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Underrepresented and Unsung, Disabled People Strive for Inclusion in Biopharma

September 02, 2022

About one in four Americans live with some type of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), making disabled individuals the largest group of minorities in the country. However, their contributions are remarkedly underreported in the life sciences industry. 

The underrepresentation of disabled people in the industry stems from a lack of disabled people in STEM overall. There are many systemic barriers and challenges for those with certain disabilities to obtain a degree in the sciences and later, a job in the field. According to a recent Nature article, ableism plays a large role in the ability of disabled people to access laboratories, fieldwork and conferences, which are all opportunities to grow a scientific career. Physical spaces sometimes are not designed to accommodate those with physical disabilities, and people with “invisible” chronic illnesses face other challenges. These include being disbelieved about their illness and the extent to which it impacts them.

As part of BioSpace’s Diversity in the Life Sciences series, we spoke with four members of the biopharma community living with disabilities about their experiences and perspectives. Anita Cawley kindly voluteered to speak about her experiences on behalf of Catalyst Clinical Research. Anita has Cerebral Palsy, a condition which largely inspired and driven her career. 

If you look at career paths in the industry, many start in the more physical lab-based environment which can be challenging for those with physical disabilities,” Anita Cawley, Catalyst Clinical Research, said in an interview with BioSpace. She suggested that the industry could be better at “[looking] at how we attract people with physical disabilities through career paths that start away from the traditional lab work.

Anita’s lifelong ambition was to become a pharmacist at an industrial pharmacy. She attributes this to having cerebral palsy, a congenital disorder that affects muscle tone and how the body moves. Spending a lot of time in hospitals, she was curious about how drugs worked. Before obtaining her pharmacy degree, Anita approached the United Kingdom’s registration body for pharmacists. She shared that she faced pushback from the agency and was asked if there was something else she could do instead.

Rather than take ‘no’ for an answer, Anita pursued the degree, knowing that there were a variety of other occupations she could add value to aside from being a dispensing pharmacist. She actually had her pharmacist certificate signed by the same person that originally discouraged her from pursuing the field.

Over the course of her career, Anita has held roles in medical information, regulatory information management, clinical trial logistics and functional management at companies like Sanofi Winthrop, AstraZeneca and GSK. She then co-founded Aptus Clinical, now part of Catalyst Clinical Research, a company with expertise in the design and execution of early phase trials in oncology, advanced cell and gene therapies and rare diseases. As VP of Corporate Governance, she has implemented a highly effective clinical operations team and a fully integrated procedural infrastructure for client support.

I have a philosophy that, in some ways, my disability and my attitude toward it has positively influenced my career prospects in the industry,” Anita said. “The way I operate is to always treat a person as an individual, focusing on what they can do rather than what they can’t do. There is strength in diversity and we all have something to bring to the party, with or without a disability. We should embrace everyone’s uniqueness.

Read the full article here: Underrepresented and Unsung, Disabled People Strive for Inclusion in Biopharma | BioSpace