Oregon State University

College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences

Disability access in STEM: Arwen Bird opens doors and minds with compassion and conversation

Arwen in outrigger canoe

By Abby Metzger

Posted March 18, 2019

On a wintery night as a freshman in college, Arwen Bird was driving home from a party. A drunk driver plowed into her car, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. You could say the accident took away so much. Arwen had to learn a whole new way of interacting with the world, from getting dressed to navigating notched sidewalks. But in many ways – maybe the most important ways – Arwen is still Arwen: a multi-generational Pacific Northwesterner, an avid paddler and gardener, a passionate communicator and activist.

Twenty years after the accident, Arwen earned her master’s degree in marine resource management from Oregon State University, participating in field courses and studying stakeholder engagement in the marine reserve planning process in Oregon. The experience was not without challenges. Finding accessible housing in Corvallis was difficult. An undergraduate dormitory was her best option, but it was noisy. The Oregon State campus still had inaccessible spaces, and getting on a research vessel during her field course proved onerous.

Marine Resource Management Program Director Flaxen Conway says having Arwen as a student was an awareness-raising experience. “Arwen was one of my favorite flashlights. With her loving heart, intellect and no-nonsense outlook, she illuminated so many things,” Conway recalls. “For me, it was an opportunity to say, time’s up. We gotta make some changes.”

Conway’s attitude is partly why Arwen says her experience at Oregon State was positive overall, despite the challenges. Instructors and leadership were open to having conversations about accommodations in both the classroom and field, allowing her to participate in almost all of the activities open to her cohort.

Such conversations don’t always happen for students with disabilities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). A 2011 study found that STEM students with disabilities received consistently fewer accommodations than those in non¬-STEM majors. This discrepancy may be one reason why fewer students with disabilities graduate within these disciplines, according to a recent report from the National Science Foundation.

At Oregon State University, the data are more encouraging. The first-year retention rate for students with disabilities, across all colleges, has been steadily increasing: In 2017-18, 82 percent of first-year students registered with Disability Access Services (DAS) were retained, compared to an overall first-year retention rate of 84 percent.

But there is more work to be done. DAS Director Martha Smith says her office has been working for years to improve services for students with both visible and non-visible disabilities. Sometimes this happens in small ways, like having OSU Facilities shovel ramps first during snowy weather, allowing everyone to get to class. Other times it’s course-correcting good intentions, like sensitivity training requiring able-bodied students to use a wheelchair for 30 minutes to see what it’s like to navigate campus with a physical disability.

“If you sit in a wheelchair for half an hour, what you experience is frustration. But someone who has used a chair for, say, 25 years, is very adept and facile,” she says. Smith suggests that a better exercise is to have students without a disability try to get from point A to B while avoiding uneven streets, sidewalks without curb cuts, and doors that don’t open automatically.

Smith also spends a lot of energy on advocacy, often by facilitating conversations between faculty and their students on how to achieve classroom outcomes while also supporting different abilities.

“I think the greatest gift DAS gives is conversation. That conversation involves faculty, who may need some help articulating what students are supposed to get out of an experience and whether other activities can accomplish their learning goals. And it involves students, who know best what they can and cannot do. Sometimes the conversation involves encouraging both parties to get creative,” she says.

Arwen was afforded that conversation with her professors as a graduate student at Oregon State – and it created a drastically different outcome compared to her undergraduate experience. Her story is a single, unique perspective among the myriad experiences of students with disabilities – a single story in the many more that must be told. Here is Arwen’s.

You were hit by a drunk driver. I can imagine the response after such physical and emotional trauma is very specific to each individual. What was it like for you?

I didn’t have the expected experience immediately, in part because I was already engaged in cognitive therapy. I had a seizure disorder as a kid and was working with a therapist about talking myself out of having seizures. So when I was injured, I was able to be in a cognitive place of acceptance. I knew I needed to do tons of problem solving to figure out how to take a shower and how to feed myself. I knew everything was going to be different. I just started to look at things as a series of problems to be solved.

As you look back, what else strikes you about your emotions post-accident?

I definitely experienced some sadness. For example, I used to ice skate. And that’s something I still miss. But I think the cognitive approach helped me realize that maybe I don’t miss ice skating as much as the wind against my face. Well, I can find that even using a wheelchair. So there was a period of adjustment – me learning all the basic needs, aspects of self-care, then returning to school, starting to think about different career options at a pretty young age. But as an adult who has been living with a disability for a while, it feels pretty integrated into my life.

You earned a master’s degree in Marine Resource Management. Can you tell us about your research?

I worked with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) to evaluate their 2010 marine reserve planning process. I particularly looked at the community engagement teams at three different locations and the satisfaction the team members had with their experience, both within the teams themselves and the entities they worked with during the planning processes. We then created a report for ODFW to use in the future.

You participated in a field course called Cascadia, a week-long excursion across Oregon. What was that like?

I think it’s sometimes hard for people to envision someone with a disability getting out into the field. I’ve experienced surprise from people when they hear that I am such an active paddler, because they might have unconscious biases thinking about what people with disabilities can do. There were definitely challenges, especially related to getting on a research vessel. It was obvious that it would be a lot of advocacy work on my part to get on one of the vessels. I had to evaluate whether I had a strong reason to be there, as most of my research was land based. I love being out on the water, and I wish that part could have been more accessible, frankly.

I’m thinking back to one of my own field courses in graduate school when we had someone in a wheelchair participate in the course. There were tendencies from the group (including me) to be over-accommodating. Have you experienced that?

