Skip to main content

College Hosts Celebrating Diversity in STEM Dinner

Keynote speaker John Samuel
John Samuel, co-founder and CEO of Ablr, gave the keynote speech at the event.

On Sept. 14, the College of Sciences hosted its annual Celebrating Diversity in STEM Dinner, which brings together students and science leaders of diverse backgrounds, including NC State faculty, alumni and friends.

This year’s dinner featured a keynote speech by NC State alumnus John Samuel, co-founder and CEO of Ablr, a disability inclusion and digital accessibility company. Ablr’s mission is to remove the barriers that people with disabilities face when trying to access education and employment by providing training to employers, educational institutions and job seekers. Over the last two years, Ablr has gained 70 new clients, including the Carolina Hurricanes.

Samuel, who is blind, spoke about the personal and professional challenges he faced in his college years and early career. With the help of accessibility technology and mentors, he went on to finish graduate school, run successful businesses and even climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

To make NC State — and society as a whole — more inclusive and accessible, Samuel said it is important to keep in mind that accessibility benefits everyone.

“If we can make it work for (one) individual — it’ll help everybody,” he said. “We often talk about certain physical attributes like curb cuts, right? Curb cuts were designed for people using wheelchairs, but how many people benefit from a curb cut? When we think about it from that wave, we can create accessible experiences for individuals with disabilities.”

This approach can be applied to recruitment, hiring and onboarding processes in the workplace. There is a common misconception that it is costly for employers to accommodate employees with disabilities, Samuel said. In reality, about 50 percent of the time, accommodations cost less than $500.

Joann Blumenfeld, director of Catalyst, spoke about the work the program is doing to ensure that students with disabilities have access to STEM careers. Catalyst, one of the programs at The Science House, is designed to equip high school students with disabilities with the knowledge and training to enter STEM fields.

Blumenfeld, a former public school educator, started Catalyst six years ago after noticing inadequate support for students with disabilities in the public school system and learning that 80 percent of people with disabilities between the ages of 24 and 64 are unemployed.

Apart from learning STEM content, Catalyst students receive help with resumes and cover letters and learn to advocate for themselves. Blumenfeld noted that all Catalyst students have gone on to STEM programs in college.

“I tell my students that they don’t have disabilities — the education system has disabilities,” she said.

Dean Chris McGahan gave the closing remarks, noting that the college’s culture charter includes a vision statement calling for the expansion of equity, public participation and discovery in science to create a sustainable, data-driven and just future.

“When we make this college, this university, a diverse and welcoming place, we accomplish so many things, including diversifying the pipelines in our own disciplines and ultimately, diversifying the workforce,” she said. “Nothing has made me prouder than our continuing work each and every day to make this college a place where students, faculty and staff from all groups and backgrounds can study and work in a comfortable and inclusive environment.”

The Celebrating Diversity in STEM Dinner was sponsored by BASF. Students, faculty and staff can find accessibility resources at Accessibility at NC State.