The Association Between Mentoring and STEM Engagement for Blind Adults

By Arielle Michal Silverman and Edward C. Bell

Arielle Michal Silverman is a disabilities research and training consultant at Disability Wisdom Consulting in Alexandria, Virginia.

Edward C. Bell is the director of the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, Louisiana.


This retrospective study aimed to assess the links between early mentoring experiences in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and long-term STEM engagement for legally blind adults. During the fall of 2018, we administered an online survey to 170 adults who self-identified as blind or visually impaired. The participants reported whether or not they had a significant STEM mentor during their youth, their past interest in STEM careers, and their current career interest and activities. Just under half of the sample (45%) identified a specific person who served as a mentor or role model for STEM learning. Results suggest that participants who identified a STEM mentor reported higher levels of interest in STEM careers throughout their lives. These participants were also twice as likely as participants without a STEM mentor to currently have a STEM-related job. Implications for practitioners and researchers point towards increasing access to mentoring opportunities and cultivating networking opportunities for blind youth.


Mentorship, STEM careers, social support, blindness, employment

Factors that Are Associated with STEM Interest and Employment

Blindness is a low-incidence disability and by the nature of the disability, it is isolating (Beck-Winchatz & Riccobono, 2008; Omvig, 2002). Because blindness is relatively uncommon, a young person who is blind is unlikely to know many positive role models who are also blind themselves, but who have the knowledge and experience to foster success (Omvig, 2002; Phelps, 2005). Vocational rehabilitation counselors, teachers, and parents are often unaware of potential career opportunities for young people who are blind; consequently, they cannot always provide sufficient support (Omvig, 2002). Without such support, a young person who is blind may have difficulty identifying employment opportunities matching their skills and aptitudes.

Despite decades of legislative, educational, and rehabilitation innovations, working-age adults who are blind face significant employment gaps compared with their peers who are sighted. The 2017 Current Population Survey estimated that only 39% of working-age Americans who are blind are participating in the labor force. Even among that subset, the rate of unemployment is roughly 2.5 times that of Americans without disabilities (American Foundation for the Blind, 2018). Furthermore, blind youth are more likely to attend college than youth with other disabilities, but blind college graduates still face low employment rates and delays in obtaining employment (O’Mally & Antonelli, 2016). The amount and availability of vocational rehabilitation services remains at consistent levels (Bell, 2012), so the answer to part of this problem lies in effectively connecting these youth to employment and educational services and/or using these social services in a more effective manner (Beck-Winchatz & Riccobono, 2008).

This under-representation may be especially apparent in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). A variety of documented barriers continue to limit STEM participation for blind students. These students may be discouraged from full participation in science experiments, or they may lack access to textbooks or graphics (Supalo et al., 2014). Both general-education teachers and teachers of the visually impaired may be under-prepared to support blind students in STEM courses (Bell & Silverman, 2018; Supalo et al., 2014). In a survey regarding their experiences with STEM courses, youth aged 10-18 who are blind reported high levels of interest in science and math, but they also reported frequent access barriers such as lacking access to information written on the blackboard in class, receiving accessible textbooks later than their sighted peers or not at all, and relying upon sighted assistants to complete digital homework assignments (Bell & Silverman, 2019).

Several interventions have been proposed to break down barriers and increase the participation of blind students in STEM subjects. These include increasing formal collaboration between general and special education teachers (Bargerhuff, 2013), creating professional development seminars to better prepare teachers (Rule & Stefanich, 2012), and deploying new technologies to make complex mathematical expressions accessible through audio or tactile means (Beal & Rosenblum, 2015; Frankel et al., 2017). Students who are blind may also benefit from explicit instruction in the interpretation of tactile graphics, combined with use of manipulatives or low-vision devices as appropriate (Rosenblum et al., 2018).

Mentoring and STEM Learning

Mentors may also aid students who are blind in developing self-efficacy in STEM fields and overcoming access barriers. “Research indicates mentoring can help youths develop skills, knowledge and motivation as they transition from high school to post-secondary education and employment” (Whelley et al., 2003, p. 42). Research further suggests that often, individuals with a disability have not been included as one of the populations targeted for mentoring programs (Sword & Hill, 2003). Although formalized mentoring models for blind youth are lacking, there is sufficient reason to believe that the need for assisting blind youth to transition from school to work can effectively be addressed through a comprehensive program for mentoring (Beck-Winchatz & Riccobono 2008; Britner et al., 2006).

