Can you imagine being a young, ambitious, deafblind scientist with a small handful of rare diseases and being passionate about disability advocacy, determined to make your mark in the competitive world of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)? Then, meet Max, who is doing exactly that. This is the inspiring story of Max Fisher, who faces extraordinary challenges in their pursuit of a career in the STEM industry. Max is a cell line engineer at Revvity and co-lead of their new Disability Employee Resource Group.
Max is DeafBlind, has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, Visual Snow Syndrome, and Cold Urticaria. Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) is a connective tissue disorder that causes chronic pain and joint dislocations. Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome is a neurological condition that affects Max’s heart and causes fainting, tachycardia, and palpitations. Cold Urticaria means Max is allergic to the cold- touching cold causes hives, and breathing cold air causes Max’s airway to swell up. Visual Snow Syndrome causes TV static across their entire vision, as well as light sensitivity, night blindness, and afterimages. Max is also deaf.
Max’s journey as a young deafblind disabled scientist is filled with barriers and prejudices, yet it also showcases the resilience, tenacity, and determination required to break through these obstacles and make a profound impact on the scientific community.
“I am a DeafBlind and Disabled Scientist, and I advocate for people like me with rare diseases in STEM. Life with a rare disease in STEM has been difficult. From university employment teams telling me I’d never make it into a lab, to industry assuming I can’t get into the building. In fact, my disabilities make me a better scientist, and make me better at adapting to a changing situation than others.”
Understanding the Rare Disability
Before delving into the challenges faced by this remarkable scientist, who studied Pharmacology at University, it is essential to understand the unique nature of their disability. Being both deaf and visually impaired alongside rare disease complications means that Max is presented with a set of obstacles that few can comprehend.
As Max indicates: there is such a stigma around disability that it kept them unemployed for 3 and a half years. For 7 and a half years- throughout their undergraduate degree, postgraduate degree, and unemployment, they were told that they could not be a scientist because they are disabled. But, in their words, they are the phenomenal scientist they are because they are disabled.
Limited Job Opportunities
Despite possessing a brilliant mind and strong scientific acumen, Max notes that finding limited job opportunities in the STEM industry is normal. It took Max over three years of unemployment to realise that the issue did not lie with Max but with employers who overlooked Max’s capabilities due to preconceived notions about the capabilities of people with disabilities, especially those with multiple sensory impairments. The competitive nature of the job market compounds this issue further. Max knows this only too well:
“In an interview, everything was going well. They asked me about team working skills and leadership skills, and I talked about being a wheelchair basketball coach… “wheelchair…? basketball?” interview terminated as they “had everything they needed.”
Attitudes and Prejudices
One of the most significant challenges faced by any young disabled scientist is combating the attitudes and prejudices prevalent in society. Many people hold misconceptions about the capabilities of disabled people, assuming they cannot perform at the same level as their non-disabled peers. Max is frustrated that people have closed minds, jump to conclusions and do not listen. These prejudices can result in subtle discrimination, intentional or not, which impacts confidence and self-esteem:
“I’ve actually been accused of faking/exaggerating my visual impairment because “clearly you can see if you’re a scientist, it can’t be that bad, you can’t be blind,” which comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what deafblindness is and what visual impairment is. Similarly, deafness is for the people who say, “but we’re talking now“. I’ve experienced these prejudices in the medical field, too. I’ve been diagnosed with Cold Urticaria TWICE because “it’s so rare, you can’t have it”.
Despite the myriad of challenges, Max is not one to be easily deterred. Their journey is a testament to the resilience and strength of character that can be found in the face of adversity. Here are some ways Max has overcome the obstacles:
Advocacy and Awareness
Max has become an advocate for themselves and others with disabilities. They actively work towards raising awareness about the capabilities of disabled individuals and the need for more inclusive practices in the STEM industry. Educating others about their challenges and strengths breaks stereotypes and promotes understanding. As Max demonstrated when they first joined Revvity:
“You know, deaf people like me are everywhere. So when I started, I made a deaf awareness week newsletter that went out to the local site. As I was new, I didn’t want people to think that I was ignoring them. And I had so many people come up and say to me ‘I have hearing loss too’ or ‘I know someone with hearing loss and they really struggle with their confidence’. And I was able to have a discussion with them and reassure them that it’s totally normal. Hearing aids are normal. Tinted lenses are normal. Wheelchairs are normal. It’s all normal.”
Accessibility and Facilities
Max embraces cutting-edge adaptive technologies and develops personalised strategies to overcome the barriers they face. Moreover, the STEM industry often lacks adequate accessibility and accommodation for individuals with disabilities. Laboratories, research facilities, and workplaces may not be designed with the specific needs of deafblind and disabled scientists in mind. Simple tasks such as accessing laboratory equipment, conducting experiments, or interpreting data graphs become challenging without appropriate adjustments. Max collaborates with their labmates and the facilities team, who are very supportive.
Building a network of supportive mentors, peers, and colleagues plays a vital role in the success of Max. Supportive individuals who recognise their potential and provide encouragement help them navigate the challenges and keep their aspirations alive. As a Co-Lead for Revvity’s Disability Employee Resource Group, Max is able to drive positive change:
“And I’m in an incredibly privileged position that I am a co-lead of our new Disability Employee Resource Group. So I have a voice where I can highlight inaccessibility in all walks of STEM, for example visually accessible slide decks. They’re fully on board, and full of encouragement. ‘Sounds awesome! Make it!’. So I made it.”
Perseverance and Determination
Max’s journey is fuelled by unwavering determination and perseverance. They do not allow setbacks to define their path, using each challenge as an opportunity to grow and learn. Max’s passion and drive enable Max to continue pushing boundaries and exceeding expectations. The final words rest with Max:
“Disabled people CAN. Just be open minded. Being disabled makes me a great scientist, and a great employee. Especially in STEM. We look at standard deviations all the time. You have to have a deviation before you can have a standard. I want people to not panic when faced with a disabled person because we’re really cool, and we bring so much to everything we do. I don’t wish that I wasn’t disabled, because I wouldn’t get to do all this cool stuff on top of everything else. It’s awesome! Being a scientist is cool, but being a disabled scientist is cooler.”
You can learn more about Max and their perspective on navigating their youth as a disabled scientist at RARESummit23, where they will be accompanied by an expert Youth Panel.