Volume IV Number 4, December 1997

Science, Technology and Math Issues for K-12 Students With Disabilities

Carmela Cunningham

Children who do not get a solid foundation in science and mathematics during Kindergarten through 12th grade will not be properly prepared to study science, math, engineering or technology (SMET) successfully in college. Too often students with disabilities fall into this group. There are several basic issues facing students with disabilities.

First, there is an attitude among teachers, administrators, and sometimes even parents, that students with disabilities can't "do" math or science.

Second, students with disabilities are often waived out of math and science course work in K-12, which means that they don't develop the basic foundational skills in these fields. This also makes it impossible for many students with disabilities to meet national standards in science and math.

Third, students with disabilities are not getting adequate training on adaptive computing technology that would allow them to work in the technical fields.

Fourth, students with disabilities often require extra help in making the transition from one level of education to the other and from the educational setting to the workplace.

Fifth, students with disabilities and their parents must learn to be advocates to lobby for the appropriate technology and other accommodations necessary for students with disabilities to succeed in ed ucation and the workplace.


The negative attitudes that K-12 students with disabilities face parallel those that adults with disabilities face. A 1989 study by the National Science Foundation (Changing America, 1989) reported that the single most significant barrier faced by individuals with disabilities is negative attitudes on the part of faculty and employers. This is particularly harmful, because not only does it deny or limit some students' entrance into the fields of science, engineering and math, but it almost ensures that those individuals will never be able to enter science, engineering or mathematics careers when they enter the work force.

Parents, teachers and service providers can do a great deal to help students face and debunk these negative attitudes. Often, all i t takes to get teachers, administrators and parents to believe that students with disabilities can do math and science is to show them the tools and accommodations available.


The perception that students with disabilities are not capable of doing work in science and math is often reinforced by teachers and parents. Too often students with disabilities are not held responsible for the work that is being done by their peers, and teacher s from preschool on will often have lower expectations for students with disabilities. All too often teachers in the early grades a re pleased that a student with a disability can do any of the class work. "She is just amazing," is the attitude. And "We don't want to make her work harder than her friends" is the justification for lowering expectations and waiving requirements for students with disabilities. Unfortunately, parents often buy into this argument as well.

Later, after students have been cheated out of a full K-12 education because of these lowered expectations, no one understands why college classes or expectations in the work place are too demanding for them. This mind set that creates lowered expectations and waived requirements is often a greater disability than is the physical disability.

Some schools have been experimenting with extending the time that elementary and secondary schools provide for students with disabilities to learn basic skills. This can include doing one year's worth of work in two year's time. However, some parents and teachers have raised the issues of the importance of having students move ahead with their social groups and of the perception that retention is only for students who "are dumb." Perhaps it's time to rethink the issue and convince parents, teachers and school administrators that more time to master the basics is a likely option for many students with disabilities.


K-12 students with disabilities should be introduced to and trained on adaptive technology as early and as much as possible. A basic foundation in using computers and special applications to make the computers accessible is critical for children with disabilities if they are to move into higher education and into the workplace.

Students will need to meet basic math and science requirements in college, whether they specialize in those fields or not. It's difficult to introduce students to specialized technology at the same time that they're trying to get through a math or science class, which they may find difficult. Students who are taking the math or science as part of their core requirements, rather than as a major, have a particularly tough time learning special math or science software programs, and students who don't have a good math foundation are fighting a three-way battle.

Helping students become familiar with adaptive technology early, slowly and comfortably, helps prepare them for the more advanced technology they'll need in college.


When a student moves from one educational setting to another, it is a time of anxiety. If that student has a disability, the anxiety is multiplied. The new environment may have to be physically adapted. New classmates will have questions, and new teachers will need information on how to best help a student with a disability progress and become an interdependent part of the new classroom or school.

One of the main issues facing parents of children with disabilities is whether or not to allow their children to be mainstreamed - put into regular school classrooms. Many people see it as an equality issue. Others see it practically - some children aren't able to learn what they need to learn in regular classes.

Whether or when children with disabilities are mainstreamed into the general school population is an issue that must be addressed for each child. Some students do just fine entering the general population at a young age. Others benefit by going to special classes for a few years and then moving into mainstream classes. The important thing is to make sure that mainstreaming is right for the individual child, rather than being done as a policy decision.


Many parents agree that the most trying thing about having a child with a disability is the fight to get services and an appropriate education for their child.

One woman, who happened to be a special education teacher before she gave birth to a son with cerebral palsy, talked about her exhaustion at fighting the system, which she was quick to point out, was actually trying to do the best thing for her son.

Linda's son is now 16 years old and entering high school. Because Linda's husband is a computer programmer, the couple has long bee n aware of the benefits of computers for individuals with disabilities. Before Paul even started school, his father had set him up with a computer and worked with him to learn to use the computer to communicate and accomplish other tasks. Paul's parents also bought all the computer equipment he needed for school and made sure he had the appropriate adaptive devices and software packages to complete his school work. So, what's the problem?

As Paul moves into high school, the equipment that he has used will no longer serve his needs. He must have a laptop computer to take from room to room, and he needs other adaptive accommodations that will make it possible for him to use the computer in multiple classrooms. The school district isn't much help in coming up with a good mobile system, and Paul's father is left with the responsibility of making accommodations.

Fortunately for Paul, his mother is a special education teacher and his father knows computers. Most children with disabilities don't have the same resources available.

And that's where advocacy really becomes important. Parents and the students themselves must work to find what is legally mandated, to find the resources available, and to successfully lobby for the services they need. There are hundreds of organizations, funds and laws that support services for students with disabilities. The problem is that getting appropriate services doesn't always happen automatically. Teachers and service providers can help students become good self-advocates both through encouragement and by helping them learn what their rights are.

EASI, an affiliate of the American Association for Higher Education is working on a two-year National Science Foundation project to create and disseminate materials to help K-12 students with disabilities become prepared to do post-secondary and professional work in these te chnical fields. For more information on EASI's K-12 project, check out EASI's K-12 corner at:


EASI also sends out informational releases with strategies and tactics and is in the process of creating other publications that will be made available online and through hard copy. If you'd like to have your name included on the monthly informational release list, send a request to Dick Banks at rbanks2@discover-net.net

Cunningham, C. (1997). Science, technology, and math issues for k-12 students with disabilities. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 4(4).