Blog for March: Including individuals with Disabilities in STEM Courses, Research, and Careers

Posted by: Sheryl Burgstahler on February 24, 2021

Students with disabilities face attitudinal, physical and technological barriers when trying to engage in academic and career fields in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). This month we will explore projects and strategies that show promise in breaking down those barriers in order to make STEM fields more welcoming and accessible to all students.


Demand for STEM professionals is outpacing supply. The shortage of STEM professionals is due in part to the underrepresentation of women, racial/ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups. In particular, individuals with disabilities are less likely than their nondisabled peers to complete degrees and succeed in careers in STEM. Women and racial/ethnic minorities with disabilities face multiple challenges to pursuing these fields. Some student veterans injured in recent conflicts—including those with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, “the signature injuries of the war”—have potential for pursuing STEM careers, but face difficulties related to social adjustments, finances, and disclosure of disabilities.


Challenges faced by students with disabilities include access to keyboards and mice for those with limited mobility, content within images for students who are blind, and audio content for students with hearing impairments. These access problems have well-documented solutions within guidelines for accessible IT. However, the success of some individuals with disabilities in STEM fields—some supported by earlier NSF grants—demonstrate that opportunities do exist for those who develop academic and self-determination skills and successfully overcome barriers imposed by inaccessible facilities, curricula, and IT; inadequate academic supports; and lack of encouragement.


Individuals with disabilities are often overlooked in diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at postsecondary institutions and within broadening participation projects, even though this group, like other marginalized groups, has much to contribute to diversity in STEM fields. Our NSF-funded AccessComputing project, hosted by the University of Washington, serves to increase the successful participation of people with disabilities in computing academic programs and careers. We also encourage computing faculty to include disability and accessibility content in their courses in order to ensure that more professionals in these fields routinely address relevant disability-related issues in the software and other products they design.


We identified more than 50 presentations, in the STEM Video Showcase that demonstrate how individuals with a wide range of disabilities can successfully engage in STEM fields. A small subset is included in our playlist. Some of the projects show students with disabilities engaging in projects designed for all students; some projects work with students who have similar disabilities; and others, like AccessComputing project, include students with a wide range of disabilities in project activities. Successful practices include summer “camps” to prepare students for college, careers, and STEM studies; work-based learning opportunities, including internships; online and on-site mentoring, including support from peers and near-peers; use of mainstream and assistive technologies; and leadership opportunities, such as participating on panels about how people with disabilities can succeed in computing fields.


We hope you will view the videos we are showcasing this month and attend our panel discussion on March 24. Our panel includes me, Jeanne Reis, and Emily Moore, along with our moderator, Richard Ladner. Together we bring to this event a wealth of personal experiences with disabilities as well as experiences in directing programs and teaching courses in order to increase the engagement and success of people who have disabilities in STEM and thereby improve these fields with their perspectives and expertise.

View playlist related to this theme »