SIDEBAR: Students With Disabilities Studying Science, Engineering, and Mathematics: The Time Disadvantage

Many of the problems experienced by persons with disabilities are similar to those of other students in science, mathematics, and engineering; however, the difficulties of the former are magnified by what Elaine Seymour and Anne-Barrie Hunter (in press) identify as a shared "disadvantage of time." [9] Nearly 60 percent of 65 respondents studying at the University of Minnesota's Institute of Technology counted among their difficulties struggles with time issues. These included "problems of pace; speed of learning, comprehension, and recall; temporal disruptions in mental and physical functioning; time-related educational needs; and time expended in dealing with all types of problems" (p. 173).

"By the start of junior year," write Seymour and Hunter, science, mathematics, and engineering "faculty have (on a national basis) effectively engineered the weeding out of between 40 percent and 60 percent [10] (with variations by discipline) of all freshmen (and of larger proportions of women and students of color) who had intended to major in these disciplines" (pp. 75-76).

Through data gathered in intensive individual and focus-group interviews, Talking About Disability notes, as did an earlier study Seymour coauthored, [11] some of the reasons why many undergraduates drop out of science, mathematics, and engineering majors.

The performance scores and graduation rates, both in terms of percentages finishing and of length of study, of individuals with disabilities are similar to those of other science and engineering students in spite of the first group's frequent in-and-out attendance patterns. Further, students with disabilities had often chosen their majors because of "intrinsic interest"-according to Talking About Leaving, "the best predictor of persistence" (p. 21).

Undergraduates with disabilities who chose science and engineering majors found "hostile attitudes of science, mathematics, and engineering faculty" to be their most serious problem. In contrast, "There were only a handful of complaints about [other] faculty, most of whom were reported to be cooperative in following the formal accommodation procedure" (p. 66).

Students with disabilities identified tight finances as their next most serious problem, and the effects of disabilities were third. A better understanding of the temporal issues common to students with disabilities could help to alleviate some of the problems raised by both faculty gatekeeping and finances. Respondents believed that

some of the rules by which funds-especially financial aid-are currently awarded or withheld need to be amended to take into account the kinds of problems which many students with disabilities unavoidably face: the need to progress more slowly in their degree program than some other students; to take time out; and to attend school part-time. Attention to these difficulties will [12] involve changes in financial aid regulations at state and national levels (p. 181).

Similarly, "the apparent difficulties [science, mathematics, and engineering] faculty face in trying to distinguish one form of disability from another, in order to decide whether they should allow some relaxation of the moral rules [calling for impartiality] might be alleviated," if [faculty] could understand disability as "essentially, a disadvantage of time" (p. 177).

Instead, many attempt to distinguish between "acceptable" and "unacceptable" handicaps. By trying to apply what they perceive to be fair rules to all students rather than by attending to individual students' needs, science and engineering faculty members sometimes violate institutional provisions for justifiable exceptions.

Seymour and Hunter conclude that "the greatest problems of accommodation appear to be problems of attitude not architecture; not how to adapt facilities or equipment but the willingness to do it" (p. 166). "Treating everyone alike," they continue,

that is, in a manner which is in line with the prior educational experience of white male students, has unequal consequences for whole groups of students for whom this treatment is unfamiliar and less appropriate, namely, white women, and students of color of both genders…. Students with disabilities inadvertently challenge the traditional system more than any other group by openly asking for suspension of, or exemption from, some of its moral rules (p. 76).


[9] Their study, Talking About Disability: The Education and Work Experiences of Graduates and Undergraduates With Disabilities in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Majors, analyzed these experiences through the eyes of 47 males and 18 females at the Institute of Technology (Minneapolis). Seymour and Hunter chose these 65 students (plus a small random sample of recent graduates) at this institution for a number of reasons: among them, students with reported disabilities made up a high percentage of such individuals compared to those in other schools of engineering; and both the State and the institution have a record of serving individuals with disabilities better than many others. More undergraduates (44) than graduate students (21) were interviewed; however, responses were similar at both levels.
[10] Percentages based on data from unpublished 1993 Cooperative Institutional Research Program figures (Seymour and Hewitt 1994, p. 37).
[11] Seymour and Hewitt, Talking About Leaving (1994).
[12] And, many students with disabilities believe, should….


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