Supporting Students with Disabilities in STEM

Contributed by Jason Grieves, Senior Program Manager, Microsoft, and 2018-2019 AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador

Supporting Students with Disabilities in STEM
November 5, 2018 – First printed on the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) online blog
NSTA Reports, The STEM Classroom

Jason, is this big enough?” My seventh-grade teacher asked me about the text on the whiteboard, in front of the entire class. Much to my horror, she continued to ask this repeatedly for what felt like the rest of the year. As a middle school student who had suddenly become aware of pretty girls and how big my glasses were, the last thing I wanted was to be asked constantly about whether I could actually see what was on the whiteboard. She had good intentions, but it was the first time I realized some people didn’t know how to deal with my disability.

The road from embarrassed seventh grader to earning a computer engineering degree, to Microsoft senior project manager, to an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)-Lemelson Invention Ambassador has not been smooth. We know that so many children lose interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in early adolescence, and we lose many more young adults as they progress through our educational system.

I can attest to the fact that the pathway for children with disabilities is especially filled with obstacles. My success in STEM has made me acutely aware of this, so I am passionate about supporting an interest in STEM for persons with disabilities so they can leverage technology to become the world’s next STEM leaders and innovators.

I was born with ocular albinism, resulting in uncorrectable vision of 20/80 and 20/200. My parents worked extremely hard to get me the accommodations I needed to succeed, and very closely with teachers to ensure they knew how to work with me. Seventh grade was different because I had so many teachers that my parents couldn’t work as closely with them all. While teachers were “aware” of my problems, they had very different ways of handling my disability:

  • Those who over-accommodated. As I said earlier, these teachers constantly needed affirmation and often “coddled” me.
  • Those who under-accommodated. Often these teachers behaved like stereotypical “tough guy” physical education teachers who either didn’t think I needed help or perhaps thought I just needed to “toughen up.”
  • Those who got it “just right.” Teachers who talked to me before or after class, privately, and understood the social horrors of middle school could be exacerbated with a disability. They supported me, but had the same expectations of success for the rest of the class.

As adult and a parent, I’ve begun to appreciate all of the work and stress teachers experience each thankless day. (My sister has taught young students, so I’ve witnessed it all firsthand.) Preparing for everything involved in teaching—including helping students with disabilities succeed—is a job I can’t imagine doing, but I’m so appreciative of the top-notch teachers I had. Without their help, I never would have been able to pursue a STEM degree and career. However, we know students with disabilities are significantly more unlikely to simply graduate high school, much less pursue a degree or job in STEM.

All students of all abilities can successfully learn STEM and pursue STEM careers. Though awareness of issues of diversity and equity related to gender and ethnicity has become more widespread, disabilities often are not part of the diversity and inclusion conversations. My goal in this blog post, and in life, is to encourage students to pursue STEM, parents to realize their children’s potential, and teachers to support and guide students with disabilities to pursue STEM degrees and careers.

Partnering With Parents

Generally, parents must be the ones to arrange accommodations for students with disabilities. I was extremely lucky to have my parents advocating for me to have larger-print books, low-vision tools, and help in the classroom. If a student appears to have a disability (physical or learning) and it’s unclear if they have any assistance, it’s best to reach out directly to the parents.

As with many things, this can be a delicate process. Rather than assuming you know the answers, ask questions to see if the student has been evaluated by a specialist. For example, students with low vision  can be examined by specialists who can evaluate and prescribe based on their needs.

Typically students will already have been evaluated by an ophthalmologist, but sometimes that isn’t enough. My doctor was one of the best eye surgeons in the country, but he didn’t believe in many forms of low-vision accessibility solutions. As a result, my parents didn’t know about all of the available technology until I was in 10th grade, technology that I could have used in the classroom to make life easier or to use to drive. It’s important for teachers to connect with parents early on and inform them of available resources.

Strong Expectations With Strong Support

As I mentioned, some teachers over-accommodated and had lower expectations for me. Ironically, I had more teachers expecting less of me than teachers who didn’t think I needed help. Remember that students with disabilities can accomplish any set of goals, but may need a different way to do so, such as having more time for tests or assignments, showing their progress in a different way , or receiving additional assistance.

One of the biggest mistakes is to steer students with disabilities to “easier” education pathways. If more students with disabilities pursue STEM and are given appropriate challenging assignments, they’ll pave the way for others in the future and may even change the world because of their unique abilities. I’ll share an example of this.

I met a young girl who was legally blind and wanted to pursue a degree in mathematics at Virginia Tech. After describing all the tough obstacles she had already overcome in high school, she asked me bluntly, “Do you think I’ll be able to get my degree?” I emphatically said, “Yes,” but allowed it wouldn’t be easy. Four years later, she earned her degree.

As professors and peers worked with her, they experienced math in a new way because of her. They learned calculus in three dimensions, and literally felt math in new ways as they experienced graphing with braille. This led to some incredible new ways to teach math and some breakthroughs for math theses that would not have happened without her.

Finding the Right Balance

Unfortunately, I don’t have an obvious answer regarding how much support to give students with disabilities. But I’ll conclude with one more higher education story about a professor who told another student who was blind that she couldn’t participate in a mountain climbing class. The professor did not want the student to get hurt, but after she pushed hard enough, she was allowed to participate. She fell and received many scrapes, but by the end of the class, she was moving the fastest of all the students and even participating in competitions. The professor observed, “I was both afraid I couldn’t help her be successful, and afraid of her failing. She taught me how to be a better teacher by realizing the easier road isn’t the road where we learn the most.”

I believe our future is bright because of amazing teachers, and I believe students with disabilities can change the world, especially in STEM. To succeed, they’ll need your support and encouragement to pursue hard work, but that’s not new to you: It’s exactly what you’re great at, and we can’t thank you enough for doing it all.