Neuroscientist Joey Ramp is Breaking Down Barriers for Disabled STEM Students With Service Dogs

June 29, 2021

People with disabilities lack equal access in academia and this is especially the case in science and other STEM subjects. Having faced this, neuroscientist Joey Ramp is out to change the picture. Ramp helps disabled students with service dogs pursue STEM majors and works with universities to build an open minded, accessible culture.

Joey Ramp was in her early 40s when she began relying on the support of a service dog following a riding accident. She sustained a traumatic brain injury which impacted her cognitive functions to some extent. Ramp had to relearn how to speak clearly and developed PTSD, anxiety, and depression.

Five years later Ramp decided to go back to school and study neuroscience to get a better understanding of the changes in her. She went with Theo, her first service dog. She was told by her academic advisor she could not major in chemistry as service dogs were not allowed into science labs. This was a huge setback for Ramp.

“The injury led to some nerve damage so many a times my brain will say my left foot is moving when it isn’t. I cannot drop my head below my waist as I will pass out. So, if I drop something in the lab, I can have my service dog come to my side, and I brace myself on him and pick it up. He does balance and brace. He also does medical alerts. Because of PTSD, certain situations in the external environment can bother me. My service dog picks up on my behavioural changes and nudges me. – Joey Ramp, Founder, Empower Ability Consulting

Disabled STEM students face many barriers to inclusion

Many negotiations later, Theo was finally allowed into the lab with Ramp, clad in personal protective equipment like everyone else. But this became an ongoing battle, one that Ramp would have to deal with at the start of a new semester. She transferred to the University of Illinois, known as one of United States’ most disabled-friendly universities. Here too, there was pushback with some of the strongest resistance coming from a senior professor. Ramp persisted and won. “Mine was the first service dog to be granted access in 150 years in the University of Illinois”, says Ramp..

These repeated battles underlined the barriers disabled STEM students face across schools and colleges and contributed to Ramp’s decision to pursue disability advocacy as a career. She founded Empower Ability Consulting (EAC) in 2017 to help colleges in the U.S. as well as other countries develop policies for service dogs in laboratories. Ramp also helps disabled students with service dogs studying STEM to work out their expectations with universities.

“I am no longer working with students in core courses, which was my initial target”, says Ramp, “but also graduate students who are looking at moving into an industry. I want anyone who has a dream to go into science, whatever their life experiences may be, to be able to do that”.

Welcoming service dogs into science labs

For R*, a pharmacy student in Illinois, Ramp is an example and a mentor. R*, age 20, needs the support of a service dog. Ramp’s work, she believes, has paved the way for disabled STEM students with service dogs.

“I have been able to use the safety gear and procedures for service dogs that Joey worked on for science laboratories at two separate community colleges. When I was denied access to a job as a pharmacy technician, after a successful phone interview, passing a drug test, and meeting with the disability administrator because I attended an in-person meeting with my service dog, I contacted Joey and EAC. She is actively working to help me with support when meeting new job prospects, and working with me to help implement new inclusive procedures and policies so that service dog handlers can gain employment in the pharmacy industry”.

Designing accessible solutions for universities

Joey’s advocacy has led to many leading colleges and universities taking steps to address barriers faced by disabled STEM students with service animals. In 2020, the University of the Sciences (USciences), Philadelphia, established procedures to allow service animals in on-campus laboratory environments. The policy, which won many awards, was developed after consultations with Ramp.

Ramp’s expertise as a service animal handler and a researcher in science was incredibly helpful, says Kaitlyn Martin, Program Coordinator for Student Accommodations, USciences..

“She was instrumental in helping us identify necessary PPE and training behaviours for service animal safety. Moreover, she was able to provide first-hand experience and insight to answer questions from our faculty”, says Martin. There were some initial concerns about the presence of service animals in labs. “There isn’t much literature about this topic and we didn’t have any first-hand experience, so there was a lot of logistical pieces to consider. The most challenging part of the process was to think about procedures that made sense and could be applied for all of the unique types of labs that we have here at USciences. It took a lot of collaboration from many different departments, but the end result left everyone feeling satisfied”.

Ramp is currently working with the University of Arizona on a project that she cannot discuss.

“When Joey talks about her personal experiences, and those of students she has advocated for, I think people become very connected”, says Dr Joanna Wilson, Professor, Department of Biology, McMaster University, Canada. “They really understand what is at stake for students with disabilities in terms of lost opportunities, how much effort they have to exert to be given reasonable accommodations, and how unfair that really is. Her story, and those of students she has worked with, are powerful’. Ramp’s discussion has helped shift mindsets. “I think her advocacy is helping faculty to start with a more open mind.”

The attitudinal change is much needed. The recent report from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics at the National Science Foundation on women, minorities and people with disabilities in academic science highlights the extent to which scientists with disabilities are excluded. This, says Ramp, weakens both scientists with disabilities but science itself. She is also optimistic that attitudes are changing.

“The social injustices that have happened in addition to Covid have opened people’s eyes to the topic of diversity”, she says. “A few years ago, when I would give a presentation there would be hecklers and people with an agenda to discredit disability. Now, there are well thought out questions from people asking how they can make a difference. I hope this shift is sustainable”.

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