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Supporting students and chemists with disabilities

by James Schiller, Chair, ACS Committee on Chemists with Disabilities
May 25, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 21


Photo of James Schiller.
Credit: Merck & Co.

When I was asked to serve as chair of the American Chemical Society Committee on Chemists with Disabilities (CWD), my gut reaction was “Wow, that’s a lot of work!” After a bit of reflection, I began to think about the impact that our committee could have on the culture and atmosphere within ACS.

When I was 18 years old, I had a traumatic accident that resulted in the loss of my left arm and right leg. During my rehabilitation, I struggled to feel comfortable with a career path that would fit with my newly acquired disability. Fortunately, I had role models who had successfully adapted to life “after.” This was a critical juncture in my development because it showed me that any excuse for not moving forward was invalid and that it was possible to achieve success in my college courses and subsequently the workplace.

This is an example of one journey and one type of disability.

Our committee members provide an array of unique insights developed through the lens of their own experiences. Whether it’s navigating the landscape of learning chemistry, teaching chemistry, or leading the field in their positions in private industry, our members have demonstrated what success looks like for students and chemists with disabilities.

The committee’s goals are centered on promoting awareness of the capabilities of people with disabilities in the chemical sciences, using internal and external alliances to increase our visibility and impact, and serving as a resource for laboratory accessibility and accommodations.

Our committee’s goals and strategies are born from these individual experiences.

Through the continued support of ACS, the committee recently had an opportunity to engage in a strategic planning meeting to refresh these initiatives. The detailed output of the strategic planning session will be shared with our committee members at the upcoming national meeting in San Diego. The committee’s goals are centered on promoting awareness of the capabilities of people with disabilities in the chemical sciences, using internal and external alliances to increase our visibility and impact, and serving as a resource for laboratory accessibility and accommodations.

One of the committee’s signature achievements has been the compilation of the open-access guide Teaching Chemistry to Students with Disabilities. It has become apparent, in our constantly evolving environment, that this important guidebook needs to be revised. CWD has a dedicated project team that will review and update the guidebook in the coming months. If you are an expert in this field and would like to contribute to the revision, please reach out to the committee to share your perspectives.

CWD continues to recognize excellence within ACS through two award programs. The CWD ChemLuminary Award acknowledges the outstanding efforts of a local section or division that supports the mission of CWD: to promote educational and professional opportunities in the chemical sciences and in fields requiring knowledge of chemistry for people with disabilities. The award also recognizes events that enhance the learning of chemistry through the efforts of educators, advocates, and families of people with disabilities. The CWD Travel Award is available to encourage and support the participation of undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs with disabilities who will present a talk or poster at an ACS national meeting.

In conjunction with ACS’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Dmitri Mendeleev’s periodic table and our goal to demonstrate disability inclusion in the sciences, CWD has collaborated with Michigan State University on a 3-D printed periodic table. This multicolored, tactile periodic table will be displayed at the fall national meeting in San Diego and will include braille and sign-language hand symbols to denote each element. Please look out for this display and come out to see us if you plan on attending the meeting.

CWD committee members are also focusing on developing and disseminating content through our social media platforms. We are currently engaging members via Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. Future subject-matter topics will be centered on CWD member profiles, ACS local section and national meeting symposia, and best practices for inclusion of chemistry students with disabilities.

As you can tell from these activities, our members have a passion and enthusiasm for chemistry and use our unique skill sets to allow information to be shared more broadly and inclusively throughout the society’s membership. We look forward to interacting with you on a personal level; feel free to reach out via our email address and share your particular journey.

CWD invites all individuals with disabilities working or aspiring to study or work in the chemical sciences to contact CWD. We welcome the interest and support of all educators, employers, and colleagues. For more information, please call the Office of Society Services, 800-227-5558, or email:

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.


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