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Workshops - Enhancing Opportunities in Science and Technology Related Fields

Opportunities and opening minds (Candid comments from the security of tenure)

Dr. Kathryn Woodcock, P.Eng.

Watch streaming video of Dr. Kathryn Woodcock

Kathryn is an Associate Professor at Ryerson University, focused on human factors and ergonomics. Her research interests include the application of human factors to occupational and public safety issues of performance, error, investigation and inspection, and to disability and accessibility. She also heads the THRILL lab, researching and developing applications of human factors/ergonomics to amusement ride safety (www.ryerson.ca/thrill) as well as supervising graduate students in the Mechanical Engineering Graduate Program (MEGP). She was appointed to the Ontario Accessibility Standards Advisory Council, to help implement the Access to Ontarians with Disabilities Act (2005). She has also published a book on deafness, and was the first deaf president of The Canadian Hearing Society.


From faking to fair-weather promises of accessibility services, tension with people who “knew better” and people who didn't want to know, concessions and compromises, the path to engineering and particularly academia is not a smooth one but neither is it entirely insurmountable. This presentation will explore some of the struggles Kathryn has come across in her own studies, and share coping mechanisms and wishes for the next generation of people with disabilities seeking education and careers in science, engineering, and technology.


If deaf people were not under-represented in academia, said Dr. Kathryn Woodcock, there would be 300 deaf university professors in Canada, instead of two.

A professional engineer as well as a professor, Dr. Woodcock was appointed to the Accessibility Standards Advisory Council of Ontario and was the Canadian Hearing Society’s first deaf president.

Dr. Woodcock took participants on a journey back to her time as an undergraduate. In those days, her strategy was to sit in the front row and lip-read. This was particularly challenging when some teachers spent most of the time writing on the board. Only later did Dr. Woodcock realize that teachers explained as they wrote on the board. This shed some light on some bad grades, which had made her believe she wasn’t as bright as some peers.

Dr. Woodcock remembered a teacher who knew she was deaf and still paced the classroom while he taught. Dr. Woodcock got the information when he walked towards her, but not when he walked away from her. Such was life. With no disability services or mixed-ability culture to support her, she had to manage as best as she could. “In those days,” she said, “you just had to suck it up.”

After graduation, continuing to “suck it up” involved excruciating challenges such as answering the telephone, when all she could hear were vowels. But it was hard enough for a woman to find work as an engineer even without a disability. Fortunately, her luck turned and she moved into a more inherently suitable role in industrial engineering in health care that involved less telephoning and more analysis and consultation.

Dr. Woodcock attributed her first executive position in a hospital to luck and to the toughness inherent to the engineering culture. It helped her focus not on her disabilities, but on her selling points: systems thinking and writing skills.

Her first coping strategy, Dr. Woodcock said, was “faking”—not misrepresenting anything but rather representing herself at the maximum of her abilities. As a result, her hearing impairment never came up during interviews. People understand labels differently, she said and “disclosing earlier than necessary may be lethal.”

While Dr. Woodcock worked at the hospital, she pursued a Master’s degree part-time, learned sign language, and eventually earned a PhD. It was not all “happiness and holding hands,” she said. Many promises of access were unfulfilled. Universities agreed to pay for interpreters they were later unable to find. Scientific societies either refused to provide interpreters or did provide them but refused to leave the lights on so that Dr. Woodcock could see them.

As a result, her second coping strategy became, “Don’t take yes for an answer.” She urged participants to make sure they are given what they need and to assume the worst—that access arrangements will fall through the cracks—and double check.

Another challenge is smart people who think they know best. In science and technology, this often means a fixation on technologizing the access process and eliminating human intermediaries. But communication is not just about the message; it is also about the relationship between the people conveying and receiving the message. From people’s wrong assumptions she learned to always state what type of access accommodation she wants, what she does not want, and why. “You must be an educator,” Dr. Woodcock said, “even if you didn’t sign up for that.” This applies even when dealing with “experts” on deafness who are not deaf and who think, for example, that deaf people should only specialize in Deaf Studies Solutions range from crying in the shower to writing a snappy letter to the editor, she said.

Dr. Woodcock’s third coping strategy is “Pick your battles.”

She warned participants that picking a field in high demand is not a foolproof strategy to land a job. Her fourth coping strategy, she said, is “Have something special.” This will give low-level managers the bravery they need to “sell your skills to their boss.” Dr. Woodcock also emphasized the importance of having goals, even if they change every day. She said everyone should have a goal they could rant and rave about in an interview.

Dr. Woodcock told participants they would be unable to make everything happen for themselves, but they could make some great things not happen by not being ready to take advantage of an opportunity. “You’ve got to be ready for luck.” She told them they could go anywhere they wanted, as long as they knew where they wanted to go.

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