The 34 young people who tell their stories in the new book, Roadmaps and Rampways, are either blind or deaf, or they may get around in wheelchairs or have learning disabilities. But their disabilities do not define them, and have not stopped them from taking jobs as biologists, computer scientists, mechanical engineers, and aerospace scientists.
Roadmaps and Rampways, released by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), chronicles 25 years of a remarkable era, with dramatic changes in the law, in attitudes, and in “assistive” technology that are transforming the lives of people with disabilities in the United States. The young people featured in the book all participated in a AAAS internship program known as ENTRY POINT!, which has served as a bridge into jobs in engineering and sciences in both the public and private sectors since 1996. Of the 350 students placed in ENTRY POINT! internships, 92 percent are either employed fulltime, or have gone on to graduate school in a technical field. Their stories are in marked contrast to the general population of people with disabilities, among whom only 25 percent have fulltime jobs.
“We began to wonder at our students’ early lives — at their talent, their skills, and their academic achievement,” says Virginia Stern, the program’s director and co-author of the book. “We wanted to know what had made them achieve, who their mentors were and what their parents did to avoid the pitfalls. We also wanted to know what impact the laws had had on their lives.”
Most of the students had been born after the signing of the historic Education for All Handicapped Children Act in December 1975. But the revolutionary passage in July 1990 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) opened up additional opportunities in transportation, public facilities, telecommunications, and, of course, employment.
The individuals profiled in Roadmaps and Rampways “made it over the wall,” says Randy Horwitz, an ENTRY POINT! alumnus and software engineer at IBM, “who happens to be blind.” Most of the stories in the book — including Horwitz’s — note that the young scientists faced discrimination and other barriers to fulfilling their dreams, but they all had the support of parents or mentors who served as advocates and taught them to speak up for themselves. Stern points in particular to “those single-minded moms who ignored the doctors and the others who told them their children should be institutionalized.”
Despite the benefits of new laws and good families, even hardworking young people with talent were struggling to enter jobs in the sciences, Stern says. So, ENTRY POINT! began as a broker between students and jobs, with NASA and IBM as the program’s first sponsors, a role both continue to play. Since then, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and some private sector companies have joined the program.
“Going through AAAS, we knew we could get some of the best talent in the industry,” says Ted Childs, Vice President, IBM Workforce Diversity. “We like the students and we like the skills they bring to the job.”
Stern notes that in the wake of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, the business sector may have shied away from hiring people with disabilities because of concerns that accommodating them would cost too much. But the results of a recent survey issued by the Department of Labor may allay such fears. Companies reported that they averaged $28.69 in benefits for every dollar they invested in accommodating employees with disabilities. In response to a questions on how much they had spent on accommodation, half the companies reported spending between $1 and $500; 20 percent had spent nothing; and 12 percent had paid between $500 and $1000; seven percent spent between $1000 and $2000; nine percent between $2000 and $5000; and three percent greater than $5000.
The ENTRY POINT! internship helps companies overcome whatever resistance they might have to hiring a employee with a disability, Stern says. “It gives students the experience, and it gives the prospective employer a view of the student and a sense of whether he or she might be ready for conversion to regular employment.”
AAAS has been working since 1975 to improve conditions for scientists and engineers with disabilities and to provide access to jobs in the sciences for young people with disabilities. Stern remembers a time when AAAS staff would have to demand that hotels put up temporary ramps during the Association’s annual meetings to make the events accessible to wheel chairs. She notes that the 2002 Annual Meeting in Boston this year took place in a hotel that has been completely redone to meet the needs of people with disabilities. The ramps are now permanent.