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Roadmaps & Rampways: Profiles of Students with Disabilities in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology
Roadmaps & Rampways: Profiles of Students with Disabilities in Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology     



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Roadmaps & Rampways chronicles the journeys of three dozen students from childhood to higher education in science, engineering, or mathematics, and on through their early career decisions. Each had a significant disability. When they were born, or became disabled, few of their doctors, educators, or neighbors could have imagined that their journeys would be so successful.

Even as the students demonstrated their accomplishment in precollege academic achievement, teachers and counselors sometimes harbored doubts that these students would enter competitive employment or contribute to the technological enterprise of this country. After all, the cold statistical data and the stereotypes argued against it. Aren't individuals with disabilities the most unemployed and underemployed group in American society? These students took a route that bypassed the statistics and defied the stereotypes. Our profiles of their journeys describe some of the significant factors that helped them succeed while so many others fail.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) selected them from a much larger group of more than 350 students who applied to a program called ENTRY POINT! Its roots can be found in the AAAS's long commitment to increasing representation of individuals with disabilities in science, mathematics, and engineering through its Project on Science, Technology, and Disability.

The recognition dawns

In 1974, AAAS first realized that individuals with disabilities, as well as women and people of color, were greatly underrepresented in science and engineering. This was the often-forgotten era before federal legislation required institutions of higher education to open their doors to students with disabilities by removing architectural and other barriers. The association broke new ground in 1976 by deciding that all of its annual meetings, which attract thousands of scientists from around the world, would be fully accessible to individuals with disabilities.

AAAS then looked outward and helped national disability organizations develop community-based science programs and other linkages that could encourage science careers. Aware that Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic had a limited number of recorded books in technical fields, AAAS worked through its affiliates to bolster the science content of this key resource. It encouraged scientists and engineers around the nation to become volunteer readers who would record a new generation of science books. AAAS initiated a program to fund school-age youth in informal science through the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

Partnering with local chapters of the National Easter Seal Society, AAAS developed hands-on science activities for children with pervasive physical and developmental disabilities to do at home with their families.

Recruitment and retention

The National Science Foundation (NSF) funded another AAAS effort to recruit high school students with disabilities to attend summer science programs on university campuses and a national project on recruitment and retention of students and faculty with disabilities at colleges of engineering.

Later still, AAAS worked closely with campus-based science and engineering programs striving to bring students with disabilities into the science/math/engineering/technology pipeline. Notable among these are two projects that have had wide impact. One is the DO-IT project at the University of Washington, which pioneered electronic mentoring and Internet access for precollege students with disabilities.

The other is the RASEM program at New Mexico State University, which mentors college students who in turn mentor younger students with disabilities.


A milestone in the Association's efforts occurred in 1996, with the pragmatic realization that even with strong academic records, students with disabilities were not easily reaching the employment end of the science and engineering pipeline. The project began to act as a broker for talented students with disabilities majoring in science, mathematics, engineering, computer science, and related fields. It identified, screened, and recruited the students and then placed them in well-paid summer internships and co-ops - a program that became known as ENTRY POINT!

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and IBM Corporation were original ENTRY POINT! sponsors and continue in that role today. NASA called its internship program ACCESS (Achieving Competence in Computing, Engineering, and Space Science). The NSF and several private sector companies, which were looking for talented individuals to enrich the diversity of their workplaces, later became ENTRY POINT! partners.

"A free and appropriate education..."

Most of the students profiled in Roadmaps & Rampways were born or entered school after the historic Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142) became law in December 1975. One of its phrases became the buzzword for local school districts, parents of students with disabilities, and disability advocates: "A free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment." Programs like "Child Find" sprung up to look for children with disabilities who had never crossed the doors of their neighborhood public schools. The law now guaranteed every child with a disability the right to a precollege education.

The Roadmaps students became part of this new generation in a new era, in which people with disabilities grew up with the legal assurance of access to education on an equal field with students who are able-bodied. Most, of course, were too young to understand the law or appreciate how parents and earlier generations of people with disabilities struggled for those rights. Many of the Roadmaps students were in high school in the 1990s when citizens with disabilities marched or wheeled down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, to demonstrate support to further expand and ensure their civil rights.

The struggle for disability civil rights

Thus Roadmaps & Rampways also is a story of a 25-year era of dramatic progress in the legal and societal views of individuals with disabilities. American perceptions of people with disabilities would undergo tremendous change during that period. It was reflected in new laws, greater access, and the opening up of whole areas of life once barred to individuals with disabilities.

Eventually, a growing proportion of Americans realized that individuals with disabilities should have equal access and be equal participants in society - not because of the law, but because it was the right and reasonable thing to do. Society simply could not afford to waste this pool of talent.

