Inside AAAS The Problem Solvers: Engineers With Disabilities

Karen Hopkin

The following article appeared in the May 28, 1993 issue of Science, Volume 260.

"The most important characteristic of a good engineer is persistence," says Ralph Hotchkiss, one of the engineers featured in the new AAAS video "The Problem Solvers: People with Disabilities in Engineering Careers".

"People with disabilities come to the field (of engineering) better prepared because we're all used to having to sweat to get things done," he says. "We look for the optimal way of doing things, and we have to do this everyday."

AAAS Science, Technology and Disability project director Virginia Stern agrees. "The engineering curriculum is a rigorous one, but people with disabilities have solved a lot of problems before they got into engineering school," she says.

The video features 24 engineers and engineering students with disabilities working in labs and classrooms at seven universities and eight different work sites. They discuss why they entered the field; how assistive technology helps them do their work; how they were encouraged by teachers, mentors, and family members; and what can be done to overcome fear and ignorance about persons with disabilities.

Like many engineers, Hotchkiss found himself drawn to technology even as a child. " I started by making some wings and jumping off a fence," he admits. "Needless to say they didn't work too well," but nevertheless, he was hooked. Now a MacArthur fellow and a teacher at San Francisco State University, Hotchkiss oversees the construction of ultra-light sports wheelchairs in shops located in 20 countries worldwide.

Such success stories can "show industries that they will be able to hire engineers with disabilities," says Stern. When provided with the proper technology and equal opportunity, she says, people with disabilities - whether visual, hearing, mobility, or learning - will be able to "enter competitive employment situations and contribute to the technical enterprise of the nation.

"Engineering is not just for super-people, like the ones who climb Mount McKinley in a wheelchair," adds Stern. People with different disabilities are currently making their mark in accredited programs in electrical, mechanical, chemical, and civil engineering, proving, according to Stern, that "engineering is a viable career option for students with disabilities and that it's not too hard." She says that "Problem Solvers" will be a useful tool for high school and college teachers and counselors who wish to encourage students with disabilities to pursue careers in science, mathematics, and technology.

Funded by NEC Foundation of America and NASA, the video debuts on Capitol Hill on 1 June 1993. Co-sponsored by AAAS and the American Society for Engineering Education, the reception's congressional sponsors include Senators Robert Dole, Tom Harkin, Orrin Hatch, and Edward Kennedy and Representatives Sherwood Boehlert, James Clyburn, and Major Owens. These legislators share a "commitment to people with disabilities that is both real and continuing," says Stern.

NEC Foundation supports science and math education and the development and use of technologies for people with disabilities - avenues that are essential for creating a level playing field and providing equal opportunity for people with disabilities, says Stern.

AAAS Science, Technology, and Disability project was founded in 1975 to improve the entry and advancement of people with disabilities in science, mathematics, and engineering. In 1991, the National Science Foundation provided funding for the Access to Engineering project - a 5-year effort focused on increasing the recruitment and retention of engineering faculty and students with disabilities.

Through these programs, AAAS has "alerted the engineering education community that there is a significant pool of talent in persons with disabilities that has not yet been tapped", says Stern. According to demographics compiled by the Engineering Workforce Commission, persons with disabilities are underrepresented at many schools, comprising less than 1 percent of the students and faculty.

The Access to Engineering project is working with several schools to establish viable programs that will encourage people with disabilities to pursue careers in science and engineering. The project provides technical assistance and the resources that allow universities to write proposals for their own funding. For example, Stern serves on the advisory board for the "DO-IT" program at the University of Washington, which will link high school students with disabilities with role models via Internet - the interactive electronic computer network. This project will serve as an example for designing future programs.

With the expansion of such programs, the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the widespread introduction of assistive technologies, Stern says that people may soon realize that persons with disabilities are really not handicapped at all.

"Problem Solvers", a video with open captions, can be purchased from AAAS Books for $20 plus $4 postage and handling. Write to P.O. Box 753, Waldorf, MD 20604 or call 301-645-5643 and ask for AAAS. Please request order number 93-15S.

For more information, write to the AAAS Science, Technology, and Disability Project, 1333 H Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005 or call 202-326-6630 (voice/TDD).