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Most APS members who attend scientific meetings rarely give more than a passing thought to how they would cope with negotiating the multiple parallel sessions and access amenities if their mobility, sight, or hearing was impaired. To help rectify that oversight, the APS has formed a special task force to discuss ways in which the Society can better meet the needs of its disabled members, through increased awareness of the unique difficulties they face, as well as possible intersociety cooperation to facilitate the participation of disabled physicists at conferences and meetings.
Specifically, the Task Force on Physicists with Disabilities is charged with examining steps that the APS could take to help physicists with disabilities function effectively as professional scientists, and to recommend changes in Society policies and procedures that are needed to achieve this goal. In addition, it will also suggest actions that could be taken by others within the physicists community, and seek to publicize these suggestions widely. A final report will be prepared and presented to the APS Executive Board and Council within a year of the task force's appointment.
The idea for a task force came about through a conversation with Pui-Kuen Yeung (Georgia Tech), an active APS member who is hearing impaired, according to APS Executive Officer Judy Franz, who is currently acting as chair. Yeung was concerned about the lack of access support available at APS and other scientific meetings for scientists with hearing, sight or mobility problems, such as electronic hearing aids and non-carpeted ramps to access speaker platforms. He is one of the members of the fledgling task force, along with Noah Hershkowitz of the University of Wisconsin, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and is wheelchair-bound. The other members of the APS Task Force on Physicists with Disabilities are Ron Armale (Cypress College); Charles Siegal (Munger, Tolles and Olson); J.A. Gardner (Oregon State University).
The various difficulties encountered by disabled members at scientific meetings was the focus of the task force's first meeting by conference call, and Hershkowitz points out that many of those he routinely encounters could be alleviated simply by increased awareness of the presence of disabled physicists. For instance, speakers' platforms are usually raised, with steps for access, posing a problem for those confined to wheelchairs, like Hershkowitz. Some hotels have meeting rooms located at mezzanine levels with no elevator access, forcing those in wheelchairs to gain access through kitchens, back stairways, or service elevators. (Once Hershkowitz's hotel escort got lost attempting to navigate the maze of back passageways.)
"We all need to be a bit more aware of these issues, as well as more empathetic and helpful towards our colleagues who struggle with disabilities," says Franz, adding that input and commentary from the APS membership as a whole on this issue is welcomed and encouraged. And teaming up with other scientific societies could help achieve enough economic clout to cause hotels to pay more attention to the special needs of disabled guests. "Obviously we don't have that many disabled members, but if we combined those from all the societies together, we might reach a sufficient critical mass to make a difference," she adds.
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