Helping disabled women fight barriers to science, tech careers is project goal
Dolores Cimini, now a licensed psychologist and professor at the University at Albany, lost her sight when she was 16.
When she was a graduate student in psychology in the 1980s, her professors told her flat out that she would not be able to do as much as her sighted classmates. One even told her that because of her vision loss, she would never be able to meet the expectations of people who were sighted. “I just accepted it as the truth, so not as many options were open to me,” she said.
At the time, assisted devices, such as the text-to-speech and large-print software programs that she uses today, just didn’t exist. As a result, she didn’t get the same depth of training and experience as her classmates. “I did not work in a research laboratory setting during graduate school,” she said. This greatly affected the trajectory of her career. “I didn’t get as much exposure in psychological research as my classmates did,” she said.
Now, thanks in part to grants and a career development award, Cimini is playing catch-up, acquiring the mentorship and experience that she needs to fulfill her goal of becoming an independent researcher in the field of psychology, specializing in addiction and making a significant contribution to research related to alcohol interventions for college students.
She has proven those who doubted her potential wrong, having a whole host of professional achievements to her credit, including millions in grant awards. One of her latest projects is helping to open the doors for other women with disabilities, so that they don’t face the same types of obstacles she did in her academic and professional careers.
She is co-chairwoman of the American Psychological Association’s Women With Disabilities in STEM Education Research Agenda Development Project, a grant project funded by the National Science Foundation aimed to encourage young women with disabilities to pursue STEM disciplines. “STEM” refers to the science, technology, engineering and math disciplines. The project is designed to contribute to the larger knowledge base of research in disability education, examining differences in postsecondary STEM education for women related to disabilities.
Increasing the numbers
The end game of all the research is to increase participation of women with disabilities in STEM education, and thus raise the overall numbers of STEM professionals, an issue that has been of concern in the United States for several years.
The problem is a complicated and multi-faceted one, though, Cimini said. “To begin with, there are relatively fewer women in the STEM disciplines than there are men, and then complicating that factor, there are even fewer women with disabilities,” she said. People with disabilities are an underrepresented population in the science and engineering workforce, as are women. This makes women with disabilities an even smaller population in that work force.
The NSF, a major player in addressing the issue of preparing the next generation of the STEM work force, sees including the underrepresented groups as essential in reaching the goal of cultivating that segment, and this translates to removing the barriers that people with disabilities face in education and in the workplace. According to the NSF, only 5 percent of students with disabilities pursue graduate degrees in STEM disciplines, and while people with disabilities make up 10 percent of the U.S. population, they compose only 2 percent of the total number of STEM professionals.
Muriel Poston, a professor of biology at Skidmore College, took a leave of absence from the college to take the position of division director in the Human Resource Development Directorate for Education and Human Resources at the NSF. Her directorate is working on ways to support student populations with disabilities in undergraduate research and education as well as to address the barriers those with disabilities face in these areas.
Poston points out that the disabled population is going to continue to expand as veterans return to the civilian workforce. “They can be full participants in the STEM enterprise and are bringing expertise from their military experience that can be a recruiting tool into the STEM enterprise,” she said.
One of the starting points of Cimini’s project is to identify, on a national scale, the barriers — educational, attitudinal, physical and financial — that women with disabilities face in the STEM disciplines.
In education, they may lack the resources or the technology to be able to access the information that they need for their studies, as was the case with Cimini when she was a grad student.
There are attitudinal barriers, too, as instructors may not be educated to work with people with different disabilities. Guidance and vocational counselors may not know what exists to help people with disabilities in education and may steer young women away from pursuing the STEM disciplines.
Andrea Konig, a 1998 Skidmore College graduate from Saratoga Springs, has conquered barriers in all of these categories during her years in school.
She started off as a biology major and found her professors “phenomenally supportive” of her studies. At the time, she suffered a secondary complication, namely severe chronic back pain, as a result of cerebral palsy. “There were three-hour labs, and I simply couldn’t sit,” she said. “I could barely make it through a 55-minute class, and I couldn’t sit for more than 10 minutes at a time.” Her professors were even willing to put all the slides on a television so that she could look at them lying down if necessary.
Konig ended up switching majors after two semesters, not because of her disability, but because she found herself drawn to the field of clinical psychology. However, when she finished her undergraduate work and started applying for doctoral programs, she found herself facing a whole new set of barriers.
She was upfront about the fact that she would need extra time to complete a program. “No one would accommodate me to take an extra year, even though the national average for completion is seven years,” she said.
She ended up applying and being accepted to a master’s degree program at Loyola College in Maryland, after which she began applying for doctoral programs.
“I was accepted to everywhere I applied, but when I began to ask about accommodations, several of the schools were like, ‘No, we can’t do that.’ ” Fortunately, other schools said they would, and Konig enrolled in a doctoral program at Virginia Commonwealth University, which she completed in 2011. “I wound up in a really wonderful environment with an adviser who was incredibly accommodating and flexible,” she said, noting that the school gave her the time and space to do what she needed to do to complete the program.
There were still bumps in the road, like no automatic doors on buildings so that she could get in and out easily in her wheelchair.
She was fortunate to have stumbled across a grant that helped students with disabilities complete doctoral degrees in the sciences. She explained that most doctoral students work 20 hours a week for their academic departments, but this would not have been possible for her to do. “I knew if I had to physically do that, all my energy would go towards working for someone else,” she said. The grant paid for her tuition as well as a stipend for her to live on for four years — the extra amount of time she needed to complete her program.
Today, she works at the University of Virginia Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavior Science in a postdoctoral research fellowship in the field of addiction.
Konig, like Cimini, wants to encourage others. “Once I’m established in my career, I would like to give back,” she said. “I want to see how I can empower and support other people coming through. It’s an incredibly hard road in a sense that I didn’t have any role models. There was nobody I could look to and say, ‘Well, they did it, and so can I.’ ”
Cimini’s work in the area of women with disabilities in STEM will hopefully begin to change that. A major part of the research will be the gathering of 40 experts at a meeting in Washington, D.C., to formulate a nationwide research agenda in this area and give the issue more exposure.
Having an impact
“We see this as helping to cultivate this emerging line of inquiry around women with disabilities in STEM education,” said Shari Miles-Cohen, senior director of the Women’s Programs Office at the American Psychological Association, who co-chairs the project with Cimini. “We want to encourage collaborations between researchers who may not be communicating with each other,” she said.
They also want to get the word out to the business world as well as academia, letting professionals know of this under-represented population who can potentially contribute to their workforce. “We want to have a significant impact on the STEM pipeline,” Miles-Cohen said.
Cimini is the only person with a disability on the organizing committee of this project. “The outcome that I would hope we would realize would be that we would bring a set of experts together who would assess the issue for young women with disabilities,” she said.
“We want to develop a national research agenda that could drive our practice and would ultimately lead to the encouraging of young women with disabilities to enter the STEM disciplines.”