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New Career Paths for Students with Disabilities

PhotoThe power of the mind and human spirit can transcend physical limitations. Here are three persons with disabilities who have achieved what many thought was impossible in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or the “STEM” fields.

Randy Horwitz’s fifth grade teacher wrote a five-page letter to school officials describing why a blind student could not succeed in a regular science class. The next year, Randy was her star student. He is now a software engineer at International Business Machines (IBM) Poughkeepsie, NY facility.

Ashwini Deshpande has fibromyalgia, a chronic disability that causes muscle pain, exhaustion and tender points in different parts of the body. In college, she sometimes could barely walk across the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) campus or type on a computer keyboard for more than a few minutes. Today she is an image scientist for Kodak in Rochester, NY, and a Ph.D. candidate in oceanography at Oregon State University.

Robert Hill has cerebral palsy and limited use of his arms and legs, but that didn’t stop him from finishing at the top of his high school class in Illinois. He is now a mechanical engineer at Boeing in Seattle, WA and designs devices for persons with disabilities in his spare time.

These individuals succeeded against all odds. Few of their doctors, early educators or neighbors thought they would even finish school, yet they have become skilled contributors to the American STEM workforce.

A major reason for their achievements is a unique internship program called Entry Point! that was launched in 1996 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). IBM and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) through its Achieving Competence in Computing, Engineering and Space Science (ACCESS) program and the National Science Foundation (NSF), joined AAAS in this effort to demonstrate that students with disabilities have enormous career potential. To date, ENTRY POINT! has made 350 intern placements. Almost all of the interns are pursuing graduate studies or careers in technical fields.

“We are very proud of the Entry Point! program,” says AAAS CEO Dr. Alan Leshner. “It has provided a career path for hundreds of highly determined young people who have demonstrated that students with disabilities can make a substantial contribution to American leadership in technical fields.”

PhotoIn January 2002, AAAS published Roadmaps & Rampways, 34 profiles of students with disabilities who completed at least one Entry Point! internship and went on to graduate school or to pursue a career in STEM. This is the first major publication to chronicle the life experiences of students with disabilities from young childhood to the early stages of their careers. The case studies highlight their struggles and triumphs, providing a compelling snapshot of how young persons with disabilities are progressing in American society. All students with disabilities have made enormous progress in the past 25 years, but there is still much to be done.

Seven years ago, AAAS staff recognized that the academic success of students with disabilities was not being linked to the world of competitive employment. Students with disabilities needed to showcase their talents to prospective STEM employers before they pursued STEM careers in these disciplines. The expanding STEM fields provided ideal career paths for students with disabilities because of their ability to reason, sort through complexity and build technical products and services. In other words, the STEM fields value the mind more than the body, and that is why students with disabilities are capable of handling the challenges of STEM careers. The development of personal computers and increasingly sophisticated software makes it possible for people who are blind, deaf, unable to use their hands or are otherwise disabled to tackle complicated projects.  Entry Point! provided a first step in a STEM career path for these students.

A generation ago, career opportunities for persons with disabilities were extremely limited. If they attended schools at all, they usually went to special and separate institutions. They were also programmed into fields seen as “appropriate” for them. For example, deaf students were often trained to be linotype operators because they would not be bothered by the noise. Blind students were taught to cane chairs or tune pianos. Finishing high school was considered an enormous accomplishment.

Entry Point! students are a vital source of talent for the IBM Corporation… IBM is a stronger corporation as a result of this partnership with AAAS,” says Jack Sinnott, Vice President of Human Resources, IBM Microelectronics Division.

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