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Workshops - Enhancing Opportunities in Science and Technology Related Fields

People with Disabilities in the Sciences and Technologies: Interim Research Findings

Jessica Cowan-Dewar

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Jessica Cowan-Dewar has an M.Sc from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and is currently working on a PhD at Queen's University in Kingston. Her research focus is gender-based violence and HIV/AIDS in South Africa. Jessica has worked in a variety of community, outreach, advocacy, research and education roles. She has worked, on a consulting basis, for the Canadian Merit Scholarship Foundation, Queen's University, and the Queen's Institute of Population and Public Health. She joined NEADS in July as a consultant/researcher on the Science and Technology project.


The National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS) recently initiated a two-year project, funded by the Imperial Oil Foundation, with the objective of examining the involvement of people with disabilities in the science and technology sectors. The project methodology, developed to identify issues and challenges faced by students and employees with disabilities in the science and technology sectors, included a literature review, an environmental scan and key informant interviews. The findings from each of these, in addition to informing the creation of a print and online resource guide entitled “Promoting Careers in Canada's Science and Technology Sectors to Students and Recent Graduates with Disabilities: Success Stories, Best Practices and Resources”, will be discussed in this presentation.



Jessica Cowan-Dewar, who is the Consultant working on the NEADS Science and Technology Project (“Promoting Careers in Canada’s Science and Technology Sectors to Students and Recent Graduates With Disabilities: Success Stories, Best Practices and Resources”), funded by the Imperial Oil Foundation, said she was pleased to be sharing knowledge gained on the involvement of people with disabilities in the science and technology field. She described the project, which includes a literature review, an environmental scan, and interviews with key informants.

Cowan-Dewar focused her literature review on mathematics, chemistry, physics, environmental sciences, geology, information technology, and engineering. Literature from life and biological sciences was excluded. She drew from relevant published key papers and articles obtained from education and science and technology databases. To identify unpublished literature, she used the search engines Google and Google Scholar. The American Chemical Society website was another valuable resource, she noted.

For the purposes of the environmental scan, concerned less with literature and more with statistics, Cowan-Dewar conducted Internet searches; contacted relevant organizations, corporations, and disability service providers; requested information via listservs; identified and contacted key stakeholders; and held face-to-face meetings with relevant actors.

Cowan-Dewar summarized the key findings and recurring themes that have emerged so far from her research as follows:

  • The under-representation of people with disabilities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics applies to both academic and employment spheres.
  • Attitudinal barriers have been and continue to be central to the under-representation of people with disabilities in science and technology. According to Chemists with Disabilities (CWD), the primary barrier in chemistry-related fields is attitudinal. Employers are reluctant to hire people with disabilities.
  • There is a larger body of US-funded and US-focused research on the representation of people with disabilities in science and technology. The discrepancy between American and Canadian literature and programs is dramatic, as is the contrast between the number of organizations and corporations that have well-developed programs, mandates, or strategies involving persons with disabilities. In the United States, these programs are found in both the public and the private spheres.
  • Internship opportunities for people with disabilities in co-operative education are considered extremely important and valuable. Cowan-Dewar added that, in their many forms, internships boost self-esteem and self-confidence, create spaces for advocacy, and develop coaching relationships. As an example, she cited ENTRY POINT!, an outstanding collaborative internship program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that includes partnerships with IBM, NASA, Merck, NOAA, Google, Lockheed Martin, CVS, NAVAIR, Pfizer, Infosys, and university science laboratories.
  • Professors, teachers, and formal or informal mentors play a crucial role as either facilitators or barriers to the participation of people with disabilities. In addition to offering precious support, mentors help to break barriers, act as role models, and encourage students to persevere in their chosen paths.
  • Case studies and personal success stories are paramount in helping to understand the main issues of persons with disabilities, which are omitted in academic literature. As an example, Cowan-Dewar cited Roadmaps & Rampways, the first publication to detail the life and experiences of persons with disabilities from young childhood to the early stages of their careers. She described it as “especially illuminating.”

Concerning the interviews with key informants – which are currently underway -- Cowan-Dewar said she had interviewed students and graduates (employed and unemployed), disability service providers, teachers, professors, and employers. She was hoping to interview a total of 30 people from all provinces and territories of Canada before completing this last phase of the project.

Cowan-Dewar presented the key interim findings of the research. She said stigma, misperception, and ignorance of the capabilities of people with disabilities were identified as the main barriers. She recounted two extreme examples:

  • First, at a Canadian university, an engineering student was not allowed to take a lighter course load. He was told by the associate dean and by his academic advisor, among others, that he could not become an engineer. He was even told to “pack his bags and go home.” The student appealed once and again. Only when he threatened to file a human rights complaint did the university begin to make accommodations. In the second example, a visually impaired individual who had applied for a job in a technology-related company was told in the third round of interviews that he would not be hired because it would cost the company too much money and too much time to provide him with the accommodations he would require to do the job.
  • Other interviewees reported feelings of awkwardness on the part of teachers and students at having a person with disabilities in the classroom, a lack of understanding of the ability and skills of people with disabilities, and a general lack of support while pursuing their degree.

Another recurring theme was when and whether to disclose a disability during a job interview. Among the physical barriers, Cowan-Dewar mentioned inaccessible classrooms and workplaces, inaccessible industries, and, most especially, inaccessible science labs.

When key informants were asked what supports and services could improve representation of people with disabilities, they suggested creating liaisons between employers and employees; exploring the possibility of paid internships; increasing employment opportunities in science and technology; raising awareness through advertising and education campaigns; and having schools and industries actively recruit people with disabilities.

All interviewees stressed the value of formal and informal mentorship programs and recommended increasing the profile of role models in science and technology. Cowan-Dewar said the final purpose of her work is to develop and publish a guidebook titled Promoting Careers in Canada’s Science and Technology Sectors to Students and Recent Graduates with Disabilities: Success Stories, Best Practices and Resources.

The guidebook would be available in French and English, in CD and DVD format, online, in print, and in alternative formats. It would include lists of resources, links to websites, key stakeholders, a collection of best practices related to employment in the science and technology sectors, as well as a good number of success stories and personal experiences.

Cowan-Dewar concluded with two key messages. First, although it is frustrating that Canada is not further ahead in representing people with disabilities in the science and technology sectors, there are well-developed and effective programs to build upon. Second, she said she could never emphasize enough the value of well-developed internship programs and mentoring relationships.

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