there have been more than a few since 1998, and even more than a few in 2011. There’s a part of me that wants to tell all these “critics” SHAME ON YOU? WHO THE HELL GAVE YOU THE RIGHT TO BE THE JUDGE OF ONE OF BASEBALL’S MOST-BELOVED CONTRIBUTORS?

There’s also a part of me that would love to see Mr. Kiner give all these critics the ol’ Noo Yawk one-fingered salute and either continue doing as his heart desires or walk away from us, leaving us all to experience the void. After all, at 88 years old, what exactly does Ralph Kiner owe any Mets fan after almost fifty years of dedicated and loving service from the broadcast booth? If we can’t appreciate him, we simply don’t deserve him.

But Mr. Kiner’s still there, granted mostly limited to a few Sunday afternoons at Citi Field, but at least he’s still part of the Mets family, giving what he can and wants on his terms, no one else’s. If Mr. Kiner came to Mets management years ago and said, “gee, guys, I just don’t think I can do this anymore”, that would be one story, and the Mets would’ve given Kiner a found farewell just as fitting as they once gave his former broadcast partners Lindsey Nelson and Bob Murphy. However, if the Mets came to Kiner and said, “Ralph, the fans are bitching about your slurred speech and it’s hurting ratings”, Kiner would’ve had every right to hire an attorney, as well as tell the Mets where to go. It’s a credit to the entire organization that the pathetic whining of a clueless minority haven’t created the latter situation.

Getting back to Mr. Kiner and what he owes or doesn’t owe baseball fans after all these years of service, the man’s almost 89 years old. He doesn’t need the money or aggravation anymore. But baseball’s been his life and it still gives him a reason to get out of bed every day and be part of something he’s known for almost seventy years. Think about it... For almost seventy years this man has had baseball in his life no matter how good or bad his teams were. That’s real love for your profession, or whatever we want to call it. If he still wants to be a part of baseball, even on a limited basis at 89 years old, who are we to say otherwise? Would you like to be the one to tell him he’s no longer wanted? How about visiting the Bronx and saying the same thing to 86 year-old Yogi Berra, still a beloved fixture for the New York Yankees?

That being said, why does our professional community have no problem telling disabled chemists or disabled people of science they’ve outlived their usefulness or value, even though we generally don’t have the courage or decency to do so without relying on parsed code-language likely formulated by some weasel attorney working for a university or corporation?

Most of my writings about disability advocacy are working pieces I’m incorporating for a future book, Adapting in an inadaptable world. With each new piece I write and share, it’s become more and more painfully obvious that I’m not the one with adapting issues relative to American society or higher education. Whether my fellow scientists, science educators and academics care to admit or not, I’ve met the enemy of disability advocacy, and the enemy is sadly them, because they still have no solid idea in the 21st century how to work with disabled people or professionals, no matter how many strides we’ve made over the years in our various professional communities and organizations, and it has little to do with saying the right thing or wrong thing; it has everything to do with doing the right or wrong thing.

As I alluded to in my previous newsletter article a few months ago, we’re heading towards a holy war against America’s disabled in preparation for the 2012 presidential election. Wake up, people and listen closely to the rhetoric from their televised debates, both by the candidates and the audience. I feel sorry for anyone who still doesn’t believe me while these aspiring Republican candidates debate, because if we take a wait and see or an ostrich head in sand approach, November 5, 2012 will be too late to do anything to prevent this political assault. And for those who have blind faith in high-profile advocate law firms and lobby organizations, you’re fooling yourselves too if you don’t roll up your own sleeves and prepare to dive into battle yourself. Lawyers are more mercenary than today’s college football programs. Everyone can be bought for the right price. Everyone can whistle a different tune for the right price. Sometimes the only person you can trust to stay on message is yourself.


So what exactly is “Exceptionalism”?

