People with Disabilities in the Science and Technology Sectors: Research Findings – First Project Report
As part of the two-year initiative “Enhancing Opportunities for Post-Secondary Students and Graduates with Disabilities in Science and Technology Related Fields” - spearheaded by the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS) and funded by the Imperial Oil Foundation – a literature review and environmental scan were conducted during the summer and fall of 2008. The purpose of the literature review and environmental scan was to gather information and identify key themes that were used to develop a topic guide for a series of key informant interviews. Interviews with key informants – students, graduates and employees with disabilities; employers, academics service providers and career counselors – were held from October 2008 to January 2009. The results from each of these three phases of research will be used to inform the creation of a resource book for people with disabilities in the science and technology sectors. This guide will be published at the end of March, 2010.
The objectives of this report are a) to summarize the key findings and results of the literature review, environmental scan, and key informant interviews and b) use these findings and results to highlight some of the issues relevant to the representation of people with disabilities in the sciences and technologies – both in related fields of study and the employment market. It is my hope that these issues will be taken into consideration during the resource book development phase.
A review of both the peer reviewed literature and the grey literature related to the representation of persons with disabilities in the sciences and technologies was conducted. Using a number of education, and science and technology databases, the peer reviewed literature was searched and articles that were relevant to this project were identified. In addition, reference lists were cross-checked to ensure inclusion of the optimal number of relevant papers. Furthermore, a search of the grey literature was conducted primarily through the search engines Google and Google Scholar; in some cases unpublished but relevant papers were found on key websites such as that of the American Chemical Society (www.acs.org/). The literature review and environmental scan were concerned with the following sub-categories of sciences and technologies: mathematics, chemistries, physics, environmental sciences, geology, information (and other) technologies, and engineering. For the purpose of this review, literature from both the health sciences and biological sciences was excluded.
The environmental scan methodology was multi-pronged and included internet searches using the search engine Google, following up on suggestions from the Science and Technology project advisory committee of NEADS, contacting relevant organizations and corporations, sending out a mass email to Canadian college and university disability service providers, posting several requests for information on listservs including NEADS-L (the association’s electronic discussion forum), identifying and contacting key stakeholders, and in one instance, a face-to-face meeting.
The environmental scan led to the identification of a number of potential key informants for the interview phase of this project. Careful attention was given to selecting key informants from across Canada. Of the twenty-seven key informant interviews that were conducted (primarily over the telephone) between October 2008 and January 2009, two of the informants were scientists (with disabilities) working in academia, one was a high school teacher, five were disability service providers, seven were students, ten were employees or employers, and two were unemployed due to disability. In a few circumstances key informants responded to the interview questions by email. The interviews were analyzed and key themes and trends were identified. Interim findings from the literature review, environmental scan and key informant interviews were presented at the 2008 NEADS national conference “Learning Today, Leading Tomorrow” in Ottawa in November.
Results & Findings: Literature Review and Environmental Scan
Not surprisingly, the literature and program information indicate that there is an under-representation of people with disabilities in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields (Burgstahler, 1994; Burgstahler, 1995; Blumekopf et al., 1996; Alston & Hampton, 2000; Stern, 2002). The key findings and results offer further insight into this under-representation.
Project Advisory Committee & National Conference Panel
The environmental scan led to the identification of Dr. Kathryn Woodcock. Dr. Woodcock is an Associate Professor at Ryerson University. With an engineering background, she has published widely on both engineering-related topics, as well as on disability in academia. Dr. Woodcock agreed to become a member of the project advisory committee and participated in the workshop and panel discussion “Enhancing Opportunities in Science and Technology-Related Fields” at the 2008 NEADS National Conference. Marie-Eve Veilleux of McGill University and Jessica Cowan-Dewar (Consultant/Researcher for NEADS) also participated in the panel discussion. The panel was moderated by Paulo Monteagudo of Bishop’s University and the Quebec Representative, NEADS Board of Directors. Close to 178 conference delegates attended this particular workshop. Please see Appendix A for the transcript of this session, which includes a question and answer session with participants. The full conference report is available at http://www.neads.ca/conference2008/en/report.php.
