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By Margaret Loftus
Photo: Travis Bilbee

In Their Grasp

Students with disabilities seldom pursue engineering or science careers. But that may be about to change.

Travis Bilbee has always struggled in the classroom. Lectures are tough to follow, and the allotted time for test-taking is rarely enough. In high school, he had to hit the books harder than most and relied on sympathetic teachers just to make passing grades. But it wasn't until he failed a math class as a junior at Ohio State University - his fourth college - that he finally underwent evaluation for a learning disability, at the urging of one of his professors. To his relief, Bilbee was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which qualified him for certain accomodations, such as the ability to review lectures online and take exams in a private area away from the distractions of the classroom. "My grades jumped," the welding engineer major marvels. "In two quarters, I went from academic probation to dean's list."

Set to graduate in June with multiple job prospects, Bilbee is one of the lucky ones. Thanks to dismal graduation rates, people with disabilities are one-tenth as likely to be in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers as their peers in the U.S. general population — a statistic that is especially troubling to educators and industry, given the decline in the ranks of U.S. engineers and the simultaneous growth in numbers of students like Bilbee. People with disabilities are the third-largest minority in the United States, behind those of Latino origin and African-Americans. “If you have a part of the population that’s not represented in STEM fields, that’s a lot of intellectual power that’s not being utilized,” says Richard Ladner, a computer science and engineering professor at the University of Washington who heads the school’s Summer Academy for Advancing Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Computing.

Now, the National Science Foundation is hoping to harness that power by funding several programs at engineering schools nationwide, including OSU and UW, to recruit and retain students with disabilities in STEM fields. The educators involved argue that beyond filling the shoes of retiring scientists, broadening the range of perspectives can help create better technological solutions for everyone. Indeed, the technologies behind such innovations as the Segway and voice-recognition software were originally created for people with disabilities. “Great ideas come from diversity, not from single-mindedness,” Ladner points out. “If you look at bigger companies like IBM and Microsoft, they pride themselves on having diverse workforces. They’re hiring people who are blind and deaf and in wheelchairs because they know they’ll do great things.”

Incapable? Not So

The umbrella under which disabilities are grouped is vast, ranging from people with diabetes to those with autism spectrum disorders. While the term may conjure up a vision of a person in a wheelchair, some 75 percent of disabilities are “silent,” with learning disabilities making up the largest and fastest-growing segment, according to Christy Oslund, student disabilities coordinator at Michigan Technological University.

And while disabilities like LD may strike some as being incompatible with the rigors of engineering, anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. “There’s been a misunderstanding that people with disabilities aren’t capable of doing engineering and science,” says Ladner. On the contrary, theories abound that people with certain disabilities may actually have a predisposition for STEM disciplines. In fact, NSF recently awarded a grant to the Rochester Institute of Technology to study a link between engineering and those with Asperger’s, a syndrome characterized by an affinity for detail. Another NSF study at the Smithsonian Institution Astrophysical Observatory is exploring how the neurological differences of students with dyslexia can lead to advantages for visual processing and learning in STEM.

Photo: Photo: Elaine Houston Elaine Houston

No matter what the disability, those who seek to operate in a world not entirely accessible to them must hone strong problem-solving skills to survive. “Even to pick up an object off the shelf, I have to strategize,” says Elaine Houston, a senior biomedical engineering major at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, who was born with no fingers on her left hand. Houston suffers from a weakness in her limbs that requires her to use braces or a wheelchair to get around. “I have a lot bigger tolerance for frustration and setbacks,” she adds. “All those skills are what you need as an engineer.”

Nonetheless, for many, the challenges of academic life can be overwhelming. Of roughly half of high school students with disabilities who plan to go to college, only 19 percent are enrolled in an undergraduate program two years after graduation, compared with 40 percent of their peers. The numbers of students pursuing STEM studies declines gradually from high school – where 11 percent of students have disabilities – to STEM undergrad programs, in which 10 percent of those enrolled report disabilities. The slump continues into STEM graduate programs, where only 7 percent of students have a disability. Less than 1 percent of doctoral recipients have disabilities.

