2021 CoNECD

“I'm Looking at You, You're a Perfectly Good Person …”: Describing Non-Apparent Disability in Engineering

Presented at CoNECD Session : Day 1 Slot 2 Technical Session 4

In recent years, studies in engineering education have begun to intentionally integrate disability into discussions of diversity, inclusion, and equity. To broaden and advocate for the participation of this group in engineering, researchers have identified a variety of factors that have kept people with disabilities at the margins of the field. Such factors include the underrepresentation of disabled individuals within research and industry (Spingola, 2018); systemic and personal barriers (Pearson Weatherton et al., 2017; Phillips & Pearson, 2018), and sociocultural expectations within and beyond engineering education-related contexts (Groen-McCall et al., 2018a). These findings provide a foundational understanding of the external and environmental influences that can shape how students with disabilities experience higher education, develop a sense of belonging, and ultimately form professional identities as engineers (Reference removed for review; Kimball et al., 2015).

Prior work examining the intersections of disability identity and professional identity is limited (Groen et al., 2018; Kimball, 2015; Svyantek, 2015; Spingola, 2018), with little to no studies examining the ways in which students conceptualize, define, and interpret disability as a category of identity during their undergraduate engineering experience. This lack of research poses problems for recruitment, retention, and inclusion, particularly as existing studies have shown that the ways in which students perceive and define themselves in relation to their college major is crucial for the development of a professional engineering identity (Groen et al., 2018a,b). Further, due to variation in defining ‘disability’ across national agencies (e.g., the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Justice) and disability communities (with different models of disability), the term “disability” is broad and often misunderstood, frequently referring to a group of individuals with a wide range of conditions and experiences. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to gain deeper insights into the ways students define disability and disability identity within their own contexts as they develop professional identities. Specifically, we ask the following research question: How do students describe and conceptualize non-apparent disabilities? To answer this research question, we draw from emergent findings from an on-going grounded theory exploration of professional identity formation of undergraduate civil engineering students with disabilities. In this paper, we focus our discussion on the grounded theory analyses of 4 semi-structured interviews with participants who have disclosed a non-apparent disability. Study participants consist of students currently enrolled in undergraduate civil engineering programs, students who were initially enrolled in undergraduate civil engineering programs and transferred to another major, and students who have recently graduated from a civil engineering program within the past year.

Sensitizing concepts emerged as findings from the initial grounded theory analysis to guide and initiate our inquiry: 1) the medical model of disability, 2) the social model of disability, and 3) personal experience. First, medical models of disability position physical, cognitive, and developmental difference as a “sickness” or “condition” that must be “treated” (DasGupta, 2015; Davis, 2015). From this perspective, disability is perceived as an impairment that must be accommodated so that individuals can obtain a dominantly-accepted sense of normality. An example of medical models within the education context include accommodations procedures in which students must obtain an official diagnosis in order to access tools necessary for academic success. Second, social models of disability position disability as a dynamic and fluid identity that consists of a variety of physical, cognitive, or developmental differences (Adams et al., 2015). Dissenting from assumptions of normality and the focus on individual bodily conditions (hallmarks of the medical model), the social model focuses on the political and social structures that inherently create or construct disability (Adams et al., 2015). An example of a social model within the education context includes the universal design of materials and tools that are accessible to all students within a given course. In these instances, students are not required to request accommodations and may, consequently, bypass medical diagnoses. Lastly, participants referred to their own life experiences as a way to define, describe, and consider disability. Fernando considers his stutter to be a disability because he is often interrupted, spoken over, or silenced when engaging with others. In turn, he is perceived as unintelligent and unfit to be a civil engineer by his peers. In contrast, David, who identifies as autistic, does not consider himself to be disabled. These experiences highlight the complex intersections of medical and social models of disability and their contextual influences as participants navigate their lives. While these sensitizing concepts are not meant to scope the research, they provide a useful lens for initiating research and provides markers on which a deeper, emergent analysis is expanded.