In case any of us has failed to recognize the context of this war on America’s disabled, all we need to do is follow the campaign trail and the number of times candidates pine about “American Exceptionalism.” While this term sounds so noble, do we really comprehend what the hell it means? I know I’ve scratched my head the first dozen or so times I heard it uttered by anti-Obama forces. Since you can’t beat Webster’s Dictionary for a good solid definition, let’s see what Webster’s has to say:


EXCEPTION = A case to which a rule does not apply, or a person or thing different from others of the same class.

EXCEPTIONAL = Unusual, unusually good, or needing special education, as because of mentally handicapped.



So, if Webster’s presents us a workable definition, then we should interpret “American Exceptionalism” as certain Americans being oh so special among the rest of us under the same circumstances? If that sounds bogus, perhaps because it is. Actually, it’s a tad Orwellian, because it smacks of the barn wall constitution from Animal Farm: “All animals are created equal. Some animals are created more equal than others.” If you try and think like the crackpots spewing out this baloney on the campaign trail, you’ll realize that it’s basically another form of code language claiming our nation’s most physically and economically blessed citizens should be exempt from the same rules governing the majority of us peons, especially when it comes to governmental regulations, taxes, and protecting citizens from harm. You and I view “harm” in terms of disease, infrastructure safety, and the ability to live free of crises. That’s not how these politicians see it. They’re interested in protecting the “exceptional people” from having to share anything with the rest of us “ordinary people”, except we’re neither represented by the 1980 movie of the same title, nor high-quality actors like Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler-Moore or Timothy Hutton.

If I really wanted to be truly snarky... okay, you’ve talked me into it... it makes sense that these politicians yammer about “exceptionalism” in the context of their campaign agendas, and it makes perfect sense that they’ve misused Webster’s use of “exceptional.” If you listen to these candidates long enough, you can’t help but wonder if they’re operating with some level of mental handicap. At the least, wouldn’t you consider a few of these presidential wannabes to be mentally insane? Go ahead and laugh, but according to at least one of these bozos, we now supposedly know that vaccination for Human Papilloma Virus causes mental retardation. If the politician said it, it must be true, right? Sure, it does... Perhaps this politician might be living proof? Hey, I’m a scientist. I can raise questions like this based on even the flimsiest of anecdotal data.

Did you know that “exceptional” is indeed associated with special education and being mentally handicapped? Yes, it’s true. Believe it or not, during the 1980s and 1990s, several school systems around the country tried to replace “special education student” with “exceptional student” in order to artificially remove the stigma of kids having learning disabilities. The label had nothing to do with children’s cognitive levels or needs and everything to do with their self-esteem, hence what many of us have known as the self-esteem movement, which has ultimately been applied to all levels of education and all learners, because if self-esteem is important for disabled learners it must be important for non-disabled learners, as if everyone deserves the same boosting efforts as our nation’s disenfranchised. The movement was and is contrived, just as the label was and is, because we turned something positive into a one size fits all farce. So, if we wanted to really be truthful about “American exceptionalism” the term is actually more relevant to people with cognitive challenges as opposed to special geniuses who can make more money than the eye can see. But the politicians don’t tell us these fine distinctions when they coin buzzwords and slogans to attract potential voters, do they?

Who is our current beacon of “American Exceptionalism”? None other than Bill Gates, the richest person in the world, according to Forbes. Think about it, we’re all lumped into a common vat, and out pops a man who grew up in a fairly stable and supportive home, went to Harvard, dropped out, and became a billionaire. Yes, Bill Gates is obviously intellectually gifted, creative, perhaps borderline genius, and seems genuinely empathetic for his fellow human beings. But at the same time, he’s hardly the rags-to-riches story we associate with the “American dream” concept. He’s a smart kid who dropped out of a very good academic institution and made it rich. Is Bill Gates incredibly unique? No. There are lots of gifted folks who dropped out of pretty good schools and found incredible success, including entrepreneurs who dropped out of college or fancy business schools and made it rich in real estate and oil. But the common thread between all these people is vast wealth. That’s not how the majority of folks within a common class start out or end up. Those of us who strongly advocate education as the means to upward mobility point to such successes as rare exceptions to the rule, because dropping out of school is still not the general trend towards economic success, and our nation’s disproportionate unemployment figures support that trend.

