Access to Engineering Education: A Test of Determination for Students with Disabilities

Gina Roos

The following article appeared in the Minority College Issue of Diversity/Careers in Engineering and Information Technology, Winter 1994/1995. Reprinted with permission.

Industry, educational institutions, scientific and technical organizations all agree that people with disabilities don't enjoy equal access to science, mathematics and engineering (SME) academic programs and careers. Engineering education is plagued by problems of both recruitment and retention.

Those problems take many forms. Counselors, social service workers, special education teachers, and family discourage precollege students with disabilities from entering SME fields because the work is seen as too difficult. Interested students lack role models - engineers with disabilities who are successful in technical fields. When it comes to post secondary education, many schools' lab facilities and computers are inaccessible. And students continue to face negative attitudes about admission into SME courses.

"We tend to think that American males and, increasingly, females can do whatever they want, but as soon as someone has a disability we ten do think of what they can't do," says Virginia Stern, director of the Project on Science, Technology and Disability of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, Washington, DC). "No one precisely says 'no, you can't be an engineer,' but it comes through in subtler ways."

Negative faculty attitudes are a big obstacle to overcome. Dave O'Neill, a visually impaired electrical and computer engineering student at Northeastern University (Boston, MA) and president of its Disabled Students Organization, says, "If there were a secret way around [attitudinal problems], life would be easier for students with disabilities."

Elain Seymour of the Bureau of Sociological Research, University of Colorado (Boulder, CO), reports that many instructors lack knowledge about the needs of students with disabilities. Often students with disabilities can't work at the same pace or in the same context as other students. Their computer access, particularly important for engineering students, will be limited if they don't have the assistive devices they need to compete on a level playing field.

Kevin Berg agrees. A computer science student at Seattle Pacific University (Seattle, WA), Berg has had cerebral palsy since birth. "Adaptive technology is important to disabled people because it's the only way most of them can use computers," he says.

The problems they face

One AAAS project was a study addressing - among other points - the barriers that people with disabilities face in seeking a technical education. Elaine Seymour of the University of Colorado, director of the project, notes a number of common problems among the seventy students interviewed. Students with disabilities worry even more than others about finances, because they often need several extra years to get a degree. Even worse, there are no objective financial-aid guidelines for people with disabilities. Awards can be highly discriminatory, and students with "hidden" disabilities like dyslexia are treated even less fairly.

Seymour found that some engineering departments are reluctant to accept students with disabilities into their programs, and slow to provide adequate accommodations. Again, students with hidden disabilities face more difficulties. Seymour concludes that universities need to make sure that engineering faculty understand and implement the overall school policy of accommodating students.

Promoting inclusion

Larry Scadden is director of the Program for Persons with Disabilities of the National Science Foundation (NSF, Washington, DC). While pointing out that, in general, "Schools aren't doing a very good job of recruiting and retaining students with disabilities," he notes encouraging exceptions, like the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN), which has an unusually high percentage of students with disabilities enrolled in its Institute of Technology. Scadden also names Washington State University (Pullman, WA) and New Mexico State University (Las Cruces, NM), whose deans have reputations for promoting full inclusion.

Jan Anderson, associate director of Northeastern University's Disability Resource Center, sees big changes there in faculty attitude. Anderson, herself a wheelchair user, remembers that in its early days the center had to coax faculty to provide accommodations to the students. Today, she says, faculty member act on their own to develop solutions for student situations.

Northeastern student Dave O'Neill is well pleased with the school's accommodations and support. He notes campus improvements such as the building of ramps, hiring of staff interpreters, provision of note-takers, availability of closed-circuit TV and magnifiers that enlarge print, and reconstruction of elevators to accommodate wheelchair users.

Sue Kroeger, director of disability services at the University of Minnesota, says her office has grown significantly in the last ten years. The school wants to move beyond solving individual problems for students to creating a barrier-free environment for all students.

Targeting the situation

Driven by the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, the NSF awarded a five-year grant to the Project on Science, Technology and Disability, informally called "Access to Engineering," sponsored by AAAS. Access to Engineering is conducting a study, now underway at the Engineering Workforce Commission of the American Association of Engineering Societies (Washington, DC), to determine the number of students with disabilities enrolled in 337 engineering schools. With the help of these stats, educational institutions and industry will be able to measure the effectiveness of programs to improve access to engineering careers for students with disabilities.

AAAS is also in the process of publishing "Road Maps of Diversity." Profiling thirty-six engineers with various disabilities, the book is designed to help change the attitudes of secondary school teachers and counselors.

Comfortable with co-op

In another project backed by AAAS, Veronica Porter, assistant professor and coordinator of co-op education at Northeastern, interviews nine engineering students with disabilities about their co-op experiences. Co-op work is apparently a very positive experience: In no case were their disabilities a big issue to employers, and the students all felt liberated in the co-op environment.

Technology for the deaf

One issue in engineering education for deaf students is the difficulty of finding sign or oral interpreters to handle the technical engineering vocabulary. At Purdue University (Lafayette, IN), an AAAS project with NSF funding is experimenting with assistive technology for deaf and hearing-impaired students.

Headed by Jim Jones, professor of mechanical engineering, the project began as a case study of a graduate student who has been using a real-time speech-to-text translation technology. An in-class stenographer transcribes lectures using an electronic stenowriter, and transmits them to the student's personal computer. Experiments in distant connection, where the stenographer doesn't have to be in the classroom, and other variations on the system, are in the beginning stages.


The DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, & Technology) project at the University of Washington (UW, Seattle, WA) is directed primarily at high school students. Inspired by AAAS and NSF funded, DO-IT began in 1992 to recruit students into SME programs and careers, and to act as a resource for other educational institutions in their efforts to recruit and retain students. Part of the program is a two-week summer session where students participate in lectures, demonstrations, labs and projects, and learn computer and Internet skills. Other discussion address the transition to college, financial aid, how to talk with faculty members, and self-advocacy.

Self-advocacy is a particularly important issue to Dr. Sheryl Burgstahler, assistant director/information systems for UW's College of Engineering/Computing & Communications, and director of the DO-IT program. She points out that people with disabilities are put in a dependent role and get used to it. But if they are going to be successful, it is vital for students with disabilities to be self-advocates - very clear and specific about what they need from faculty and how their disabilities may impact their scholastic performance.

Overall, many institutions are working toward the goal of increased participation of students with disabilities in SME programs. To accomplish that goal, students will need access to adaptive technologies, open-minded teachers, and positive role models. If those students are to make it to graduation, efficient, reliable, and consistent support services will be a must.

Business/technology writer Gina Roos is based in Plymouth, MA.