Key Themes: Canada vs. United States
A number of themes emerged from the literature review and the environmental scan. Firstly, it was difficult to find peer reviewed literature (relevant to this project) from Canadian sources. There was unquestionably a larger body of U.S.-funded and U.S.-focused research and literature relating to the representation of persons with disabilities in the science and technology fields. Secondly, there is a dramatic contrast between the number of American vs. Canadian organizations and corporations that have well developed programs, mandates or strategies involving persons with disabilities in terms of recruitment, retention and training. In the United States, examples of programs include ACCESS (a 10-week summer program at NASA/Dryden Flight Research Centre for undergraduate and graduate students with disabilities majoring in engineering, science, mathematics or computer science),Workforce Recruitment Program (a workforce recruitment resource dedicated to identifying job candidates with disabilities) and Microsoft, which for almost 10 years, has been targeting youth with disabilities to encourage and support them in pursuing technical careers. These discrepancies can be explained, at least in part, by the more progressive U.S. disability-related legislation. Virginia Stern (director of the Project on Science, Technology & Disability in the Directorate for Education & Human Resources Programs, AAAS) explains that both assistive technology and civil rights legislation have provided “enormous advantages toward getting an education” (as quoted by Wilkinson, 2001). In particular, the passage of the wide-ranging Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 has had a significant impact on the lives of people with disabilities. According to The Center for an Accessible Society “… the ADA has profoundly changed how society views and accommodates its citizens with disabilities” (http://www.accessiblesociety.org/topics/ada/index.html).
Key Themes: Attitudinal Barriers
A review of the literature demonstrates that attitudinal barriers have been and continue to be central to the representation of persons with disabilities in the sciences and technologies. According to the Chemists with Disabilities (CWD) the primary barrier to the participation of people in fields requiring chemistry is attitudinal. Thus, the organization’s mandate is to “inform chemistry educators and employers of scientific and technical personnel about the capabilities and contributions of chemical professionals who happen to have physical, sensory, or learning disabilities” (http://membership.acs.org/C/CWD/index.htm ).
One U.S. initiative, NFB-Youth Slam, chooses to confront attitudinal barriers head-on by facilitating a 4-day academy for over 200 blind and low vision students from across America. The purpose of this initiative is “to engage and inspire the next generation of blind youth to consider careers falsely believed to be impossible for the blind”.
Key Themes: Internship Opportunities
A key theme that arose repeatedly from this research is that of the importance and value attributed to internship opportunities and cooperative education (Burgstahler, 1995; Stern, 2002). Internships for persons with disabilities are not a new concept. As far back as 1995, the Kennedy Space Centre became involved with the High School High Tech (HSHT) program in order to provide internships for high school students with disabilities (Luecking, 2004). The goals of the HSHT program are to “motivate students’ interests in high-tech careers and to assist students with disabilities to become independent, productive members of the workforce of the 21st century”.
Particularly strong internship programs include 1) NASA: Goddard Space Flight Centre’s Program for Individuals with Disabilities which has two internship streams - one for high school students and one for undergraduate college students with disabilities 2) NASA: Dryden Flight Research Centre’s Cooperative Education Programs “ACCESS (Achieving Competency in Careers in Engineering and Space Science)” is a 10-week summer work program for both undergraduate and graduate students with disabilities majoring in engineering, science, and mathematics or computer science 3) Microsoft’s Outreach Programs for Youth with Disabilities, operating for almost 10 years, is committed to engaging with youth with disabilities in order to encourage them to consider future careers in technology. 4) ENTRY POINT! is a collaborative program (among AAAS, industry and US government agencies) which provides students with disabilities with unique internship opportunities in science, engineering, mathematics, computer science, and some fields of business. AAAS has developed links with partners as diverse as IBM, NASA, Merck, NOAA, Google, Lockheed Martin, CVS, NAVAIR, Pfizer, Infosys, and university science laboratories.
