A new Portland State study challenges the idea that youth with cognitive disabilities are unable or lack potential to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
In a study using national data on more than 15,000 adolescents, the researchers found that undergraduates with medicated ADHD or autism appear to be more likely to major in STEM than youth without cognitive disabilities, and youth with autism have the most positive STEM attitudes.
Dara Shifrer, the lead author and an associate professor of sociology at PSU, says that increasing access to STEM fields for youth with disabilities depends not only on encouraging them to pursue STEM majors but also to enroll in college because STEM occupations often require bachelor’s degrees at higher rates.
“We need a diverse STEM workforce so innovation and technologies are meeting the needs of the whole populace,” she said.
Shifrer said the findings counter the notion that all youth with cognitive disabilities lack potential and ability. Instead, she says their potential often remains untapped due to inconsistent and subjective disability classifications, placement in lower-level courses, and lower expectations that are then likely to lead to self-fulfilling prophecies of poorer academic achievement and attitudes.
Both achievement and attitudes are important for postsecondary STEM outcomes, she said. The study found that if a student identifies as a math or science person, feels efficacious in their abilities and perceives math and science as useful for their goals, they’re more likely to major in STEM. While achievement is important for college enrollment, attitudes are more strongly associated with pursuing a degree in a STEM field.
“People don’t feel like they belong in STEM classes even in high school and it impacts their likelihood of choosing a STEM major, persisting in STEM and choosing a STEM job,” Shifrer said. “STEM faculty and STEM employers write off lack of representation of people with cognitive disabilities as inevitable, perceiving them as having no potential, but they don’t consider the roles of attitudes and don’t consider their contributions to those attitudes. They’re part of the reason why people don’t feel like they belong.”
Results showed that higher levels of high school achievement typically mattered more than STEM-positive attitudes for increasing the likelihood that a student enrolls in college, regardless of disability status and type. In contrast, STEM-positive attitudes mattered more than achievement for increasing the likelihood that a student majors in STEM, regardless of disability status and type.
The findings were published in the journal Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World. Shifrer and her co-author, Ph.D. student Daniel Mackin Freeman, are now looking into what explains why some youth with cognitive disabilities are high-achieving and others are low-achieving.
“Often in research and policy, people with disabilities are treated as a monolithic category but that’s problematic,” Mackin Freeman said.