Breaking Down Barriers for Students with Disabilities

Karen Morris

Averill J. Wiley helped the environment by working on reducing water pollution caused by effluents released into streams by paper mills. He converted the dissolved wood components in effluents to yield commercially valuable products. A little known fact about Wiley is that he is deaf. He is not alone as a scientist with a disability, but scientists with disabilities are still relatively rare.

Experts in the field say that individuals with disabilities tend to be under-represented in science, engineering and math (SEM) educational programs for many reasons. SEM courses are challenging for most students, but are even more so for students with disabilities.

"The most serious obstacle for students is attitude," says Harry G. Lang a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, National Institute for the Deaf. Educators, family, and friends tend not to encourage students with disabilities to try science. They don't realize that careers in SEM fields are possible. Lang says, "Parents, teachers and peers often think that people with disabilities cannot do science."

It is important that family, friends and educators be taught more about the possibilities for students who have disabilities. "The most serious obstacle for educators is their own training. Often, teachers are not prepared to deal with disabilities and there is fear of making a mistake or offending," Lang says.

Students with disabilities need to know that people with disabilities are out there, in SEM fields: scientists, mathematicians and engineers. "Research has shown that positive self esteem correlates significantly with achievement," says Lang. "We need to share with them stories about successful people who have similar disabilities and have the kids talk to role models."

Many organizations and individuals are trying to break these barriers and encourage students with disabilities to pursue higher education in these fields. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has established a Program for Persons with Disabilities. These projects aim at a variety of methods to encourage students with disabilities. The programs educate and provide access to technology that many students with disabilities might not have had before.

Not having access to technology can be an obstacle for students with disabilities. Advances in equipment have presented a means for students with disabilities to compensate. Still, some students with disabilities do not have access to the assistive technology that will help them with their disability.

Through university programs, grants and contributions from organizations, students with disabilities have more chances to use assistive technology. Assistive technology has shown great promise to become an integral part of the classroom for students with disabilities. SEM courses are possible through adaptive technology that may not have been possible in the past.

Through changing attitudes and assistive technology, it is possible to open careers in SEM fields to students with disabilities. Lang says, "We must do everything that we can to help encourage students with disabilities to believe they can do science and study hard."

For a copy of the manual Teaching Chemistry to Students with Disabilities or for more information on this subject, check out the World Wide Web site at

Spotlight on Assistive Technology

Advances in technology have made a great deal of difference for those who have access to them. Deaf and hard of hearing students benefit from caption technology such as Computer Aided Speech to Print Transcription System (C-Print System). C-Print has a hearing operator that transcribes lectures using an IBM laptop computer. The lecture then can be viewed by the class on a monitor and printed out for use as their notes.

Blind students benefit from speech synthesizers that translate complicated chemical and mathematical equations. Computers that translate Braille into English make it easier for teachers grading blind students' papers.

Individuals with mobility disabilities can benefit from adaptive access software, altered keyboards, eye-controlled input systems, and computer mouse that can be operated be the user's foot.