Therefore, from my reference point, “American exceptionalism” is essentially a bunch of baloney (that’s not what I really want to call it, but we’re a family newsletter) and our nation is a collection of hypocrites who don’t even know how to use the term properly. It does a disservice to Americans who truly are exceptional, not for what they produce, but for the circumstances by which they are able to produce. Bill Gates isn’t exceptional. Bill Gates is very accomplished and blessed to accomplish all he has in life. When I think of exceptional people I think of immigrants coming to this country with virtually nothing in their pockets but identity papers and big dreams and ideas for their future or the future of others. Think about immigrants who’ve come to this country over the past 150 years, who’ve toiled in urban tenements, worked painfully long hours for low wages, and suffered the abuse of established society while they tried to create a better life for themselves and their children and grandchildren. We know that story. Many of us are the children and grandchildren of those immigration stories.

What about people who overcome physical, cognitive or emotional odds in order to enjoy a productive life when doors are constantly closed to them? They’re also and truly exceptional.


The challenges, triumphs and battles for disabled people:

A little over twenty years ago, I was a high school chemistry and physics teacher and football coach in Bradenton, Florida. On the opposite end of the school building worked a man named Stan Shuster, a social studies teacher in his early 30s. Stan was a quadriplegic, courtesy of a diving board accident when he was in his late teens. Keep in mind that Stan suffered his injury during the 1970s, when the world wasn’t so adaptive and helpful to someone of his immense medical needs. Stan needed an attendant in order to bathe, groom, get dressed, feed himself... Everything. And yet, Stan managed to go to college for a bachelors degree and graduate school for a masters degree when support systems and public encouragement weren’t positive. Stan eventually became a certified high school social studies teacher, guiding ninth graders on civics. I never recalled there ever being a student discipline issue in his classroom, nor do I ever recall Stan having to fight for respect or cooperation. I don’t know whatever became of Stan (I left Florida in 1993), but that’s an example of exceptionalism. I’m sure the number of naysayers who tried to discourage Stan from pursuing his education, much less becoming a public high school teacher, were plenty, but Stan followed his mind and heart and showed what someone can do, even without any significant level of physical independence.

Perhaps not on the same level as Stan Shuster, but Ralph Kiner is an exceptional person. He could’ve folded his cards, given up, and never set foot in a broadcast booth or baseball stadium ever again after contracting Bell’s Palsy. Stan Shuster could’ve given up too. He could’ve allowed himself to be a ward of the state and let the government take care of him the remainder of his life after a horrible accident during athletic competition, but he didn’t.

Guess what? I’m exceptional too. Hell, I’m remarkable, and I pity folks who’ve yet to realize it or publically acknowledge it. Before anyone accuses me of being completely self-absorbed and too arrogant for my own good, I genuinely believe ALL of us can be exceptional and remarkable, whether we’re disabled or not, whether we’ve had all the advantages of what America has to offer or not. But let’s also get real here, folks... the more one has to overcome in life, the more exceptional or remarkable that person and their story is, and the more we really should admire and respect her or him. Those blessed with all the good breaks, or have the path of fewest minefields, who produce the most, who boast the most riches... they’re clearly talented and deserve recognition, but they don’t deserve to be on a pedestal for all of us to fawn over them. Many of us try to preach as much as we can that the journey in life is often more meaningful than the destination, or the reward, or the outcome. As I even write in my most-recent published book, Philosophy of "Packer" pedagogy: Vince Lombardi, critical thinking and problem-based learning (ISBN: 978-1-257-97517-4), PROCESS matters more than OUTCOME, and it applies to life in general just as much as it applies to science education. Perhaps after years of good fortune, Bill Gates finally gets that same epiphany about the journey people take towards hopes, goals and dreams, and perhaps this is why Gates now pledges half of his wealth to charity?

