08:38 AM

Conference at Ohio State supports more accessibility in science

A former Ohio State University student has combined her personal and professional passion with support she received from the President’s Prize to organize the university’s first conference devoted to making science more accessible to people with disabilities.

The SciAccess conference, held in the Ohio Union last week, was led by Anna Voelker, the university’s astronomy accessibility program coordinator. Voelker was a 2018 recipient of the President’s Prize, an initiative founded in 2017 by President Michael V. Drake to recognize exceptional students committed to making the world a better place through ambitious, transformational ideas and actions.

“We are here to start and engage in an important conversation in recognizing and working toward removing the barriers faced by students, professionals, researchers and members of the public who have disabilities both in academia and society at large,” Voelker said in opening SciAccess. “We all have one thing in common: a passion for equitable education and accessibility in the STEM field.”

The two-day conference examined the ways science, engineering and mathematics could be more inclusive and accessible. The conference’s support for the mission extended beyond the speakers who appeared or ideas they discussed.

Sign language interpreters supported the sessions during the conference, written programs were available in Braille and rooms were dedicated for quiet periods needed by attendees with sensory sensitivity. Even the nametags for the conference used a color communication system developed by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network to let people know whether or not they wanted to be approached for conversations.

Sessions included presentations from Astronomers Without Borders and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID). Astronomers Without Borders connects people around the world through astronomy, supports astronomy for blind and visually impaired individuals and hosts education programs in developing countries.

Anna Voelker, SciAccess Conference Director
We all have one thing in common: a passion for equitable education and accessibility in the STEM field.
Anna Voelker, SciAccess Conference Director

Jason Nordhaus, assistant professor of physics at NTID, explained that there’s a need to cross-train more sign language interpreters in science and mathematics – a challenging task.

“Interpreters typically don’t have STEM backgrounds,” Nordhaus said.

Anousheh Ansari, the first female private space explorer, and Temple Grandin, professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University and renowned autism advocate, delivered the keynote speeches for SciAccess. Voelker said the conference attracted about 250 attendees and 60 speakers from around the world.

Peter Kanjo, a University of Toldeo student with a physical disability, said he attended SciAccess to learn about teaching and learning methods for people with disabilities.

“It’s been helpful because I learned other ways people with [disabilities] navigate the system to get help and continue their education,” he said.

As a President’s Prize recipient, Voelker was awarded a living stipend and startup funding totaling $100,000 for her yearlong project focused on disability inclusion in science and astronomy.

In addition to the President's Prize, SciAccess was supported by the Ohio State Center for Cosmology and AstroParticle Physics, the Office of Research, Innovation Studio, Translational Data Analytics Institute and Disability Services.