Career Outlook Information: Cerebral Palsy Career Builder for Middle School

By Jim Hasse, ABC, GCDF, Disability Employment Expert

Here’s a bit of career outlook information you can pass along to the middle school youngster with cerebral palsy (CP) you are mentoring as a career-coaching parent: STEM careers are hot right now. But, I need to add a caveat.

If your youngster has a mobility, visual, speech, or hearing disability due to CP and is intrigued by a STEM career -- one which uses knowledge of science, technology, electronics and math – he or she needs to be prepared to develop a plan for overcoming some of the obstacles that may present themselves.

That bit of "refined" career outlook information can be over-looked sometimes.

However, most importantly, remember that these obstacles are not barriers that will prevent your youngster from realizing his or her aspirations. You and your youngster just need to be aware of them and develop a plan for how to work around them.

Graduates in STEM fields can find work as health care practitioners, teachers, farmers, top-level managers in the private or government sector, and even writers or artists.

In many cases, disabilities are not barriers in STEM fields, where mental capacity and creativity are keys to success. STEM jobs are often not physically demanding. STEM jobholders use their heads -- not their muscles.

Leap: Stick figure leaping over ridge called "Obstacle"

The barriers to STEM careers

Nonetheless, in pursuing a STEM career, youngsters with CP typically face unique challenges as they transition from middle school and high school to college and from college to employment.

For instance, your youngster might need special software or other technologies for following along in high school and college classes. He or she may need accessible work stations for lab classes. Or, your youngster may come up against teachers, faculty or employers who are fearful of dealing with a person with a disability.

Rory A. Cooper, Distinguished Professor, 1994-1997 Chairman of the Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology and now FISA-Paralyzed Veterans of America Chair at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, knows about some of those obstacles first hand. Cooper has been in a wheelchair for 30 years after being hit by a truck while riding a bicycle.

In 2000, Cooper identified these three barriers to STEM careers for people with disabilities (and he's been creative in tackling them on several fronts since then):

  • Too few students with disabilities are studying the physical sciences and math because, in part, they lack role models.

  • There still remain some technical barriers to science education for high school students with disabilities. While many devices are available to compensate for various disabilities, some high school science equipment and laboratories are not yet accessible for students with disabilities.

  • Some people still don't think individuals with a disability have the physical or communication abilities to work in STEM careers.

To overcome those barriers, Cooper has spearheaded the University of Pittsburgh's program to introduce middle and high school students with physical, visual, and hearing disabilities to STEM careers through job shadowing, robotic camps, and internships with local businesses.

Yet, studies by the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology found that students with disabilities were more likely to choose computer/information sciences and less likely to choose the other STEM areas (science and math) at the undergraduate level.

By the way, here’s another bit of career outlook information I find encouraging: The employment rate for scientists and engineers with disabilities is 83 percent, much better than the estimated 26 percent for the overall U.S. population with disabilities, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. So, pursuing a STEM career may be well worth the effort.

President Obama has called science, technology, engineering and math essential subjects to competing in the 21st-century global economy.

We need to recognize this reality: The U.S. is competing with countries that have plenty of individuals with technical expertise and cannot afford to leave any talented people out of the work force -- particularly those with STEM training.

Chalk that up as another bit of career outlook information to give your middle school student.

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Career outlook information resources

So, if your youngster is interested in pursuing a STEM career (particularly one that calls upon science and math capabilities), there may be some new incentives and aids coming down the pike during the next few years for overcoming some of the obstacles involved in making the dream of a STEM career come true.

I’d recommend keeping a folder on your computer, marked, “Career Outlook Information.” One of the files within that folder should be for “STEM Careers.”

Collect upcoming career outlook information about STEM careers. Those initiatives will likely reinforce existing efforts to help individuals with a disability develop STEM careers.

Here are some examples of such programs which already exist:

  • Predisposition. Theories abound that people with certain disabilities may actually have a predisposition for STEM disciplines. In fact, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded a grant to the Rochester Institute of Technology to study a link between engineering and those with Asperger's, a syndrome characterized by an affinity for detail. Another NSF study at the Smithsonian Institution Astrophysical Observatory has explored how the neurological differences of students with dyslexia can lead to advantages for visual processing and learning in STEM disciplines.

  • Best Practices. The NSF's Research in Disabilities Education (RDE) program is working to broaden the participation and achievement of people with disabilities in all fields of STEM education by disseminating findings, project evaluation results, and proven best practices and products to the public.

  • Assistive Technology. RDE awards have included projects that develop new assistive technologies for people with disabilities. One example, developed by a team at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, is a hand-held submersible audible light sensor that fits in a test tube and converts the light intensity to an audible signal to help blind scientists conduct chemistry experiments.

  • Face-to-face Mentoring. Ohio State University (OSU) has received one of nine NSF grants for Alliances for Students with Disabilities. Under the grant, OSU is focusing on improving retention and recruitment rates among students with STEM majors by creating a network of disability-related learning communities through face-to-face mentoring, according to the American Society for Engineering Education.

  • Scholarships. Check the comprehensive list of computer science scholarships and grants available for students with disabilities.

  • STEM-specific Internships. In 2000, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which publishes the journal Science, established EntryPoint! The program provides internship opportunities to students with disabilities at IBM, Merck & Co., the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Lockheed Martin, CVS, NAVAIR, and NASA.

    To participate in EntryPoint!, a student with a disability not only has to be interested in STEM careers but also have a 3.0 or above grade-point average.

  • Internship Opportunities. has an extensive directory of internship opportunities, many of them in STEM areas. Go to Find Jobs and enter the keyword "internship" for a listing of more than 1,000 internships, searchable by city and state. Results give description and details of each internship with a map showing location of the company's location.

  • Online Mentoring. DO-IT, a multifaceted program at the University of Washington, helps people with disabilities succeed in college and the work force. It includes an online mentoring network and an internship program that are part of a program called "Access to Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics" (AccessSTEM), which provides about 50 internship placements a year in the states of Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Idaho.

  • Self-confidence. Incight, a not-for-profit organization based in Portland, OR, works with high school and college students with disabilities throughout the U.S. to help them overcome their fears and become better advocates for themselves. Incight also provides them with scholarships, mentors, and assistance in finding internships.

Now’s the time to research the barriers in developing a STEM career for your middle school student with special needs and learn how to overcome them.

But, remember you're not alone. There are plenty of people and career outlook information resources ready to help you and your youngster along the way -- and that may even more true during the next 10 years.

What’s your youngster’s
biggest pre-college hurdle?

Join PACER’s
Facebook discussion.

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Originally written and illustrated by Jim Hasse, ABC, GCDF, owner of Hasse Communication Counseling, LLC, who, as a person with cerebral palsy, served for 10 years as a vice president in a Fortune 500 company during his 29-year career in corporate communication. He’s an Accredited Business Communicator, certified as a Global Career Development Facilitator and author of 14 Amazon books about disability awareness and disability employment issues.