Chapter One

An Introduction to E-mentoring and E-communities

No country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources. 
— Franklin D. Roosevelt — 

Individuals with disabilities experience far less career success than their peers who do not have disabilities; however, differences in achievement diminish significantly for those who participate in postsecondary education (Blackorby & Wagner, 1996; Stodden & Dowrick, 2000; Yelin & Katz, 1994). College graduates with disabilities achieve success in employment close to that achieved by those without disabilities. Although the rate of participation in higher education is lower for people with disabilities than it is for people without disabilities, this difference is diminishing (Henderson, 2001; National Council on Disability, 2000).

A bachelor's degree or higher is a prerequisite for many challenging careers, including high-tech fields in science, engineering, business, and technology. Few students with disabilities pursue postsecondary academic studies in these areas, and the attrition rate of those who do is high (National Science Foundation, 2000; Stodden & Dowrick, 2000).

Lack of job skills and related experiences also limit career options for people with disabilities (Colley & Jamieson, 1998; Unger, Wehman, Yasuda, Campbell, & Green, 2001). They also have little contact with other people with disabilities and, thus, limited access to positive role models with disabilities (Seymour & Hunter, 1998).

Low expectations of and lack of encouragement from those with whom they interact can impede the realization of the full potential of people with disabilities in challenging fields. Support systems in high school are no longer available after graduation, and many students with disabilities lack the self-determination, academic, and independent living skills necessary to make successful transitions to college and careers (National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities, 1999).

Youth with disabilities more often continue to live with their parents or in other dependent living situations after high school than their peers without disabilities. They also engage in fewer social activities. The effect of social isolation can be far-reaching, affecting not only personal well-being but also academic and career success (Seymour & Hunter, 1998).

The lives of some people with disabilities demonstrate that they can overcome challenges imposed by inaccessible facilities, curriculum materials, equipment, and electronic resources; lack of encouragement; and inadequate academic preparation and support (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2001; National Center for Educational Statistics, 2000; National Council on Disability and Social Security Administration, 2000). Steps to careers for students with disabilities include preparing for, transitioning to, and completing a college education; participating in relevant work experiences; and transitioning from an academic program to a career position.

Research studies have identified successful practices for bringing students from underrepresented groups into challenging fields of study and employment. They include the provision of:

  • technology
  • programs that bridge between academic levels and between school and work
  • work-based learning opportunities
  • peer support
  • mentoring

In this chapter, strategies developed in DO-IT's award-winning online mentoring community are shared so that you can apply successful practices in your program.

Acknowledgement: Much of the content of this chapter is published in earlier work (Burgstahler, 1997, 2003b, 2006a; Burgstahler & Cronheim, 1999, 2001; DO-IT, 2005).