1997 Conference Proceedings

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Carmela Cunningham
22196 Caminito Tasquillo
Laguna Hills, CA 92653
Phone: (310) 983-5155
Fax: (310) 983-5157
Internet: carmelac@aol.com

Most people who have been through high school have at one time or another struggled with mathematical equations or scratched their heads trying to figure out exactly what a molecular structure is supposed to look like. Imagine trying to do those equations or get an idea of that molecular structure if you couldn't even see a representation of them. Imagine trying to operate a Bunsen burner, which can be found in a basic high school biology class, if you couldn't use your hands. While studying or working in the fields of science, engineering and mathematics is difficult for many people, it can be even more difficult for people with disabilities Ð people who can't see the equation or a representation of the molecular structure, people who can't use their hands to manipulate the lab instruments, people who can't hear instructions from professors and co-workers, people who can't keep the numbers straight on a page. Sometimes those difficult tasks become impossible.

Because there are difficulties, in both learning and teaching science, engineering and mathematics to students with disabilities, it has not been uncommon for schools, colleges and universities to merely shut disabled students out of these classes and to consequently shut them out of these fields.

Students with disabilities are denied a full liberal arts education, when they're denied access to science and math classes. Most colleges and universities have core course requirements in science and mathematics that apply to all undergraduates. In the past, students with special needs might have been excused from taking certain courses or held to lower academic standards. This policy is not fair or necessary. Today students with disabilities can Ð and should Ð study science and mathematics alongside their peers.

The focus of this is to provide an awareness of the new technologies that make it possible for all individuals to participate in science, engineering and mathematics. Sometimes it takes technology to ensure that participation, but sometimes all it takes is overcoming an attitude or changing the way that professors and employers do things. So, the place to start talking about SEM access, is with the attitudinal barriers encountered by many people with disabilities.

Historically, people with disabilities have faced social and technical barriers that have deterred them from studying or working in the fields of science, engineering and mathematics. While the barriers can be daunting, researchers are developing new tools and methodologies that are allowing people with disabilities to study and work in these fields. In particular, the National Science Foundation is funding several projects that focus on these issues. There are three basic barriers that people with disabilities must confront.

First, individuals with disabilities have faced negative social attitudes from educators and from potential employers. Second, disabled individuals who are trying to study and work in the science, engineering and mathematics fields, encounter difficulty with physical barriers in laboratories and with standard lab equipment. Third, many disabled individuals have problems accessing and manipulating information that is specific to science, engineering and mathematics -- such as charts, diagrams and scientific notation.


Disabled individuals have faced negative attitudes -- both in education and in the workplace -- about their abilities to study and work in the fields of science, engineering and mathematics. Professors ask "how can I have a disabled student in my class without lowering my standards," and employers ask questions such as "how can a person who can't see tables and charts work with statistical material."

There are answers to both of those questions, and this overview will explain some of the technology and other compensatory strategies that are available to people with disabilities. In the process of introducing the technology, we hope to ease some of those attitudinal barriers.


The physical barriers that people with disabilities encounter in the fields of science, engineering and math are more easily identified than the attitudinal barriers. Individuals with disabilities face difficulties maneuvering in the traditional lab and classroom setting. Generally, there are structural barriers that include lab tables that are too high or low for a person in a wheelchair, instruments that are difficult or impossible for a person with a mobility or vision impairment to manipulate, and lectures and multimedia presentations that are inaccessible to people with hearing or vision impairments.


Individuals with disabilities have difficulty accessing mathematical and scientific notation, graphs, charts, drawings and three-dimensional models that are prevalent in the science, engineering and mathematics fields.


The specific problems and barriers that individuals with disabilities face are easier to understand and address if they're discussed by disability category.


People with mobility impairments encounter difficulty using standard laboratory equipment, handling books and writing tools, and using computer equipment that has not been appropriately adapted.


People with hearing impairments have problems getting information from traditional lectures, laboratory instruction, quiz sections, and other real- time oral communication. They have difficulty accessing videos, movies and other multimedia. They may also have difficulty understanding mathematical and scientific abstractions because of language limitations.


Some people have learning disabilities that negatively influence visual processing. Such people would have problems understanding many materials that are presented in visual format, such as traditional text materials, videos and movies, graphs and charts. For people with visual processing disorders, there are barriers to understanding visual materials presented in lectures, labs, quiz sections and other real-time events, and problems completing homework assignments and exams.


People with low vision have trouble reading traditional computer screens and computer print-outs. They also have problems reading printed materials. People with vision impairments have problems getting information from slides and overhead projections, videos and movies, and chalkboards. Lab access barriers include encountering safety hazards while maneuvering throughout laboratories that aren't properly laid out or that don't have appropriate labels on equipment, substances and potentially hazardous situations.


People who are blind have problems with computer access, getting information from slides, overhead projections, videos, movies, board drawings and other real-time events. Significant problems are encountered with structured texts, tables, equations, charts, graphs, block diagrams and other graphic displays of quantitative information. There are also problems with writing and manipulating mathematical notation while taking lecture notes, and safety and usage barriers encountered in laboratories.


Many individuals with disabilities use adaptive computing technology in their classes and in the workplace. This technology can be particularly helpful in science, engineering and mathematics study and employment. There are many simple, inexpensive solutions already available that can help individuals get past barriers that keep them out of the science, engineering and mathematics fields.


There are, of course, many more sophisticated technologies that are being made available, including programs such as Dotsplus, Triangle, AsTeR, and raised line drawings. Many researchers are also looking at particular teaching strategies that are helpful in teach all students.

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