On April 25, 2022, the IES research centers held a listening session focused on researchers with disabilities. The purpose of the session was for participants to share their experiences in becoming education researchers and applying for/carrying out research grants as well as to offer suggestions for increasing the participation of individuals with disabilities in IES grant programs. Participants included researchers from institutes of higher education and non-profit research agencies, researchers in training, higher education administrators and staff, and staff from the Department of Education and other federal funding agencies. The discussion centered around three questions. Below is a summary of the key themes that participants highlighted in response to each question.
How has your disability, in conjunction with other intersecting identities, shaped your experiences as a researcher?
Disability experiences can shape research careers. Participants described an evolving sense of identity and how that impacts their research trajectories. For example, one participant described how conducting disability research helped them recognize their own experiences with mental illness, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and autism: “That shifting understanding of my own identities […] has been something that informs my own thinking about the research and my own paths.”
Ableism affects many researchers with disabilities. Several participants mentioned experiencing ableism, a form of discrimination against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior. As one participant with a physical disability explained, “There's a variation in productivity, and it's been very hard finding a community of other academics because support and advice for graduate students, for example, all presume able body.” Participants also noted that ableism is particularly salient for academics with disabilities who are marginalized in other ways as well (for instance, based on their race or ethnicity, gender identity, and/or sexual orientation).
Accommodations for researchers with disabilities are inadequate. Participants noted, “I’ve had multiple situations where the accessibility office just does not know how to handle disabled graduate students outside of classes” and “these same issues can follow researchers to the faculty stage of their careers, only then they must work with HR [human resources], yet another entity who is unfamiliar with how to accommodate faculty disability-related requests.” Another participant emphasized how this applies to people whose disabilities are not visible, explaining that individuals may attempt to hide their disabilities, but then they may not find out about accommodations that would have been available to them; on the other hand, “the accommodations they receive don't really help them to be productive and attain their scholarly research expectations that they have.”
Participants feel a responsibility toward people with disabilities in their research. For example, one participant shared that, “As a deaf woman of color, I feel the responsibility to conduct research that elevates and addresses significant issues of need in the community. I also feel the need to protect the community from hearing researchers that conduct research based on what they determine to be their definition of the quality of life.”
How has your disability, in conjunction with other intersecting identities, impacted your experiences applying for and conducting an IES research grant?
Having a disability can be an asset to research. As one participant described, “I do believe that having this learning disability myself has impacted the way that I conceptualize mathematical thinking and understand the ways that other people might conceptualize mathematical thinking.” Participants also discussed the importance of involving researchers with disabilities in research focused on individuals with disabilities. As one participant stated, “I feel that it's very important to bring that insider's view to people about the process of learning how to read, and that's one big gap in literacy [research] – a lot of people have not done the research on deaf children and their development, and the people doing that are not deaf themselves, so they don't have that firsthand experience, that understanding.”
IES grant timelines are not always suited for researchers with disabilities. As one participant noted, “Disability is fluid, it's not always the same… and there can be difficulty in predicting certain things, and even in just figuring out what kind of things I needed to be able to do the research.” Another participant added, “Being able to get grants, support, etc. is all presumed upon working on a non-sick person's timeline and standard of productivity.”
The IES peer review process may present a barrier to certain types of research on learners with disabilities. For example, one deaf participant was concerned about peer reviewers being able to review their proposal focused on American Sign Language with impartiality, given as they noted, “a strong audio-centric bias within the field.” Another participant shared that, “Most of my attempts to submit applications have favored individuals who conduct RCTs [randomized controlled trials] or other more quantitative focused research. As a researcher with a disability who believes the voices need to be heard/represented, I find the IES focus for grants to be limiting.”
Requests for applications (RFAs) and federal register notices should be more accessible. For instance, RFAs in PDF format can be difficult for people with visual impairments to take notes in and navigate with screen readers. Because of varying needs and preferences, participants recommended making application-related documents available in multiple formats.
How can IES build the research capacity of students, researchers, and organizations from various disability communities?
Participants emphasized a need for more researchers with disabilities to receive grants, which in turn would provide more opportunities for students with disabilities to be involved in research. According to one participant, “I have deaf students, and I would like to pull them into the field as well and have them become experienced researchers.” Increasing capacity in the field would also involve people with disabilities serving on peer review panels. As one participant noted, “People with disabilities absolutely need to be part of that [review] process, and definitely need to be tied to the disability group that the content is for.”
Participants suggested IES develop training and mentorship programs for researchers with disabilities. IES could also consider providing diversity supplements like the National Institutes of Health to fund postdoctoral positions on active grants. Other suggestions for IES included checking for biased assumptions in RFAs and ensuring the language empowers researchers who experience disabilities.
IES has taken steps to respond this feedback, including:
This blog was authored by Katherine Taylor (Katherine.Taylor@ed.gov), NCSER program officer, with feedback from IES program officers Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov) and Akilah Nelson (Akilah.Nelson@ed.gov). Thematic coding of the listening session transcript was completed by IES interns, Kaitlynn Fraze and Alysa Conway, with support from Katherine Taylor.