What makes me so exceptional or remarkable? Well, since becoming disabled I’ve published three major science education research articles in well-regarded academic journals, I’ve published Philosophy of "Packer" pedagogy, I’m working on Adapting in an inadaptable world as well as introductory-level textbook projects for chemistry and physics, and write columns for my own blog site, 79 since January 2010. I tried a return to teaching for one entire year without one iota of ADA accommodations, I mentored a post-doc for three years on her chemical education research project, for zero financial compensation, and I’ve made four presentations at different conferences or universities... Oh, and I’ve served as the chair of the CWD subdivision for a two-year term, and essentially function as a one-man operation from my home. I have no physical or financial assistance beyond Social Security Disability benefits, so I’m a very low-budget entity with maximized output. I’ve worked from a hospital bed, a wheelchair and an orthopedic recliner chair, all when I could’ve easily laid in bed or sat in a chair and done nothing besides read books and watch television all day. Anyone out there bold enough to tell me I haven’t done enough to demonstrate my abilities, use or worth? Go ahead; I dare you.

There’s really hasn’t been one reason or incentive for me to lift a finger and do anything on behalf of anyone, other than my own desire to remain useful and intellectually engaged. For the better part of five years, I’ve given of myself when I have every reason not to bother. That’s why I’m exceptional and remarkable... because I’ve done more as a disabled person than many perfectly able-bodied and supported chemical educators have done in the same period of time. I’m exceptional and remarkable because I’ve maximized what I can do under my circumstances while many others have likely wasted their opportunities and resources. And yet, I’m the one university chemistry and physics departments no longer have use for, even on a limited basis. Think about it and consider what I’ve accomplished no longer physically functioning as I once did, extrapolate that to what an able-bodied person should accomplish under much more ideal circumstances, and ask yourselves what’s wrong with this picture.

Over the past few years, I’ve been asked by a few folks if my openness about being disabled is an effort for sympathy and special privileges, or as a means to compensate for never really being good at my profession in the first place. These are ignoramus-type questions, because one really must fail to understand that it’s an obligation of disabled people to educate others on our strengths, limitations and needs in order to be as successful as possible. We’re not a bunch of damned machines; we’re HUMAN BEINGS. This is what the ADA should be about, to educate all as to how we can collectively help disabled people enjoy fulfilling and successful careers to the best of their physical, cognitive or emotional abilities. The ADA is not a trump card for disabled people to hold over society, even though that’s what it has often become for twenty years as society and employers seek new ways to throw obstacles at us. Besides, if I wasn’t any good at my profession, I never would’ve had a 25-year career, and I know a spinal injury didn’t suddenly wipe out my academic credentials and 25 years worth of professional knowledge and expertise.

Admit it, folks; I’m just as smart, educated and intellectually capable as anyone else, whether I can fully use my arms and legs or not. Those among us in academia should be embarrassed a place for me no longer exists in a chemistry and/or physics department. In fact, we should be more than collectively embarrassed, because my exclusion since my spinal injury should be considered a crime by academia and our professional communities and organizations. I’m not just some run of the mill PhD no one’s ever heard of, folks... I’ve been a part of the chemical and physics education communities since 1984 and affiliated with ACS since 1985, and my 20-page curriculum vitae is nothing to sneeze at. After 25 years of teaching, publications and service, my story shouldn’t be happening, just like we shouldn’t be hearing any such stories in the 21st century, no matter what shape our nation’s economy or political climate are. Worst of all is that I know my story is nowhere near the only one in our nation and professional communities. I really wonder how any of us can sleep well at night knowing stories like mine exist in the science and academic worlds and we still do so little to rectify things.

As a disabled American and disabled science professional, I certainly don’t need anyone to fawn over me or put me on a pedestal (okay... you can fawn over me momentarily, preferably with a big heaping bowl of mint chocolate-chip ice cream). I don’t need sympathy or patronizing. I do need and demand respect and full open-mindedness from others, just as I would assume is expected of me in return, regardless of another person’s physical health status. That’s the idea we should’ve already attained years ago. The ADA has been around for more than 20 years, so what are we all waiting for? HELLO?! I’m talking to YOU out there! Yeah, YOU! What are YOU waiting for?

