Success in STEM

Results of the Project Research Phase

  1. Background
  2. Methodology
  3. Results & Findings: Literature Review and Environmental Scan
  4. Key Themes
  5. Results of the interviews
  6. Discussion & Conclusions
  7. Next Steps


This manual is built upon the research findings revealed through the National Educational Association of Disabled Students’ (NEADS) two-part study on “Enhancing Opportunities for Post- Secondary Students and Graduates with Disabilities in Science and Technology Related Fields” – funded by the Imperial Oil Foundation and conducted by lead research consultant Jessica Cowan- Dewar. The first phase of the project consisted of a literature review and environmental scan to gather information and identify key themes, which were then used to develop a topic guide for a series of key informant interviews. The next phase consisted of interviews with students, graduates, and employees with disabilities; employers, academics service providers, and career counsellors within the science and technology sectors in Canada.


A review was conducted of both the peer-reviewed literature and the grey literature related to the representation of persons with disabilities in the sciences and technology-related fields. Using a number of education, science, and technology databases, the peer-reviewed literature was searched and articles 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of the grey literature was conducted primarily through the search engines Google and Google Scholar; in some cases, unpublished but relevant papers were found on key websites such as that of the American Chemical Society ( The literature review and environmental scan were concerned with the following fields of science: mathematics, chemistries, physics, environmental sciences, geology, information (and other) technologies and engineering. Literature from both the health sciences and biological sciences was excluded, because these fields were beyond the scope of this initiative.

The environmental scan methodology was multi-pronged and included internet searches using Google, following up on suggestions from the Science and Technology Project Advisory Committee of NEADS, contacting relevant organizations and corporations, sending out an email to Canadian college and university disability service providers, posting several requests for information on electronic discussion forums 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 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, in a workshop entitled “Enhancing Opportunities in Science and Technology Related Fields.”

Results & Findings: Literature Review and Environmental Scan

Not surprisingly, the literature and program information indicate that there is an underrepresentation 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. In addition, a number of themes emerged from the literature review and the environmental scan.

Key Themes

Canada vs. United States

Locating peer reviewed literature relevant to this project from Canadian sources proved difficult. There is 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. This may be explained by the fact that in the U.S., the National Science Foundation and relevant government agencies have made disability an area of focus. There is also a dramatic contrast between the number of American vs. Canadian organizations and corporations that have welldeveloped 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.

The discrepancy between the number of relevant U.S. vs. Canadian programs can be explained, at least in part, by 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.” ( In contrast, Canada has no unified act which promotes or mandates the integration of people with disabilities into mainstream society. Ontario has an act which is analogous to the ADA, but no other province does. All other relevant Canadian legislation states that people cannot be discriminated against in education or employment for having a disability, but makes no mention of how to accomplish this objective.

Attitudinal Barriers

A review of the literature demonstrates that attitudinal barriers have been and continue to be central to the struggle of persons with disabilities in science and technology fields. According to the organization 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” ( One U.S. initiative, NFB-Youth Slam, chooses to confront attitudinal barriers head-on by facilitating a four-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.”

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 in the United States 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:

  • 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;
  • NASA: Dryden Flight Research Centre’s Cooperative Education Program, 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, mathematics, or computer science;
  • Microsoft’s Outreach Programs for Youth with Disabilities, which has been operating for almost 10 years, is committed to engaging with youth with disabilities in order to encourage them to consider future careers in technology;
  • ENTRY POINT!, a collaborative program (among AAAS, industry and U.S. 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. Nothing equivalent exists today in Canada.

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 science and technology sectors (Duquette, 2000; Alston, Bell & Hampton, 2002). Mentors are also central to the participation of people with disabilities in science and technology related fields, as they can 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. Their 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, advocating, coaching, teaching and advising. Mentors provided the foundation that enabled deaf individuals 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 science and technology related fields. NFB-Link is an online mentoring program that provides resources and offers guidance on a plethora of blindness and career-related topics and is found at the following URL:

AccessSTEM is an excellent website 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 a great website that provides materials to help make science and mathematics classes, careers, and colleges more accessible to individuals with disabilities. (see AccessSTEM website.)

Case Studies & Personal Stories

A number of non-Canadian case studies found in the literature (Reis, Neu, McGuire, 1997; Stern, 2002; Metelko, 2003) go a long way in conveying the experiences of people with disabilities in 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 a noteworthy read (Metelko, 2003). These personal stories and case studies effectively communicate some of the nuances and issues often omitted from the academic and program literature.


Another recurring theme that emerged from the literature is that of employers being 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, such as those mentioned in the “Internship Opportunities” section above.

Results of the interviews

The 27 key informants interviewed across Canada, with differing backgrounds and a variety of experiences within science and technology, offered unique and valuable insight to our project. 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 a central aspect to the level of representation of people with disabilities in science and technology was addressed by almost every person interviewed. These attitudinal barriers take a variety of forms, including 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 ten years of his life working in factories before he found out about three universities in the U.S. that were geared towards deaf students at that time.

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 suggested 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 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 do this. 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 with 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 technology sectors.

The most frequently cited barriers to increased representation of people with disabilities in science and technology include:

  • Lack of opportunities (“People are not going to go to school if there are no jobs when they get out”);
  • Lack of awareness and promotion of opportunities (“Not knowing it is possible to have a successful career in science and technology fields”);
  • Lack of support (from parents, teachers, guidance counselors, etc.);
  • Lack of knowledge and awareness around accommodation (in high school, university and college, and in the work force);
  • Lack of adequate accommodation (i.e. labs are not set up for people with mobility issues and many schools and faculties do not let students take a lighter course load – especially in first year);
  • Requirements of full-time study (often not possible for students with disabilities);
  • Time (takes time to travel, to access information in alternative formats, to learn to cope in the classroom, to arrange accommodations; people with disabilities often require more time);
  • Resistance amongst employers toward arranging remote working situations (especially relevant to people with certain disabilities such as acquired brain injuries, mental health issues, chronic illness, etc.);
  • Lack of examples/role models/mentors (e.g., professors, researchers, postdoctoral fellows, and industrial and government scientists).

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 mobilityrelated 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 seem to be more “accepted” than others. Mental health-related disabilities, in particular, 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.

Discussion & Conclusions

The representation of people with disabilities in science and technology related fields 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 science and technology sectors 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 couple of years — until 2005 — the Canadian 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-FoodCanada, 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 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 a 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 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 the issue of people with disabilities participating 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, former NEADS President (Medical Biophysics, University of Toronto), who is 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 professional 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 U.S. government, has taken a variety of forms including “working with special education 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 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 sections on universal design, accommodation strategies, rights and responsibilities, resources, presentations, and a searchable knowledge base. This website could prove to be a useful template for an organization, such as NEADS, which may be looking to develop a similar forum for Canadian teachers and employers.

The central importance of mentorship to people with disabilities in science and technology emerged clearly from the literature review and environmental scan. This finding was strongly supported by the key informant interviews. It is a recommended priority area for NEADS to address. Any organization interested in developing a mentorship program may want to start by investigating 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’ ENTRY POINT! (detailed above). This collaborative program reasons 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 pursuing 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 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.

Next Steps

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; improve research on students with disabilities and their progress in a variety of fields; 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.

Based upon the results of the initial research, this guide will highlight the following key areas: Accommodation issues; disclosure in academia and the workforce; self advocacy and personal rights; job search strategies; mentorship and training opportunities; and personal stories of triumph and tribulation from individuals with disabilities with the science and technology fields.