The disability civil rights movement waged battles similar to those fought by women and people of color in the 1960s and 1970s to become equal citizens with full access to the voting booth, jobs, and education. And if the first students with disabilities integration was a one-way street: The schools had to let them in, but few in the community reached out and took an active role in welcoming students with disabilities.

Many buildings were not truly accessible, and school buses were even less so. "School Board Holds Meeting To Allay Fears," proclaimed the headline in one community paper. If the citizens were not apprehensive already about these "different students," some school administrations put the idea in their heads, raising unfounded concerns about costs, safety, and the impact on academic standards.

New roads open

For students with disabilities entering school in the last quarter of the 20th century, new roads leading toward higher education and productive careers were gradually opening. In May 1977, people with disabilities held sit-ins in federal buildings in Washington and around the country to support the landmark Section 504 Regulations of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. This law mandated that colleges and universities receiving federal funds make their programs accessible to qualified students with disabilities.

Every postsecondary institution had to have a transition plan. Most schools had no idea how to begin. Change occurred slowly and varied dramatically from school to school. Hidden misconceptions, fears, and negative attitudes about disabilities were apparent in the higher education community, just as they had appeared elsewhere. Nevertheless, students with disabilities, and their parents, knew the law was on their side. They persisted, and gradually they earned degrees in their chosen fields.

Society-wide change

By 1990, citizens with disabilities and disability advocacy groups had waged a successful battle for legal protection against discrimination in employment and all aspects of community life, such as access to theaters, sports arenas, and restaurants. The Americans with Disabilities Act, signed on July 26, 1990, meant more than new educational opportunities. It covered much of the rest of life, opening up access to public accommodations, transportation, telecommunications, and employment.

Society-wide technological advancements proved to be an enormous benefit for people with disabilities. As technology advanced for all citizens, disability advocates marched not only to pass the laws but to define the technology needs that could be incorporated in universal design.

The personal computer, e-mail, and the World Wide Web meant more efficient ways of communicating and accessing information. The electronics revolution fostered development of new assistive technology for persons with many different disabilities. And the technological boom created a critical need for workers with skills and knowledge in science, mathematics, and engineering.

And still an uphill road

The new national roadmap, however, provided only the most general guide for students and their families seeking to navigate the many obstacles remaining in their individual lives. For most, it was a lonely and convoluted odyssey. The direct route could not be found in any book or on any computer screen. The roads were often unmarked, uphill more often than level. They were full of bumps and potholes. Sometimes they washed out altogether.

For the Roadmaps students and others, there was often no direct route leading from an interest in science to a career. Rather, the students experienced false starts, unexpected turns, and detours. The students and their families often felt isolated. There was a huge gap between expectations and reality. The public and many educators had one image of people with disabilities. The families had a different perception and set of expectations.

The secrets to their success

As the ENTRY POINT! program placed more and more students in internships, AAAS staff began to marvel at their talent, skills, and academic achievement and to wonder about their earlier lives.

What made them achieve? Who were their mentors? What did their parents do? What pitfalls did their parents avoid? How were they affected by the laws? When did they start to use technology, and what difference did it make in their education and career? Even in 2001, reports about barriers in higher education for students with disabilities still persist. Despite anti-discrimination laws and a strong job market, only a quarter of adults with disabilities in the United States have jobs. How is it that these students made it? What, in short, were their own personal secrets to success?

Shirley Malcom, head of the AAAS Directorate for Education and Human Resources Programs, may have capsulized the situation in a single compelling observation. "Passing a law lets things happen," Malcom said. "But it takes more to make things happen."

What more? What aspects of personality, what force of will? What critical intervention or chance encounters? What can we learn from the Roadmaps students about what it takes to "make things happen"?

Langston Hughes alluded to one significant factor - plain, old-fashioned persistence - that lit the way for so many of our Roadmaps students, in his poem "Mother to Son":

Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor -
But all the time I'se been a climbin' on.

We hope that Roadmaps & Rampways will light the way for future generations of students with disabilities, their families, teachers, counselors, mentors, and employers, so that more navigate the many different roads to productive careers in science, mathematics, and engineering.

Virginia Stern
Michael Woods
December, 2001

American Association for the Advancement of Science
Washington, DC


Profiles: Assistive Technology | Persistence | Beyond All Expectations | Late Diagnosis | The Golden Door | Informal Science and Popular Culture | The Pinball Effect | Families

Additional Materials: The Roadmaps Game | Afterward | Students' Backgrounds | Assistive Technology | Notes on Disabilities | 1990s Profile of Disabled Disabilities in Higher Education | Acknowledgments | References


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