Key Themes: Mentoring & Teaching
An important finding and recurring theme is the role that teachers and professors play, either as facilitator or barrier to the participation of people with disabilities in the sciences and technologies (Duquette, 2000; Alston, Bell & Hampton, 2002). Mentors are also central to the participation of people with disabilities in the sciences and technologies as they break down barriers and encourage students to persevere in their chosen paths (Stern, 2002). Foster and McLeod (2004) conducted a qualitative study of deaf graduates of the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. Findings highlight the central role that mentors (both informal and formal) played in the lives and careers of the graduates. Family members (especially parents), teachers, supervisors and co-workers were all cited as mentors. Mentorship took a variety of forms including, instilling self-esteem and confidence, advocates, coaching, teaching and advising. Mentors provided the foundation that enabled the deaf individual to break through what are often barriers to career success despite their skills and abilities.
A U.S. initiative supported by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) recognizes the inherent value in mentorship for the participation of people with disabilities in the sciences and technologies. NFB-Link is an online mentoring program that provides resources and offers guidance on a plethora of blindness and career-related topics.
There is an excellent website (AccessSTEM) that provides teachers and employers with guidance on how to increase the accessibility of both education and employment opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, to people with disabilities. In addition, Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT), an organization based at the University of Washington, has an excellent website that provides materials to help make science and mathematics classes, careers, and colleges more accessible to individuals with disabilities.
Key Themes: Case Studies & Personal Stories
A number of case studies found in the literature (Reis, Neu, McGuire, 1997; Stern, 2002; Metelko, 2003) go a long way in conveying the lived experiences of people with disabilities in the science and technology fields.
A publication entitled “Roadmaps and Rampways” (Stern, 2002) - the first major publication to detail the life experiences of students with disabilities from young childhood to the early stages of their careers in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields – is especially illuminating.
The life of Robert Shelton (a NASA scientist and computer software designer who was born with congenital glaucoma and lost his sight when he was 11 years-old) is particularly inspiring (Metelko, 2003).
These personal stories and case studies effectively communicate some of the nuances and issues often omitted from the academic and program literature. It would be prudent to include a good number of these (or others similar to these) in the planned guidebook.
Key Themes: Employers
Another recurring theme that emerged from the literature is that of employers as reluctant to hire people with disabilities (Alston, Bell & Hampton, 2002). A number of U.S. programs that actively work to counter this reluctance were identified including NASA: Goddard Space Flight Centre’s Program for Individuals with Disabilities. This program addresses this barrier through organized internships that promote the hiring and advancement of people with disabilities.
In addition, “Workforce Recruitment Program (WRP)” is a recruitment resource for identifying persons with disabilities as job candidates for employment in a number of fields. Through their Outreach Program for Youth with Disabilities, Microsoft develops partnerships with potential employers and conducts disability awareness and sensitivity training with these employers.
Please refer to Appendix B for a list of resources and links identified through the environmental scan and literature review.
Results & Findings: Key Informant Interviews
The 27 key informants interviewed across Canada, with differing backgrounds and a diversity of experiences within the sciences and technologies, offered unique and valuable insight to the project “Enhancing Opportunities for Post-Secondary Students and Graduates with Disabilities in Science and Technology Related Fields”. The findings of the key informant interviews were very much in line with those of the literature review and environmental scan. In fact, the theme of attitudinal barriers as central to the representation of people with disabilities in science and technology was addressed by almost every person interviewed. These attitudinal barriers take a variety of forms such as ignorance, misperceptions, stigma, discrimination, and stereotyping. Ignorance and misperceptions around the science and technology-related capabilities of people with disabilities in high school (amongst parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and the students themselves) were frequently cited. According to one respondent “many students with disabilities don’t know it is possible to go into science and technology”. A second informant believes that the poor representation of people with disabilities in science and technology is related to academic advising because “academic advisers direct people with disabilities to lower capacity jobs due to stigma and preconceived notions”.