Findings from this work will be used to further explore the professional identity formation of undergraduate civil engineering students with disabilities. These findings will provide engineering education researchers and practitioners with insights regarding the ways individuals with disabilities interpret their in- and out-of-classroom experiences and navigate their disability identities. For higher education, broadly, this work aims to reinforce the complex and diverse nature of disability experience and identity, particularly as it relates to accommodations and accessibility within the classroom, and expand the inclusiveness of our programs and institutions.


Adams, R., Reiss, B., & Serlin, D. (2015). “Disability,” R. Adams, B. Reiss, & D. Serlin (Eds.), Keywords for Disability Studies (pp. 5-11) New York: New York University Press.

DasGupta, S. (2015). “Medicalization,” In R. Adams, B. Reiss, & D. Serlin (Eds.), Keywords for Disability Studies, (pp. 120-121), New York: New York University Press.

Davis, L. J. (2015). “Diversity,” In R. Adams, B. Reiss, & D. Serlin (Eds.), Keywords for Disability Studies (pp. 61-64). New York: New York University Press.

Groen, C., McNair, L. D., Paretti, M. C., Simmons, D. R., & Shew, A. (2018a). “Exploring Professional Identity Development in Undergraduate Civil Engineering Students Who Experience Disabilities. Proceedings of the 125th American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference. Salt Lake City, UT. https://peer.asee.org/30052

Groen, C., Paretti, M. C., McNair, L. D., Simmons, D. R., & Shew, A. (2018b). “Experiencing Disability in Undergraduate Civil Engineering Education: An Initial Examination of the Intersectionality of Disability and Professional Identity.” Proceedings of the 1st Annual Collaborative Network for Engineering and Computing Diversity Conference, Crystal City, VA. https://peer.asee.org/29536

Groen-McCall, C., McNair, L. D., Paretti, M. C., Shew, A., & Simmons, Denise R. (2018). “Experiencing Disability: A Preliminary Analysis of Professional Identity Development in U.S. Undergraduate Civil Engineering Students.” Proceedings of the 2018 Australasian Association for Engineering Education, Hamilton, NZ.

Kimball, E. W., Wells, R. S., Ostiguy, B. J., Manly, C. A., & Lauterbach, A. A. (2016). “Students with Disabilities in Higher Education: A Review of the Literature and an Agenda for Future Research,” In M. B. Paulsen (Ed.), Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research (pp. 91-156). Springer International Publishing.

Pearson Weatherton, Y., & Mayes, R. D., & Villanueva-Perez, C. (2017). “Barriers to Persistence for Engineering Students with Disabilities,” Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. https://peer.asee.org/27650.

Phillips, C. M. L., & Pearson, Y. E. (2018). “New Affirmative Action Federal Contractor Regulations: An Opportunity for All Engineering Organizations to Broaden the Participation of People with Disabilities,” Paper presented at 2018 CoNECD - The Collaborative Network for Engineering and Computing Diversity Conference, Crystal City, Virginia. https://peer.asee.org/29555.

Spingola, E. M. (2018). “Literature Review on Disability Participation in the Engineering Field,” Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. https://peer.asee.org/30776.

Svyantek, M. V. (2016). “Missing from the Classroom: Current Representations of Disability in Engineering Education,” Paper presented at the American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference, New Orleans, LA. 10.18260/p.25728.

  1. Ms. Courtney Zongrone Orcid 16x16http://orcid.org/0000-0003-3671-7807 Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University [biography]
  2. Dr. Cassandra J. McCall Orcid 16x16http://orcid.org/https://0000-0002-0240-432X Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University [biography]
  3. Dr. Marie C. Paretti Orcid 16x16http://orcid.org/0000-0002-2202-6928 Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University [biography]
  4. Dr. Ashley Shew Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University [biography]
  5. Dr. Lisa D. McNair Orcid 16x16http://orcid.org/0000-0001-6654-2337 Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University [biography]
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