Students with disabilities in STEM courses
I first became interested in self-advocacy when I worked as a coordinator at a university disability resource center. Disability resource centers are campus offices that coordinate accommodations and other services for college students with disabilities. As a coordinator, I met with students with disabilities and helped them arrange accommodations in their courses.
Although self-advocacy is important for academic success in college, knowledge of self-advocacy in STEM disciplines is still developing.
Typically, I would meet with students once a semester. I closed these meetings by inviting students to contact me if they encountered any issues with their accommodations in their courses that term. I began noticing that only a few students would contact me after that initial meeting to discuss accommodations. I often learned of issues students experienced with their accommodations after the end of the semester. I began to wonder, why did only some students communicate about accommodation issues during the semester?
I also began noticing a pattern, many of the students I worked with who were STEM majors ended up changing their majors after their first semester. As a recent graduate from a STEM major myself, this made me reflect. I remembered my own experiences as a student who was first-generation and from a rural background in my introductory STEM courses. I often felt like an outsider. I wondered about the experiences of students with disabilities in STEM courses: what was it like to access and manage accommodations in that type of environment?
Because self-advocacy had not yet been studied within specific academic disciplines, such as any of the STEM disciplines, we wanted to explore if an existing model of self-advocacy fit the experiences of STEM undergraduates with ADHD and SLD.
Self-advocacy experiences of STEM undergraduates with ADHD and SLD
As a graduate student, I joined Dr. Julie Stanton’s research group to begin answering these big questions about student experiences in accessing and managing accommodations in STEM. In our recent study, we investigated the self-advocacy experiences of STEM undergraduates with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and specific learning disorders (SLD). Accessing and managing accommodations requires self-advocacy. The students who communicated with me about accommodation issues showed high levels of self-advocacy, while students who do not communicate about accommodation issues were still developing self-advocacy.
Self-advocacy and academic success
Several studies link self-advocacy to academic success for students with disabilities in college (see also this study and this study). Because self-advocacy had not yet been studied within specific academic disciplines, such as any of the STEM disciplines, we wanted to explore if an existing model of self-advocacy fit the experiences of STEM undergraduates with ADHD and SLD. We found that self-advocacy for these students was more complex than the original model suggested.
The original model of self-advocacy includes knowledge of self and knowledge of rights. Knowledge of self is knowing your own strengths and weaknesses as a student with a disability, and knowledge of rights is awareness of federal laws that guide the accommodation process in college. Besides knowledge of self and knowledge of rights, self-advocacy in STEM courses involves knowledge of STEM learning contexts. For example, students using accommodations need to know that they can always request accommodations in any part of their STEM course whether that is the lecture, lab, or discussion section.
ADHD and SLD in STEM Education
We also learned from our participants that many students with ADHD and SLD perceive that their STEM instructors and peers think less of them because they use accommodations. Our participants explained that from their perspective, many of their STEM instructors know less about disabilities and accommodations compared to instructors in other disciplines.
Promoting self-advocacy in undergraduate STEM courses will support more students with disabilities in earning STEM degrees.
Our model of self-advocacy can be used as a guide to help us understand how to promote self-advocacy in undergraduate STEM courses. We are now using our model to characterize supports and barriers to self-advocacy in STEM. The goal of this work is to provide instructors specific recommendations for supporting students with ADHD and SLD in their courses. Promoting self-advocacy in undergraduate STEM courses will support more students with disabilities in earning STEM degrees.