Ignorance and misperceptions were also reported in university and college (amongst professors, administrators, career counselors, peers, etc.), and in the work force. One respondent explained that he was told in high school that there were no universities for deaf people; he spent 10 years of his life working in factories before he found out about 3 universities in the U.S. According to another key informant, “too often, students avoid degree programs in science and technology at their university because they think it would be too difficult to have a good career after graduating”. Furthermore, it appears that many employers have strong misperceptions about the limitations of employees with disabilities and the impact of these limitations upon their work. Other attitudinal barriers such as stereotypes also come into play. A number of respondents suggest that certain careers and programs of study may seem more “appropriate” for people with disabilities. Examples of “appropriate” careers included banking and communications whereas social sciences and humanities were noted by some as more “appropriate” programs of study for students with disabilities. In addition to external stigma, many respondents pointed out that internalized stigma acts as an important barrier to representation of people with disabilities in science and technology. Two of the informants recounted particularly dramatic experiences of stigma and discrimination. The first was an undergraduate engineering student who had a disability and needed to take a lighter course load as part of his accommodation. He could not obtain permission to take a lighter course load. This student had many people tell him that he would never become an engineer (including an associate dean and his academic advisor). He was even told to “pack his bags and go home.” He was not given appropriate accommodations so he appealed and re-appealed. Only when he threatened to file a human rights complaint did the university begin to make accommodations. The second informant was a visually impaired individual who had applied for a job in a technology-related company. This individual made it to the third round of interviews before he was told that they had decided not to hire him because his visual impairment would be too resource intensive - it would cost the company too much money and be too time consuming.
The dearth of visible mentors and the lack of successful role models were frequently reported as an explanation for the poor representation of people with disabilities in science and technologies.
The most frequently cited barriers to increased representation of people with disabilities in science and technology include:
A little more than half of the respondents felt that these barriers differ according to the type of disability. Several key informants mention the particular challenges that people with mobility-related disabilities may face in certain science and technology sectors. According to one respondent “a physical disability has an impact in jobs such as working in an oil refinery”. A number of the key informants pointed out that some disabilities are more “accepted” than others. Particular disabilities such as mental health-related disabilities continue to be profoundly stigmatized whereas there is lesser stigma attached to mobility-related disabilities. Furthermore, accommodations required for visible disabilities are often more obvious to employers than those required for invisible disabilities.
Very few people were aware of programs in Canada working to increase the representation of people with disabilities in the science and technologies. Ability Edge was the most frequently mentioned program. Ability Edge facilitates internships for graduates with disabilities and is part of the larger Career Edge program. Although a number of the host organizations are science and technology-related, the program itself does not specifically target science and technology graduates. Other programs mentioned (that were not previously identified) include:
The most frequently cited strategies for increasing the representation of people with disabilities in science and technology include:
Of the 27 key informants, 23 agreed that a mentorship program would be valuable. Informants believed that mentoring is an important way to gain support and insight from people who have had like experiences and faced similar challenges. One informant suggested that discussions with and advice from mentors may decrease the sense of isolation and anxiety experienced by students with disabilities who decide to pursue studies in science or technology. Another respondent suggested that a complex mentoring program is not required: Even a simple mentoring program such as a web page where mentors can fill out a profile and potential mentees can scan the list and connect with someone in their field would be sufficient. A second informant stressed the importance of ongoing mentorship:
“there needs to be support over the entire career trajectory, not only for undergraduate students. This is a very important point – once undergraduates leave university and enter jobs and graduate training, they still need access to mentorship and guidance, as well as to a network of peers (1) in their fields and (2) with people who share common issues with accessibility (e.g. Deaf Academics, Deaf Women in Science & Engineering). Otherwise, many people will give up and shift focus to career fields that have more accessibility options.”
There was close to unanimous consensus amongst the respondents that mentoring can play a key role in encouraging and supporting the participation of both students and employees with disabilities in science and technologies.
Twenty-three of the twenty-seven key informants saw value in an internship program offering work experience for students with disabilities. Several respondents believed that an internship program might open doors and reduce stigma about people with disabilities in the sciences and technologies. In fact, one respondent suggested that an internship program might “help open some minds and prove that persons with disabilities can reach as high as persons without disabilities”. According to one informant, “students may doubt whether or not they will be able to work in the area they are studying”. Also, internships were thought to “link real students with real companies”, provide hands-on experience in the filed, and present important networking opportunities. There was a strong sentiment that internships can go a long way to opening doors for students with disabilities. In addition, several respondents felt that internships may increase the profile and acceptance of people with disabilities in science and technology.
