Engineering Students with Disabilities

Invisible Challenges, Unmet Needs: Understanding Students with Psychiatric Disabilities 

By Mei-Fang Lan, University of Florida

Increasing number of students with mental health disabilities are enrolled in college. Without adequate support, young adults experiencing a mental health issue are more likely to receive lower GPAs, drop out of college, or be unemployed than their peers without a mental health challenge. Unfortunately, most college students with mental health problems do not receive treatment. In a recent study by Dr. Eisenberg and his colleagues, they found that, among students with apparent mental health problems, approximately one in three received mental health treatment in the previous year. Reasons for not seeking treatment include thinking that problems will get better by themselves, stress is normal in college, and there is no time to seek treatment.

In spite of these trends, postsecondary students with mental health issues often do not receive adequate treatment and support to succeed in college and graduate school. It can be difficult for students to explain how they are affected. This makes it especially important for postsecondary institutions to provide potential and enrolled students with mental health disabilities the resources and knowledge about potential accommodations that may help them succeed in school.

Walking a Mile in Their Shoes: Experiencing What it is Like to Have a Learning Disability

By Chang-Yu Wu, University of Florida

A learning disability (LD) is a neurological disorder resulting from a difference in the way a person’s brain is wired. Students with LDs have average or above intelligence but have difficulty with specific tasks such as reading, writing, spelling, reasoning, recalling, or organization. LDs cannot be cured. With the right support and intervention, people with LDs can succeed in school and go on to successful careers. The following are the most common LDs:

  • dyslexia: difficulty reading
  • dyscalculia: difficulty calculating mathematics
  • dysgraphia: difficulty writing

Reasonable accommodations can help people with LDs succeed in college and careers. People with LDs often think outside of the box, seeing solutions to problems that someone else may not see. People with LDs bring different strengths to the table and diversity in solving problems, an asset in engineering fields. Successful people with learning disabilities include Albert Einstein, John Franklin Kennedy, and Alexander Graham Bell.

To glimpse into how people with different learning disabilities process the world, try out the exercises from PBS’s Misunderstood Minds.

For more resources on learning disabilities, visit

Strategies for Recruiting and Engaging REU Students with Disabilities 

By Chris Andersen and Michelle McCombs, The Ohio State University

Including students with disabilities in these research experiences brings more students into the engineering field and increases the diversity in ideas, perspectives, and solutions. The Center for Emergent Materials (CEM) at The Ohio State University recruits students with disabilities for engaging research experiences for undergraduates (REUs) through EntryPoint! and the Ohio STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) Ability Alliance (OSAA). In internships, students encounter experimental and theoretical research in physics and materials science. Part of their training is working with sophisticated lab equipment.

They provide training for faculty and mentors, ask faculty to commit to providing a supportive atmosphere for students, and seek out supportive graduate students to serve as mentors. They continue to provide support for both the faculty and the student in the lab, and, when necessary, they include the office of disability services in order to provide accommodations or address other needs. For students with visual impairments or physical disabilities, state vocational services or disability services provides support. Training for faculty members includes information about common issues, misconceptions, and resources. Follow up meetings with faculty are held after students have been in their labs for 2-4 weeks.

When faculty members are supportive and students are provided with the technology and workspace they need, students with disabilities succeed in engineering labs. It is important for students with disabilities to communicate their needs and utilize resources, including colleagues and disability services, to ensure they get support and accommodations. The students with disabilities who are interested in these research positions are equally qualified to any other student to complete the tasks and research required.

Ohio’s STEM Ability Alliance: Interventions and Outcomes for Students with Disabilities in STEM at Wright State University 

By Jason Gepperth, Wright State University

Engineering is a growing major, and having more students with disabilities in engineering fields will provide more diversity and options.  To address the underrepresentation of students with disabilities in engineering fields, Ohio’s STEM Ability Alliance (OSAA) was established in 2009 at Wright State University (WSU). WSU is a mid-sized research university with near open enrollment and a large population of non-traditional students. WSU’s nationally recognized Office of Disability Services (ODS) serves over 500 students annually. 

OSAA’s main goals are to:

  • Increase the recruitment of high school students with disabilities into STEM majors at WSU
  • Increase retention and graduation rates for existing STEM students with disabilities
  • Increase successful entry rates of OSAA STEM graduates with disabilities into STEM graduate programs or STEM employment 

OSAA has two strategies for recruiting high school students. First, we host a 5-day residential summer camp called DiverseAbility U. for high school students with disabilities with a strong interest in STEM. Participants engage in STEM, personal skill development, and mentoring activities. Second, we reach out to incoming students through presentations at the ODS Orientation. These efforts have lead to a dramatic increase in the number of students with disabilities enrolling in STEM majors.

University students can also join the OSAA Scholars program and participate in learning communities, academic support through tutoring, and mentoring activities. OSAA helps connect students with internship and scholarship opportunities. Finally, OSAA offers Ability Advising, modeled on student athlete advising programs, through which an advisor acts as a mentor, coach, advocate, and facilitator to help a student address academic and personal issues.

OSAA Scholars have an 85% first year retention rate, compared to 61% for all students across campus. Likewise, 73% of the 2009 OSAA cohort graduated in 5 years, compared to the 40% WSU six year graduate rate. Along with National Science Foundation funding, WSU began providing internal financial support for OSAA in 2014.