Inspiring students with disabilities to succeed in science, technology, engineering and math

Americas, August 30 2013

CARY, NC: Sina Bahram was like lots of kids who struggle with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. Except unlike most kids, Bahram is blind. STEM subjects often involve graphs, charts and other visuals. In October, students with functional limitations like Bahram will have a chance to hear how he overcame challenges to become a PhD candidate at North Carolina State University and is helping others break down barriers.

Bahram will be among many accomplished panelists at the STEM Career Showcase for Students with Disabilities, Oct. 16 at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, co-sponsored by analytics software provider SAS. Young students with disabilities, grades 3-12, will interact with college students and professionals with a variety of disabilities, who have forged successful career paths in STEM fields.

Now pursuing a doctorate in computer science, Bahram has developed an “eyes-free” system called Touch It, Key It, Speak It (TIKISI). TIKISI gives visually impaired computer users access to graphical information. His system is already helping blind users use Google Maps. Now, Bahram is formalizing the techniques in TIKISI, allowing other researchers to measure and compare similar interfaces in a standard way.

Bahram was named a White House Champion of Change last year for leading STEM education and employment efforts for Americans with disabilities.

“I realized I had an opportunity to affect the kinds of changes I wished for when I was younger and struggling to learn STEM topics,” said Bahram. “With TIKISI, I’m hoping to give low-income and underprivileged people access to these educational tools.”

The great jobs of today and tomorrow are in STEM. But people with disabilities remain underrepresented in these fields – in spite of recent advances in the accessibility of information technology and other tools used by working professionals.

“The only limitation on a student’s capacity to engage in science should be the scope of their imagination,” said Emlyn Koster, PhD, the museum’s Director. “We’re eager to be part of such an innovative program that will help more and more students turn their curiosity about the natural world into understanding.”

In honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) in October, the museum and SAS created an event to let students network with role models who are pushing against the boundaries of knowledge, building innovative products, and creating the technologies of the future. Registration is required to attend in person, but the event will be streamed live on the Web.

Kathleen Martinez, Assistant Secretary for Disability Employment Policy in the US Department of Labor, will deliver the keynote address. Martinez is an internationally recognized leader in disability employment policy. She has been blind since birth.

“I look forward to being a part of this event that epitomizes the NDEAM theme ‘Because We Are EQUAL to the Task’ by featuring those with disabilities who are achieving success in STEM fields,” remarked Martinez. “It reflects our belief that high growth industries have much to gain from the talents of people with disabilities. To prepare youth with disabilities to enter STEM careers, the Office of Disability Employment Policy works to ensure access to needed educational experiences and assistive and accessible technologies.  But just as importantly, we work to expose young people with disabilities to role models, with and without disabilities, who can inspire, encourage and show them that they can become successful scientists, engineers and technology experts.”

Ed Summers, a visually impaired software developer and accessibility specialist at SAS, is a driving force behind the event. In the past year, Summers has trained more than 300 teachers how to use an Apple® iPad® to improve instruction for their visually impaired students. He also supports efforts to improve the accessibility of many SAS educational and commercial offerings.

“When I began losing my vision I thought my future career prospects were very limited because I was ignorant about the possibilities for people with disabilities,” said Summers. “Once I connected with role models, my life changed dramatically. The goal of this event is to create the same opportunity for thousands of students with disabilities in North Carolina and beyond.”

The event is made possible by additional support from the Bresler Foundation Inc., IBM, Incight, Pearson and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, the state’s most visited cultural attraction, is an active research institution that engages visitors of every age and stage of learning in the wonders of science and the natural world, drawing them into the intriguing fields of study that are critical to the future of North Carolina and its economy.

SAS is the leader in business analytics software and services, and the largest independent vendor in the business intelligence market. Through innovative solutions, SAS helps customers at more than 65,000 sites improve performance and deliver value by making better decisions faster. Since 1976 SAS has been giving customers around the world THE POWER TO KNOW .

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