Discussion & Conclusions:
The representation of people with disabilities in the sciences and technologies is by no means a new issue. In fact, in 1975 the venerable scientific society, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) began to advocate for the admission and advancement of people with disabilities in science and engineering.
One notable exception to the dearth of Canadian programs working to improve the representation of persons with disabilities in the sciences and technologies is the Toronto Rehab Scholarship in Rehabilitation-Related Research for Students with Disabilities. This $20,000 renewable scholarship is open to Masters and Doctoral Students in the following rehabilitation-related fields: biomedical physics, chemical engineering, computer engineering, management of technology, mechanical engineering, physical sciences, physics, systems engineering, telecommunications, technology, medical biophysics, materials engineering, biotechnology, biochemistry, biochemical engineering, computer networks, and chemistry. Other Canadian institutions should follow the lead of Toronto Rehab and undertake initiatives that actively support students with disabilities in science and technology fields while helping to raise the profile of young scientists.
For a few years, up until 2005, the Canadian Federal government operated STARR (Science and Technology Abilities Recruitment and Retention) which was an innovative partnership among eight science-based departments and agencies to recruit and retain persons with disabilities into scientific and technical positions with the Federal Public Service. STARR was created to bring the representation of persons with disabilities to a fair and equitable level across departments and agencies through the active recruitment of students and new graduates. This initiative included visible minority persons with disabilities, aboriginal persons with disabilities and women with disabilities.
The program was offered through the following departments and agencies: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Canadian Space Agency, Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Health Canada, National Defence, Natural Resources Canada, and National Research Council.
The purpose of STARR was to provide a number of students with disabilities who are enrolled in science and technology programs at universities and colleges across Canada with job training through participation in various work experience programs offered by the partnering departments and agencies. It also supported the establishment of methods to encourage career development of persons with disabilities within the partnering departments and agencies. In order to be considered to participate in the program, an applicant had to be a Canadian citizen, eligible to work for the Federal Government, self-identify as a person with a disability and be studying or have graduated in the field of science and technology, or, have relevant experience in science or technology fields. Students who were returning to full-time studies in the fall could apply through the Federal Student Work Experience Program. Graduates could apply through the Post-Secondary Recruitment.
The program was said to have been developed because the Federal science and technology departments and agencies recognized people with disabilities as a “community at risk” not sufficiently represented in government jobs and that there was a substantial gap between the government’s stated commitment to be more inclusive, especially in the share of positions held by persons with disabilities and the number actually employed. The Science and Technology Ability Recruitment and Retention (STARR) Initiative was designed to support the government’s strategies to achieve a more representative, inclusive workforce and to project the Public Service as an employer of choice, while addressing the future, specific science and technology needs of each partnering department and agency. STARR is no longer in operation and the author could not find anyone to discuss the initiative and why it was not continued.
It is encouraging, however, that participation of people with disabilities in the sciences is getting greater media attention in Canada. The Winter 2009 Disabilities Edition of Jobpostings magazine – which is distributed across the country to over 100 universities and colleges – includes a feature story on this project and the most cogent issues related to the subject. The article profiles Dr. Mahadeo Sukhai, NEADS’ President (Medical Biophysics, University of Toronto) a Helena Lam Post-Doctoral Fellow of the University Health Network working at the Kamel-Reid Lab of the Princess Margaret Hospital/the Ontario Cancer Institute. This article, “NEADS project envisions more careers in Science”, cites relevant Statistics Canada data of which there is little: “Indeed research on the number of Canadian scientists with disabilities currently employed is next to non-existent. According to the most recent Participation and Activity Limitation Survey (PALS) conducted by Statistics Canada, 96,610 people with disabilities work in Canada’s profession, scientific and technical services industry. But this sector includes people working in legal services, accounting, architecture and engineering, management, scientific and technical consulting and last, but not least, scientific research and development.” (Jobpostings, Winter 2009)
A great deal can be learned from Microsoft’s (Outreach Programs for Youth with Disabilities) approach to partnership development. Their focus on establishing partnerships with local and national organizations, as well as the US government, has taken a variety of forms including “working with special ed teachers to arrange job shadow and career days, to match students with appropriate opportunities, help design and market programs, events, and participate in committees, and collaborating with community organizations, to conduct disability awareness and sensitivity training for employees”.
