Dr. Wanda Diaz Merced is an astronomer who has had a visual impairment for most of her life, and attended school during a time when there was less awareness for the needs of students with disabilities, and who earned her Ph.D from the University of Glasgow. She grew up in Puerto Rico, where like all children, she became an observer to the world around her. “Even though my parents were poor and I had no exposition to science activities besides the science class in my school, I always knew I wanted to know how things worked.” Merced said of her life. This intrinsic curiosity about the natural world would lead Merced to pursue science as a professional career.
Most people consider math and physics to be very visual courses of study, and for Merced’s instructors it was no different, “My lecturers did not know how to convey the information. Data bases (where the measurements acquired by the satellites are stored), astrophysics, physics and mathematics were not accessible.” But to succeed, Merced needed access to this information same as all the other students taking these courses. To solve this dilemma Merced had to become her own advocate. Merced retold the story of a conversation with a professor, “I used to say things like…. describe what the equation is trying to solve, how the equation has been worked out and where that workout took the equation, to be able to conclude what you are saying.” She had to use very precise language to convey what she needed her professors to do. All the while maintaining empathy for her instructors. After all, this was not a learning structure that they were used to dealing with.
Merced’s level of empathy for her peers is self-evident when talking with her. She is constantly aware that her learning styles and presence is an irregularity within the scientific community. Even during her time in university, she described of her professors, “They did not know how to verbalize all [of the materials] because they are used to identifying things visually.” Even when talking about her life and the uphill journey through science she has taken, there are no ill feelings.
When she encountered ableism in the workplace, she made efforts to respond with poise and confidence. “Sometimes I would find people that out of the blue would say: I will not do it for you…” Merced remembered, “And to those I would reply: I will take that comment as either an act of extreme courage or extreme ignorance because I have not asked you to do it for me.” Merced continued, “I wanted to be respected, not feared. But I never took these situations as being negative.”
It was this confidence, and sureness that this was the path she wanted to dedicate her life to, that helped keep Merced on track. Though accommodations for blindness were not the only thing that she needed to manage during her university years. Her vision loss was caused due to a complication from diabetes, and as she described it, back when she was diagnosed her parents did not have access to the same amount of information that they might have had today.
Though it might be difficult to imagine a world where university students can’t get accommodations for medical reasons (such as needing to eat meals at certain times, in the case of diabetes maintenance) the Americans with Disabilities Act was not passed until 1990, and Merced graduated only 13 years later. In the United States, we saw a lot more awareness around accommodations at the university level pop-up in the mid-2000s. For Merced, while she could get accommodations for her blindness, she found it difficult to get the same adjustments made for her diabetes care. “If a test was scheduled to be taken during my meal times, I had no other choice but to compromise my health and delay changing the insulin and food intake.” Merced explained. This neglect to her health care, had a severe impact on her physical wellbeing and caused her to experience severe seizures.
Nevertheless, Merced did take the time and effort to try and take care of her physical needs as well as her intellectual ones, “It was time consuming but now I enjoy it.” She made sure to eat properly, get regular exercise, and take care of her health care as best she could, “I always say, ‘I better do it now than to regret it later.’ You need to keep your sights on the bigger picture.” Something she has done stunningly well of.
After graduating from undergrad in Puerto Rico, she did an internship at NASA before ultimately moving onto Glasgow. Today she works in South Africa at the Office of Astronomy for Development. There she is developing multi-sensorial ways of understanding the measurements made by satellite equipment. The goal is to help make science truly accessible for all learners. She engages with students at Althone School for the Blind in Cape Town, South Africa to test out methods. She helps the middle schoolers get their hands on real science equipment, and it is taught with them in mind, “Contextualization is very important because traditionally the disability experience is left out [of science education].” Merced continued, “My children are freed from that. They may bring their disability experience to their learning environment.”
Merced gets asked frequently by other students to include other types of disabilities in her work. She has tried to embrace this side of inclusion by taking part in the International Astronomical Union, which has a commission for education and development. There she can expand her horizons and work on making science inclusive of people with all types of disabilities, “We work towards full inclusion and presence in the research field.”
There is still a long way to go, she admits. One aspect that is difficult to address are the differences in needs within the Unions membership. There are two tracks of people with disabilities within the scientific community: those who are students with disabilities and move up, and those who become disabled while working professionally. The Union needs to find a way to address both levels of needs.
Overall, Merced has a high opinion of the astronomical community, “Astronomers are very embracing.” She said, “They just need to be reminded that people do things differently.” She explained that how we measure our science students needs to be more objective, and adjusted to how people with disabilities can conduct research. She emphasized that this doesn’t mean lowering academic standards, but rather making room for a variety of ways for a single task to be accomplished. “Lecturers need to bring sounds to the presentations, describe charts, describe the slides etc.”
The journey to a career in science is long, and arduous even for able-bodied students. For students with disabilities it can be even more daunting. Her advice to students with scientific ambitions is, “Victory and defeat is decided at the finish line not in the middle of the race. Do not give up!!! Make it possible and do not allow anyone to sway you from your dream!”
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