Leveling the Field

Why the drop-off? For starters, the income of the families of students with disabilities is significantly lower that the average population, according to Mark Leddy, director of the NSF Research in Disabilities Education program. “For many, the cost related to their disability is a significant component of that.” As a result, he explains, “there’s an interest in getting a job as quickly as possible, rather than going to grad school.”

But that’s only the beginning. Students with disabilities can face a litany of frustrations on campus, from insurance woes to inaccessibility. Oslund explains that many risk losing their health insurance or financial aid, should medical leave become necessary. That leaves them with no choice but to stay enrolled and accept lower grades, even if they have difficulties making it to class.

Although the Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted 20 years ago, accessibility on college campuses still varies widely. Of the 12 campuses Houston visited as a prospective undergrad, she found Rose-Hulman among the most accommodating. Still, she says there’s a lot of room for improvement: She missed several days of classes this winter because heavy snow blocked her path. She wasn’t able to participate in one of her labs because the lab bench was too tall for her to sit on.

Students with so-called silent disabilities such as LD can also encounter resistance in the form of misconceptions. If students “can walk in on their own and they look fine, it’s sometimes harder to convince a professor that you’re not giving them an unfair advantage when you give them longer to take the test,” says Olsund. Even Bilbee admits he was somewhat skeptical of his own diagnosis at first.

Robotic Camps & Internships

Several NSF-funded programs are slowly making inroads to level the playing field for students like Bilbee and Houston. The University of Pittsburgh, for one, starts early with a program to introduce middle and high school students with physical, visual, and hearing disabilities to careers in STEM through job shadowing, robotic camps, and internships with local businesses. Extensive research programs in rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology design and development attract a wide range of students with disabilities to the school’s undergraduate and graduate schools. One of those was Houston, who spent last summer at Pitt working in the Human Engineering Research Lab. “I was one of eight wheelchair users,” Houston notes. “It was one of the first places I had a sense of community.” Her comfort level was enhanced by the fact that the lab’s director, Rory Cooper, has used a wheelchair for some 30 years. “He set an attitude like it was no big deal.”

Quote:'I have a lot bigger tolerance for frustration and setbacks. All those skills are what you need as an engineer.'Connecting students with role models is a big part of Ladner’s program. For nine intensive weeks each summer, 10 deaf or hard-of-hearing students are invited to UW for college-level computer science courses, including computer animation and visits with hi-tech professionals from Adobe, Boeing, and Microsoft, as well as with graduate students. “Deaf students don’t realize their potential because they don’t see role models like themselves,” says Ladner. “[Here] they learn the behaviors you need to be successful in these fields.”

OSU, along with Columbus State, Wright State, and Sinclair Community College in Dayton, was recently awarded one of nine NSF grants for Alliances for Students with Disabilities. Several of these provide stipends and help students land internships or obtain vocational rehabilitation services. OSU, for example, focuses on improving retention and recruitment rates of STEM majors by creating a network of disability-related learning communities, face-to-face mentoring, and internship placement.

It was through his participation in one such OSU learning community that Bilbee gained the extra confidence he needed for his job search. He was able to network with others with ADHD and get practical advice from industry speakers on matters such as how to disclose a disability to an employer. “Now that I’m getting ready to take the next step in life, I won’t have counselors to tell me what to do, so it’s been really helpful.”

Aside from preparing students for the work world, the alliances aim to increase the number of grad students in STEM. The results thus far have been hopeful. The number of doctoral recipients with disabilities has increased 18 percent over the past five years – a promising trend for students with disabilities, who need all the role models they can get. As an example, Leddy points to Carol Greider, a Johns Hopkins University scientist with dyslexia, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize for Physiology for discovery of telomerase, an enzyme crucial to the study of cell aging and cancer research. “She had very low test scores,” says Leddy. “Had she not gotten into grad school, what would we have missed in terms of the discoveries she’s had?”

Margaret Loftus is a freelance writer based in Boston.




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