When I took on the honor of chair of CWD in 2010, I didn’t do it to pat my already impressive curriculum vitae or to score political points. I took on this endeavor for the sole purpose of slapping the stupid out of my fellow colleagues and instigating change in how academic chemistry departments view and treat disabled chemical educators, even if it meant slapping hard and leaving a mark. We’ve all been down this road before with inclusion for women and ethnic-racial minorities. Chemistry departments are notorious for institutionalized inertia. Look how long and hard the battle for more diversity has been. Hell, look at how much our introductory-level textbooks still look the same no matter how many new bells and whistles publishers add! Any level of monumental change in a chemistry department is painfully slow and bloody. Why? Because chemistry departments, just like physics departments and other academic departments, like things exactly the way they are or used to be. The ADA has been around more than 20 years. If we left change and progress exclusively in the hands of chemistry departments, we all know it could take another 20 years before we see the beginnings of what should be the ideal standard. Sorry, folks, I don’t have another 20 years to wait for others to diddle around and get comfortable with our new emerging world reality. In fact, I don’t even have another 10 years to wait. When I took on the CWD chair in 2010, my timetable for seeing change was 2007, which means you’re all way behind schedule catching up to where I know we need to be.

Guess what? My term expires December 2011, and your time is up. I’ve put in my time and paid my dues after more than 25 years of service to my profession and this organization. 25 years, approximately half of my life. But tick, tick, tick, tick, tick... DING! I can’t give any more to those who not only can’t or won’t give back, but offer the sorriest excuses for their uselessness as they try to point out mine. I already have titanium rods, screws and cages holding part of my spine together. I recently had a morphine pain pump surgically implanted inside my body to control years of uncontrollable pain. You don’t get pain pumps implanted in you for minor boo-boos, folks. I have more than my share of battle scars to legitimize my level of disability and rights to ADA protections and accommodations. I’ve more than earned the right to expect others not to make my circumstances any more difficult than they already are. But, more importantly, I’ve more than earned the right to still be treated as a scientist, science educator and scholar, just like I was prior to my spinal injury, and if anyone honestly expects me to remain part of ACS, I advise everyone to respect my rights.

If your goal is to create more obstacles for me, then my goal is to beat you upside the head with my cane and run you over with my electric wheelchair. That’s a pretty fair deal, don’t you agree? Trust me, you don’t want to pick a fight with me, because despite my physical limitations, I’m smart, resourceful and still have the mentality of a football player who craves the contact. More importantly, if you pick a fight with me, you’re really picking a fight with every disabled chemist, even though I’m the one who will be personally punching you in the nose on behalf of all disabled chemists and science professionals. Perhaps after my term as CWD chair expires, everyone can go back to their inertial way of doing things, and CWD will not make as much of a peep to create waves, and then maybe 10, 20, or 30 years from now everyone can read about how nothing ever significantly changed on behalf of CWD. That’s what happens when we try to make changes incrementally and according to everyone’s readiness and political sensitivities; nothing ever really changes. We really don’t have the luxury of time to drag our feet on progress. The future is now, ready or not. We have disabled professionals in need of recognition and support today, not tomorrow. Speaking for myself, I no longer have an unlimited number of tomorrows to sit around and wait on others, and whatever number of tomorrows are left are no longer available for others to waste at my expense. Those tomorrows are forever mine, not yours.

The shame our community still faces:

I invite everyone to go look up the November 12, 2001 edition of Chemical and Engineering News and an article titled, “Approaching a workplace for all.” I was recently re-acquainted with that article and two things from this article struck me right between the eyes. The first was within the very first paragraph of the article, noting famous physicist Stephen Hawking and his ongoing battle with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, despite the fact that he’s neither a chemist nor employed by an American university. The second thing was approximately three-quarters of the way through the article, the issue of disclosure about one’s disability, be it visible or invisible...”if I roll into that office for an interview in a wheelchair, their immediate reaction is likely to be that I hid something from them — and to wonder what else could I be hiding?” While one of the then co-authors of AAAS’ study on inclusion of the disabled in Science and Technology stated that advanced heads-up about an “obvious disability” is a “practical strategy”, she didn’t necessarily advocate disabled people being open about their disabilities or health issues. In 2001, such advice is a sad statement. In 2011, if we’re still operating with the same advisement from AAAS or any advocate within the scientific community, that’s not advocacy and much more than sad; it’s a damn embarrassment for our scientific community.