A key strategy for confronting attitudinal barriers is to increase the accessibility of the science and technology fields. The AccessSTEM website is an excellent example of a forum that is working to increase the accessibility of science and technology. This website provides elementary, high school and post-secondary teachers, as well as employers with ideas and guidance on how to make both education and employment opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics accessible to people with disabilities. The website also offers users the chance to share good practices. The website includes links to sections on universal design, accommodation strategies, rights and responsibilities, resources, presentations, and searchable knowledgeable base. This website could prove to be a useful template for an organization (perhaps NEADS) looking to develop a similar forum for Canadian teachers and employers.
The central importance of mentorship to people with disabilities in the science and technology emerged clearly from the literature review and environmental scan. This finding was strongly supported by the key informant interviews. I recommend this as a priority area for NEADS to address. The development of a sustainable mentorship program would likely be a less resource intensive strategy than the development of an internship program and would go a long way in offering support and encouragement to both students and employees with disabilities. If NEADS should choose to further explore the notion of a mentorship program, I suggest starting with the Canadian Merit Scholarship Foundation (CMSF). CMSF is a Toronto-based organization with a well-developed and well-honed mentorship program.
One of the best internship programs identified through the literature review is AAAS’s ENTRY POINT! (detailed above). This collaborative program purports that by expanding the pool of technical talent, industry and government will be in a better position to meet the challenges of the global economy. As a first step in this internship process, AAAS identifies and screens undergraduate and graduate students with disabilities who are pursing degrees in science, engineering, mathematics, etc. and places them in paid summer internships. In addition to the myriad partnerships with industry, government and academia, the strength of the ENTRY POINT! program is best illustrated by the estimate that 92% of ENTRY POINT! alumni are either working in the science or engineering fields or are pursuing degrees in graduate programs. Any Canadian organization considering developing an internship program (for people with disabilities) may wish to refer to ENTRY POINT as a solid example of such a program.
In ‘New Career Paths for Students with Disabilities: Opportunities in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics’ the author outlines five “next steps” to increase the representation of people with disabilities in science and technology, including: “Protect and strengthen the laws that we already have, encourage businesses, educators, and health care providers to support the enabling technology that can foster independence, provide legislative incentives to encourage corporate internships and the hiring of persons with disabilities ** For the employer and the student, internships are the most effective road to employment, improve research on students with disabilities and their progress in a variety of field, particularly STEM, and encourage communities, businesses, and schools to include persons with disabilities in local organizations” (Stern, 2002). Each of these “next steps” deserve careful thought and further exploration by all stakeholders concerned with the representation of persons with disabilities in the science and technology sectors.
The purpose of the literature review, environmental scan and key informant interviews was to inform the future development and publication of a guidebook “Promoting Careers in Canada’s Science and Technology Sectors to Students and Recent Graduates with Disabilities: Success Stories, Best Practices and Resources”. Based on the findings of this research it is pertinent to consider inclusion of the following elements in the guidebook:
Several key informants expressed their desire for NEADS to more effectively address the needs of people with disabilities in Western Canada. It is critical that the national mandate of NEADS be visible in all sections of this guidebook.
Finally, it has recently come to my attention that the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario has five working groups/committees (customer service, transportation, employment, communication and information, and built environment) working on accessibility legislation for the province. It would be prudent for NEADS to keep a close eye on this process and add its’ voice to those advocating on behalf of people with disabilities. Legislative changes in any of these five areas would unquestionably have an impact on the representation of people with disabilities in science and technology.
APPENDIX B: Resources and Links
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