I’ve definitely experienced the whole spectrum of how people relate to people with disabilities, including people pushing me without asking. I can tell they want to be helpful. The advice I would offer is, slow down and watch the person, just observe and get a sense of what’s happening for them, and then engage with them. Simply ask if they need help. Sometimes their response may be variable. I could be wheeling up the same hill two different days and one day accept help and the next day decline because I want the exercise. People with disabilities are just like everyone else. They’re going to have different days.

Can you talk about your time as an undergraduate, when you had a challenging experience abroad?

Yes, I had a really unpleasant experience on an overseas trip in Australia. The college was housing me in inaccessible locations, with stairs to get into the sleeping quarters or bathrooms that I could not use. There was one hike where I was told that if I went, then nobody could go. I made the choice to stay back at the camp because I didn’t want to restrict any of my colleagues from going on the hike. That was back in the late 90s, so a different era. But to me, access is less about adhering to ADA standards and more about willingness to make that welcoming space and try to problem-solve with you. This was one example where the willingness just didn’t happen.

You’ve been an advocate for people with disabilities. Can you talk about some of your activism?

A lot of my focus recently has been coordinating an adaptive paddle clinic, the first one in Oregon that I know of. I paddle an outrigger canoe, so this was a passion project for me. Over the years I’ve done a lot of work around disability access. When we make spaces accessible, we are actually creating more space for all kinds of people to access. When we put a ramp in, it also makes the space more accessible for kids, parents with strollers, someone carrying a heavy package. OSU was the first place that I saw the touch-less sensors to open doors – those are amazing, and another great example of universal access improving everyone’s access. I was also on the Human Rights Commission for the City of Portland before graduate school and did some advocacy around sidewalk ordinances. Prior to that, I did advocacy work for different trauma survivors, including women with disabilities experiencing depression.

Some of your activism is surprising. For example, even after your accident, you have worked against the death penalty and tough-on-crime ballot measures. Why?

We frame things too often in terms of punishment, but punishment is the easier response. We think we’ve “solved the problem” by convicting someone and assigning some pre-determined punishment. But we haven’t. The harder work is working with that person to help them understand the harm they’ve created and try to make amends, if possible. Sometimes a survivor doesn’t want contact, and that’s completely understandable. Other times there are ways for that person to make amends. For example, I did some public speaking with somebody who killed three people while drinking and driving. After serving time in prison, he worked as a drug and alcohol counselor in a facility for women and children, because the people whose lives he took were a mom and two kids. For him, it’s a way to make amends for the harm he created.

That sounds a little bit like restorative justice, or trying to make amends through reconciliation rather than a punitive justice system. Did you yourself try and make amends with the driver who hit you?

I had a dialogue with him about eight years ago. I did preparation work for about a year and then sat down with him for about three hours. I wanted to humanize him and also let him get to know me as a human. He was convicted and ordered to pay restitution, but all of it was very sterile. I wanted to offer a more humanizing experience. But unfortunately, he was still in a place of beating himself up about his choice and still thinking of me as a victim rather than as a person. I would say that psychologically, he is right where our criminal justice system wants to put people – self-loathing and self-hating. That’s where I come back to my activism, and push our criminal justice system to do more for people who are hurt by other people’s choices.

When institutions talk about underrepresented students in STEM, people with disabilities often seem left out of the conversation, at least to me. Is that fair to say?

I always get so excited when we make the list! Even though it’s an old conversation, it’s also a nascent conversation in terms of inclusion. There’s still some unconscious bias around disability. It’s not part of dominant culture to see images of people with disabilities recreating or engaging in science. I’m retaking some chemistry courses right now, and most of the historical researchers or chemists we’re learning about are white men. It continues to be the model that gets replicated over and over again. I do a little rabble-rousing in my class! In terms of people with a disability, we have existed for as long as people have. Only recently have we been thinking about participation in STEM.

Even with a visible disability, do you ever feel invisible? And I don’t mean in a victimized sense, but perhaps isolated?

Oh for sure! People may imagine the amount of effort that it would take to engage with me, and make a conscious or unconscious calculation about whether it’s worth it. Maybe they don’t have the bandwidth for that. But it’s a whole spectrum. Somebody will come up and start pushing me without asking my permission, and it throws me off. The other end of the spectrum is people ignoring me, or talking only to the person who I’m with. I recognize in those moments that my disability is just a mirror of that person. It’s not about me, it’s about them and their own comfort level, or where they are in their process of awareness and acceptance.

Do you get fatigued by having to inspire awareness among people without disabilities? Even this conversation could be fatiguing, or one you’ve had many times before!

There are definitely some days that are different. It just depends. Some days I do want to help somebody, and sometimes I don’t. Now that I’ve had over 25 years of navigating other people’s feelings about disability, I feel like I’ve developed a sixth sense about the possible outcome of an interaction.

Where does the conversation need to go? What are we not talking about and what should we be talking about to bring greater awareness to these issues?

There’s still a sense of “other” when it comes to people with disabilities. Moving forward, I would like deeper conversations about the roots of this “othering.” When we’re having a conversation about race, gender, sexuality, or ability, there’s very much the same force behind those divisions. The more we work to understand and ameliorate those divisions and come to realize we aren’t that different from each other, our culture will shift. And our ability to create more inclusive STEM-based programs will shift as well.

You wrote once that your disability has strengthened your compassion muscles. What do you mean?

We’re all just trying to figure things out. So it’s about seeing the humanity in people and connecting at the heart level – with the person sitting across from you.


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