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Not A Disability, But A Unique Ability

Chemists with disabilities share their stories on overcoming challenges in the workplace

by Linda Wang
November 18, 2015 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 93, ISSUE 45

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as the 35th anniversary of the American Chemical Society’s Committee on Chemists with Disabilities, which was formed in 1980 as the Committee on the Handicapped to facilitate educational and employment opportunities for people with disabilities in the chemical sciences.

To mark these milestone anniversaries, C&EN asked several chemists with disabilities to reflect on their experiences in the workplace.

Rafael San Miguel,
Credit: CHEW
R&D scientist, flavorist, sweetener expert, and consultant for Boston-area food incubator start-up CHEW

“I am a deaf flavor chemist. When you lose a sense, all of your other senses are far more acute. So, as a result of my disability, my sense of taste is profoundly more acute than most people’s. This is a huge competitive advantage. I can taste flavor changes and modifications far more sensitively than others, and this allows me to figure out problems and solutions on a much faster timeline. I think the biggest change or adaptation of all that has enabled me to succeed in my field is the transformation of how others who are not disabled are beginning to view those with disabilities for their ability.”

Allison Aldridge,
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Team lead, Food & Drug Administration, Center for Drug Evaluation & Research

“Most people have ball-and-socket joints in their shoulders; I don’t. I have limited motion in both arms. Because I don’t have a real joint, I can’t sit the way most people sit. When I first started working at FDA, my fingers were hurting, my back was hurting, everything was hurting, and so I went to my supervisor and asked if I could get an ergonomic evaluation. They didn’t ask any questions, they just said, ‘Whatever you need.’ It made me feel good that the times are changing. When you think back 25 to 30 years ago, it was, ‘Do the best you can,’ and that’s assuming they hired you in the first place.”

John Johnston,
Credit: Nhu Nguyen
Scientific liaison, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Safety & Inspection Service

“A disability is not always obvious. I have a speech disability. Years after completing my postdoc, it was nearly impossible to make a presentation at scientific meetings without stuttering in every sentence. I realized that, fair or not, my inability to speak one-on-one, and especially in public, was limiting my career. Nearly two decades of participation in Toastmasters, a group to help improve public speaking skills, enabled me to better understand communication and improve my speaking skills. I’ve won awards for the quality of my presentations, and that’s because I put a lot more effort into making a presentation than most people do. Now, I’m a scientific liaison, so a lot of what I do deals with communicating research and developing relationships with other scientists, scientific administrators, and organizations. Having a disability helped me develop perseverance and an appreciation for small but steady progress.”

Henry (Hoby) Wedler,
Credit: Ben Crawford
Doctoral student in chemistry, University of California, Davis

“As a completely blind computational organic chemistry Ph.D. student, I rely on senses other than vision to obtain information. In my lab, we have developed and implemented numerous solutions that have enabled me to perform my research at a comparable level to my sighted peers. The most significant adaptation we use is a 3-D printer for printing complex organic structures that I am investigating computationally. With 3-D printing, I am able to hold key structures from my calculations and glean nearly the same information that my sighted peers obtain from looking at pictures of their calculated structures using a graphical user interface. Although I am excited and proud of the work we have done to make computational chemistry more accessible to the disabled community, I am well aware that much still needs to be done before chemistry is fully accessible to chemists with disabilities.”

Karl Booksh,
Credit: U of Delaware/Evan Krape
Professor of chemistry, University of Delaware

“I broke my neck, C5–C6 incomplete spinal cord injury, freshman year of college while playing flag football. That was 1986. There have been a lot of advances over the years that are allowing increased access and participation by people with disabilities, but when it comes to full inclusion and full access to leadership opportunities at the best jobs and at the best schools, there’s still a lot of implicit resistance in the system. It’s not conscious bias; it’s unconscious bias.”



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Patricia Redden (November 17, 2015 11:26 AM)
This is a valuable contribution to the efforts to include chemists (and non-chemists) into a full professional life. There are still many obstacles to overcome, but it is wonderful to see what has been and can be accomplished.
E.G. Meyer (November 18, 2015 2:47 PM)
I am impressed by the way those with disabilities have worked to minimize their disabilities. Perhaps all of us have disabilities of one kind or another, but obviously some have disabilities which are truly a major handicap. To those people I have great empathy and am overwhelmed by their courage.
R. J. Merrer (November 18, 2015 3:48 PM)
With respect to the fellow's stuttering. Besides Toastmasters, therapy for stutterers offered by speech language pathologists is an immense assistance in overcoming this
Linda Wang (November 23, 2015 11:28 AM)
Thank you so much for the feedback on this article. Yes, we love sharing happy stories like these.
Colleen Fuhrman (December 20, 2015 10:46 AM)
These were great to see. I have a niece with Aspbergers. She also has a PHD in Forensic Chemistry/RNA. She lives in Ohio. I'm looking for a mentor that could open a pathway for her. She has been searching for a job since last Dec. when she graduated. The doors don't seem to be opening to the correct areas. I'm wondering how to help her put her abilities to use. We have tried all the web sites and Ohio Means jobs. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
Thank You,
Colleen Fuhrman
Linda Wang (December 28, 2015 9:18 AM)
Hi Colleen, one great resource is ACS's Committee on Chemists with Disabilities (CWD). I'm sure they can put you in touch with some mentors. John Johnston is the chair of CWD. He can be reached at

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