Challenges Confront Disabled Who Pursue STEM Careers

Online dialogue examines barriers to students and professionals

By Dana Wilkie August 7, 2014

Stereotypes, a lack of mentors and ignorance about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are among the challenges that people with disabilities face on the job, according to comments posted during an online dialogue hosted by a federal office and an advocacy group. 

The dialogue—Encouraging People with Disabilities to Pursue Careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)—ran from July 28 to Aug. 8, 2014, to get insights and ideas on how to boost opportunities for people with disabilities who want to pursue careers in STEM fields. It was hosted by the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) and the National Council on Disability (NCD).

According to a report from the U.S. Department of Commerce, STEM jobs grew at a rate that was triple that of non-STEM jobs between 2000 and 2010. And the number of STEM jobs in the nation is projected to increase 20 percent by 2018, the report found. Finally, STEM workers command higher wages, earning about 26 percent more than their non-STEM counterparts, the study reported. 

“Unfortunately, however, individuals with disabilities often face challenges to pursuing careers and degrees in STEM and are underrepresented in the STEM fields,” ODEP and NCD wrote on the website advertising the online dialogue. 

Alice Wong, a council member with the NCD who moderated the dialogue, said the forum allowed ODEP and her organization “to engage in conversations with people with disabilities and other stakeholders on … ways to encourage people with disabilities in STEM careers. In addition to traditional town halls, in-person meetings, webinars and teleconferences, online dialogues are another way advocates can reach a broader audience and crowd-source substantive ideas and solutions."

Employers Need Educating

Some who posted comments indicated that interviewers need training to counter biases they may have about people with disabilities. One person wrote about a student who encountered several interviewers who “saw him in person [and] assumed that he could not perform certain physical tasks”—even though a disability advocacy group had certified the student’s competency for the job for which he was applying.

Another noted that students often encounter interviewers who are unfamiliar with ADA requirements or who are unaware that the act requires employers to provide adaptive equipment for workers with disabilities. 

“Many employers are unaware of this, do not have the paperwork, or are unwilling to provide the assistive technology,” the person wrote. “Most [interviewers] have good hearts, and want to help, but don't know how, and ADA education for employers would be a good thing.”

Lacking: Sign Language Proficiency, Mentors 

A third person wrote that sign-language interpreters often don’t know how to sign the difficult and technical terms that crop up in STEM courses. 

“How can a [hearing impaired] student pass a course when the interpreter did not communicate it all?” the person asked. “All too often, the interpreter just doesn't understand enough STEM to proficiently interpret the event. Interpreters need more training in subject matter.” 

A fourth person complained that graduate students are often hindered in their STEM studies and future STEM careers because they lack mentors with disabilities. 

Academic departments [and] career and disability service offices could connect students with disabilities with alumni, internships and companies in STEM fields,” another person wrote. “It would make the process of internship and career planning a lot less intimidating if the student could be assured that they will be supported as aspiring professionals and not have to worry about discrimination based on disability.”

Offering Solutions 

Among the suggestions that the dialogue participants offered were:

  • Taking advantage of high school and community college programs that recruit underrepresented groups into STEM courses, including promising students with disabilities.
  • Coaching people with disabilities to more aggressively pursue funding that supports STEM studies and research, such as that provided by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation—as well as graduate fellowships.
  • Creating peer mentors who can help people with disabilities in their studies and in careers.
  • Addressing the practice at some middle and high schools that channel students with disabilities into remedial programs across the board, even if they show promise in STEM studies. “Schools should be incentivized to support inclusive school environments instead of exclusive tracking practices,” one person wrote.
  • Creating job-shadowing, internship and work experience opportunities for students with disabilities. “The best way to get our transition-aged youth excited about careers in the STEM fields is to offer them the opportunity to participate in some work experience while in high school—doing paid or unpaid work in a company in the field,” one person wrote. “Job shadowing is a great way to learn more about a career field of interest.”
  • Adapting STEM resources for people with disabilities, including online courses, textbooks and virtual science experiments. 
  • Ensuring that educational websites are translatable for STEM students whose first language isn’t English.
Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


Hire the best HR talent or advance your own career.

Are you a department of one?

Expand your toolbox with the tools and techniques needed to fix your organization’s unique needs.

Expand your toolbox with the tools and techniques needed to fix your organization’s unique needs.



HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.