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Making a Difference for Students with Disabilities in STEM Education: Understanding Facilitators and Barriers to Success

Using her own disability as a barometer for change, Maria Dolores Cimini, a practitioner, scientist and Assistant Director for Prevention and Program Evaluation at the University at Albany Counseling Center, addresses the proof that people with disabilities can succeed in STEM.

Maria Dolroes Cimini is being recognized as a Champion of Change for leading education and employment efforts in science, technology, engineering and math for Americans with disabilities.

As a scientist-practitioner with a disability, I have been inspired by a number of leaders and mentors living in our great nation, and I am honored to have the opportunity to give back to our country by having been selected as a Champion of Change. In reflecting on my own experiences as a scientist and woman with a disability, I have come to realize the many ways in which my own life challenges have been transformed into my passion to support access to STEM for students with disabilities. 

There have been many advances in education, legislation, and access for students with disabilities in the United States in recent decades. However, for students with disabilities and the family members, faculty, advocates, and employers who work with them, technological advances, legislation, accessible environments, and global communications are not always enough to illuminate the pathway to STEM. Barriers remain in the transitions at many levels from schools to workplace and careers. Students and gatekeepers in education and employment continue to need existing proof of achievement to change the stereotype of what people with disabilities can accomplish in STEM disciplines.

To address this critical need, I have made it my commitment and personal priority to help us as a nation to better understand the facilitators and barriers to STEM education for young people, particularly young women, with disabilities. Recently, I was honored to be invited to serve as the Co-Chair of the American Psychological Association’s Women with Disabilities in STEM Education Project (WWDSE) funded by the National Science Foundation. Through the WWDSE project, the American Psychological Association is leading a five-year research agenda to identify barriers and promote successful outcomes for women with disabilities in STEM education. Specific ways that this work advances STEM for women with disabilities includes:

  •  Linking distinct non-overlapping empirical literatures to inform development of a new research agenda to cultivate an emerging line of inquiry on women with disabilities in STEM education;
  •  Facilitating new collaborations among researchers in different areas of study where these may not currently exist; Making postsecondary environments more receptive to underrepresented groups;
  •  Enhancing the STEM pipeline by increasing the numbers of women scientists with disabilities;
  • Supplementing evidence-based strategies to improve postsecondary educational outcomes for women with disabilities and all students;
  •  Increasing the cultural competence of faculty members in postsecondary and higher education institutions in regard to disability issues and women’s issues;
  •  Developing new funding priorities which encourage senior investigators to partner with junior investigators who have disabilities, and;
  • Mobilizing and maximizing the human capital of women with disabilities in society.

Moreover, through my work with the American Psychological Association’s  Committee on Disability Issues in Psychology and my mentoring of students and early career scientists across the nation, I hope to continue to play a role in both shaping and implementing policies and infrastructures that support enhanced access to education in the STEM disciplines for undergraduate and graduate students with disabilities.

As an American, I am proud that our nation’s leaders are focusing on the importance of providing access to STEM education for students with disabilities. In addressing this critical national priority, we can open doors to opportunity for our young people with disabilities by better understanding the facilitators and barriers to STEM education, create mentoring opportunities and other support networks for our students, and build the infrastructures that will encourage students with disabilities in STEM to succeed. In these ways, we can all play a part in breaking down barriers, develop opportunities to help our nation win the future, and ensure that no students who have the intellect, talent, and passion to pursue the sciences will be prevented from realizing their dreams.

Maria Dolroes Cimini, Ph.D. is the Assistant Director for Prevention and Program Evaluation at the University at Albany Counseling Center and has been active in promoting access to STEM for students with disabilities, particularly young women with disabilities.