When I was preparing to give my presentation for the CWD symposium at March’s National Meeting in Anaheim, I did some quick research of a web site, www.disabledperson.com, a web site advocating for disabled professionals and employment opportunities. Not having enough time to include everything in a presentation, I choose not to go into great detail about what I found from this site while searching job postings during my research. For the early part of March 2011, do you know how many job advertisements were posted on this web site for science and technology related jobs? Approximately 200. For this same period of time, when we typically still see dozens of advertisements for available tenure-track chemistry positions in Chemical and Engineering News and the Chronicle of Higher Education, do you know how many were advertised on www.disabledperson.com? Exactly ONE, at a small college in Ohio approximately two hours away from major cities like Cincinnati, Columbus or Cleveland. That’s it... ONE job ad. ONE job ad from an institution of higher education, an institution of higher education so far out in the middle of nowhere. I have mixed responses to such data. On one hand, I’m proud to see there are institutions of higher education reaching out to disabled science professionals, my other hand is full of worries. While this college should be applauded for posting their advertisement with www.disabledperson.com, can this institution fully even meet the needs of a disabled chemistry professor, depending on her or his disability? Worse, what happens when this disabled professor needs medical attention? How does this institution help provide medical attention when so far away from Ohio’s major cities, medical schools and major hospitals?

But in the grand scheme of things, there is only one fair response to this lone advertisement: outrage. Why should we only see ONE tenure-track chemistry advertisement on www.disabledperson.com? Why shouldn’t we see every chemistry department advertising their tenure-track positions on www.disabledperson.com? I’m very skeptical (no, make that cynical) in this day and age that the only places chemistry departments would advertise are Chemical and Engineering News and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Chemistry departments (as well as physics departments and many other academic departments) need to reach out to a whole spectrum of applicants, which means advertising in periodicals specifically serving women, African-Americans, other ethnic or racial minority groups, not to mention the GLBT community. Is there not enough money to budget for advertising out to the disabled community, or is the disabled community statistically insignificant to warrant special advertising?

After all, how many members does the CWD subdivision have? 25-30 members? As the chairperson of this subdivision, I can honestly say our ranks are quite small and not overly active. Lord knows I have the biggest mouth of the subdivision, and it barely elicits a response from our members. In fact, in the two years of my service to CWD I’ve received a grand total of THREE emails from members after a few outreach efforts. My term as chair expires in a few months, and I look back on my term as terribly unfulfilling relative to my efforts. I certainly expected more response and input from our ranks, but then again, I’ve never been a fan of silent wallflowers.

Remember the various articles published over the years addressing science’s “image problem” with society at large, not to mention women and ethnic or racial minorities? How many times have we been told of children’s drawings of what a scientist looks like: a white man, rather elderly, with Einstein-like unruly hair, eyeglasses, and the stereotypical white lab coat with pocket protector. For years science education equity advocates wondered why drawings showing women or people of color were so rare, and this eventually set the stage for more progressive approaches towards broader inclusion.

Well, what might these drawings look like today? Are there any studies related to this “image problem” anymore? If I were to walk into any science classroom in America and ask students to draw pictures of a scientist, I’m as likely to see just as many drawings depicting women or people of color? What about people with disabilities?

I’ll eat my hat if anyone can show me a drawing of a scientist in a wheelchair or showing any visible disability. Why do I say that? How can students draw something depicting they have virtually zero experience seeing?! Forgive me for yet more bluntness, but where are the “crippled” chemistry professors in our universities and science teachers in our nation’s schools? Almost every article or publication I ever see showing permanently and physically disabled science people shows them in an industrial or governmental setting. If I see a photo of a permanently and physically disabled science instructor, it’s not only rare but the person isn’t teaching at a major university. Are there Stan Shusters out there? Sure there are, but how many are really teach chemistry or physics?

