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Exploring engineering and STEM careers for students with disabilities

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Exploring engineering and STEM careers for students with disabilities

Tuesday, January 12, 2016 

Exploring engineering and STEM careers for students with disabilities

AHEAD’s aim is to improve the number of students with disabilities studying engineering and show students and future employers that engineering needs all sorts of people.

There is a growing awareness that if any profession is to be creative and on top of its game – the right people make all the difference. Recent research ‘Powering economic growth: Attracting more young women into science and technology’ – carried out by STEM Accenture Research stated that the findings were not only important for the education sector but also important for industry, if together, obstacles are to be removed which have so far served to minimise the involvement of young women in the STEM area.

One of the many factors raised was ‘influence ambiguity’ – the idea that those who influence career aspirations might inadvertently contribute to assumptions and beliefs about who is the best ‘fit’.

I wonder if this could also be the case for students with disabilities? Do we really believe that they have something to contribute to engineering and STEM careers? Do current engineers and employers contribute to these assumptions?

Currently there are almost 2,700 students with disabilities studying STEM courses with different talents, hopes and aspirations for their future careers (‘AHEAD Survey on Participation Rates of Students with Disabilities in Higher Education in Ireland 2013/14’).

There are 975 students with disabilities in engineering courses alone, just six per cent of all engineering students. AHEAD’s aim is to improve this figure and show students and future employers that engineering needs all sorts of people.

"Placement is most of all about opportunity, every one of us can relate to ‘opportunity’. After all, if you never get an opportunity you’ll never know what you are great at."

The potential of students with disabilities

AHEAD is the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability and has a vision whereby all students with disabilities can attend higher education and realise their potential. Willing Able Mentoring (WAM) is a work placement programme run by AHEAD that aims to promote access to the labour market for graduates with disabilities and build the capacity of employers to integrate disability into the mainstream workplace. It acts as a conduit of learning between higher education and the world of work in relation to the transitioning of graduates with disabilities.

There are many reasons why this target group should be seriously considered and included in the message that engineering is for all. A graduate with a disability might present differently, but they are naturally a group of creative thinkers, team players, flexible and adaptable – they have to be. Most importantly, they are used to thinking outside the box. So what is the issue? Are these not the very attributes that employers seek out and recruit?

Perhaps the more difficult question is that if engineering needs more diversity – how do we do it in a meaningful way?

One small step would be to offer a placement opportunity specifically to students with a disability – this one action may sound simple but having worked for over 10 years with employers we know this not to be the case. We also know that it contributes greatly to changing cultures, practices and challenging unconscious bias. It creates positive learning opportunities for a team, a division and a company.

What is a placement and what are the benefits?

But what is a placement? A placement is time spent in an industry with a view to developing practical skills. Sometimes it is optional as part of a course and sometimes it may even be after graduation. It is often a credited part of the degree but whether it is or not the experience itself is still invaluable.

Industrial placement recruitment is competitive and involves company visits and interviews.

While there is support from the faculty in preparing CVs, refining interview techniques and projects such as WAM for employers – where a student with a disability is competing with their peers they somehow are just not ‘the right fit’, or there is someone ‘better on the day’. While this may really be the case – it is unfortunately all too often the case.

The benefits of placement – for any student are well known:

  • It is an opportunity for practical experience in an industry – they can never be really clued up on what a job entails until they have been working practically in that role. Equally an employer can never really know how someone will perform until they engage in the work;
  • It is real world exposure to the latest technology;
  • It is an opportunity to engage in work behaviour;
  • It is an opportunity to learn the language of industry;
  • There are improved job opportunities due to the fact that an employer likes to see work placements on a CV. More importantly perhaps, there is an opportunity for mutual learning – that is learning for the student, the HR team and the hiring manager and colleagues;
  • The experience of teamwork and development of interpersonal skills – for all employees the ability to work in a team and with colleagues that might bring new ideas and new skills to a work environment can positively challenge the way they think;
  • There is an opportunity to develop a greater awareness of current developments;
  • It enables an introduction to students with a disability who are hoping to work in your chosen career, gently challenging any unconscious bias in a real way;
  • It is thought that more placement students go onto achieve higher grades and better degrees. The additional skill and knowledge gained during a work placement can often be directly applied to studies and applied correctly can lead to better grades. Where a student with a disability misses an opportunity for learning it can impact on their grades;
  • There may be a chance of a firm offer of employment on graduation. Performing well on a work placement can often lead to firm job offers. The significance of this for a group of students that face greater challenges in seeking employment is not to be underestimated;
  • The most significant benefits are often in areas of personal development: confidence, maturity and self-awareness.

Engineering and a greater diversity of future employees

This article is proposing that placement, while part of the journey can also be part of the answer as engineering seeks to engage a greater diversity of future employees. Placement whereby there is positive discrimination and it is set aside for a student with a disability – be they deaf, hard of hearing, dyslexic or visually impaired – offers benefits for both the employer and the student. We have learned this from over 10 years of WAM.

This has to start when a student is studying, it is the only real way that companies and organisations can make positive changes. While it is important for an employer, there are many benefits for the student with a disability.

Employers are key influencers when seeking to make engineering and STEM careers more diverse. Engaging with a student on placement is not to be overlooked as an opportunity as it is the first opportunity to create real relationships and real influence. Placement is about real engagement, it is about practical engagement and learning. It is not just about how a student with a disability best does something but also how they engage, how they share their story and make their own way.

It is about considering, often for the first time, what might be needed if not just a student with a disability, but if a company is to realise its potential – it is about engineering in its truest sense.

Placement is most of all about opportunity, every one of us can relate to ‘opportunity’. After all, if you never get an opportunity you’ll never know what you are great at.

Mary Quirke, assistant director, AHEAD has a keen interest in mentoring and empowering people to attain their personal goals. Mary works with employers on the WAM mentoring placement programme for graduates with a disability, delivery of training and consultative work with employers on disability/inclusion in the workplace. Mary recently presented in the Science Gallery on Exploring Engineering and STEM careers for students with disabilities. AHEAD, the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability is an independent non-profit organisation working to promote full access to and participation in further and higher education for students with disabilities and to enhance their employment prospects on graduation. AHEAD provides information to students and graduates with disabilities, teachers, guidance counsellors and parents on disability issues in education. AHEAD works with graduates and employers through the GET AHEAD Graduate Forum and the WAM Mentored Work Placement Programme. AHEAD coordinates LINK, a worldwide network of professionals promoting the inclusion of students and graduates with disabilities in Higher Education managed by six European partner organisations.


The Careersportal Team