Why do I push the envelope further and harder? It’s a necessity, because the sad and dirty secret among our nation’s chemistry (as well as physics) departments is that these departments aren’t motivated enough to hire permanently and physically disabled colleagues among their faculty ranks, especially for tenure-track positions. If they were, we’d see better advertising that reaches out to the disabled community, not the standard lip-service AA-EOE disclaimers in their advertisements posted in Chemical and Engineering News and the Chronicle of Higher Education. For all of my fellow disabled chemical educators (the handful we may actually be), I sadly tell you we’re not welcome by the vast majority of chemistry (and physics) departments, simply because the modus operandi of chemistry (and physics) departments is to hire folks just like themselves, which is why there still needs to be lobbying efforts to encourage inclusion of more women and minorities. Go ahead and do a search of as many chemistry (and physics) department web sites as you can. Come tell me what you see among the faculty photos. The more things change, the more they look the same. For all the advocacy efforts of the past 10-20 years, we still see too much homogeneity in academic science departments, and I assure you we won’t be seeing too many science professors on wheels in photos unless it’s roller skates. Again, how are science students at any level of education supposed to have a broader image of science people if they have little to no experience seeing anything but the same old example our chemistry (and physics) departments offer? Stephen Hawking? Again, folks, he’s not a professor at any American university, and we shouldn’t be importing one of Britain’s greatest minds to paint a misleading picture of our still lacking advocacy for disabled people of science.

I recently read a quote from the late great Arthur Ashe, not only one of our nation’s accomplished professional tennis players 40 years ago, but a brilliant man, advocate for human rights and global dignity. If I was to draw a picture of an exceptional and remarkable person, he’d be one of my top examples. Ashe once said in an interview with ESPN about human rights and racial relations that “everyone needs someone to beat up on.” As sad as that insight is, it’s rather true in the context of my article. I don’t believe chemistry (or physics) departments will ever fully accept a permanently and physically disabled colleague as a fellow professor because, deep down, chemistry (and physics) professors genuinely want only their own mirror images among their ranks. Some may consider this a form of intellectual myopathy. I consider it a form of institutionalized bigotry based on a hyper-inflated self image of what is and isn’t a chemistry (or physics) professor, further exacerbating an image problem with science that we still fail to fully recognize and rectify. If it’s not women, it’s racial or ethnic minorities. If it’s not racial or ethnic minorities, it’s disabled professionals. It makes no difference if it’s the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s or the 21st century... the majority of our chemistry and physics professionals need to find someone to exclude or look down upon in order to artificially elevate themselves. Inclusion is contrary to our collective self-perception, because we still have trouble accepting that science should be for all, because deep-down, we think we’re “exceptional” when the reality is that we’re simply fortunate to study, understand and work in a rather complex academic discipline and professional field. We may be smart and able to think in ways others can’t, but that really doesn’t make us any more exceptional than others who enjoy success in other academic disciplines and fields we can’t connect with.



Former NFL coach Bill Parcells used to ask, “how many times must a skunk be rubbed into your face before you realize it stinks?” I ask a similar question to all of us: how many different ways do I need to point out our shortcomings with regards to advocacy for disabled members of our community? Apparently we’re still collectively in need of as many warnings and reminders as possible. If I’m offering to use my cane and wheelchair to get the message across, we must still be pretty obstinate and dense on this issue. We can do better and we must do better, and for those who wish to celebrate what has been achieved so far, my answer is that it’s nowhere near enough more than 20 years since ADA became law. More importantly, we can no longer sit around and mull things over until we’re comfortable with it. I certainly can’t any longer. I’ve done my part, and now it’s up to you to do yours. Unlike Ralph Kiner, I no longer have anything left to give, so as my term as CWD chair is soon to expire, it’s time for me to walk away, tell everyone you’re now on your own in this battle, and wish you all good luck.


Categories: Newletter Articles, Chemists with Disabilities

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