Mentoring has been demonstrated across education, employment, and community settings as an important factor in the attainment of academic and career success and community integration (Whelley et al., 2003). Mentoring has been shown to improve achievement self-efficacy for youth with disabilities in STEM fields (Wright & Moskal, 2014). Other positive outcomes of mentoring for blind youth include increased hope for the future and more positive attitudes about blindness (Bell, 2012), as well as increased job-seeking self-efficacy for college students who were mentored by blind adults (O’Mally & Antonelli, 2016). In addition to providing emotional support and confidence, mentors can teach practical strategies for academic success. Mentors can also boost a student’s professional network. For young adults who are blind, professional networks can play an especially important role in helping to secure employment (Silverman et al., 2019).

Study Rationale

We sought to understand the association between having a meaningful mentoring relationship during one’s school years and one’s adult interests and career choices related to STEM. Legally blind adults in the United States were surveyed in the fall of 2018. The survey was created to measure adults’ experiences with mentoring in STEM fields, their current enjoyment of science and math subjects, and their lifetime engagement in STEM fields.

Research Questions

RQ1: How commonly do legally blind adults recall a specific mentor who supported them in their STEM learning?

RQ2: Do legally blind adults who recall having a STEM mentor express greater current interest in STEM fields than those who have not had this mentoring relationship?

RQ3: Are legally blind adults who recall having a STEM mentor more likely to remain engaged in STEM learning and obtain STEM-related jobs than those adults who have not had this mentoring relationship?



One hundred and ninety-one legally blind adults completed an online survey between October and December 2018. The participants were drawn from a convenience sample of individuals who had participated in previous studies on blindness, subscribers to blindness-related email listservs, and members of blindness consumer organizations. Of the participants who began the survey, 170 answered the critical question about whether or not they had a mentor in the STEM fields, so these 170 participants were retained in the final sample. The final sample was 35% male, 55% female, and 10% did not specify their gender. Participant age averaged 41.83 years (SD = 13.50; range = 18-65 years). The participants identified as 65% non-Hispanic white/Caucasian, 8% Hispanic/Latino, 5% Asian American, 4% African American, 1% Native American, 3% more than one race/ethnicity, and 14% did not report their race/ethnicity. Most of the participants had completed at least a bachelor’s degree (64%) and 31% had completed a graduate degree.

Survey Instrument

Participants completed a survey about their experiences studying STEM subjects. To measure the variable of STEM mentorship, all participants were asked: “Looking back, can you think of one specific person who supported you most in STEM or who was a special mentor or role model for you?” Participants could answer “yes,” “no,” or “not sure” to this question. Participants then answered follow-up questions describing the type of relationship they had with this mentor or role model and how the mentor or role model supported them. Participants who provided a response of “not sure” were recoded “yes” if they nominated a specific mentor in the follow-up questions, and they were recoded as “no” if no specific mentor was identified.

Additional questions were used to measure the dependent variables of current STEM interest and lifetime STEM engagement. To measure STEM interest, the participants rated their current attitude toward math and science subjects on separate scales ranging from 1 (I really dislike math/science) to 10 (I really love math/science). The participants also rated perceived difficulty of math and science on separate scales ranging from 1 (math/science is extremely hard) to 10 (math/science is extremely easy). Cronbach’s alpha for these four items was good (.85) so the four items were averaged into a STEM-interest composite.

We measured lifetime STEM engagement in two ways. First, participants were asked: “As far back as you can remember, have you ever been interested in a career within the fields of science, technology, engineering, or math?” Participants who answered “yes” to this question were asked, “As you have gotten older, have you:” and they could choose either “become more interested in the thought of a career in the STEM field,” “become less interested in the thought of a career in the STEM field,” or “retained the same level of interest in a career in the STEM field.”

Second, participants were asked to describe their current employment status. Participants who reported being employed were then asked for the title of their current job. We coded current jobs as STEM-related or non-STEM-related based on the classification of the O*Net system (O*Net, 2019). If a participant reported a job title that was not listed in the O*Net system, it was coded as STEM-related if the job title included the words “science,” “technology,” “engineering,” or “math” (e.g., assistive technology specialist) but was coded as non-STEM-related if those words were absent from the job title.


Mentorship Experiences. Of the 170 participants in the final sample, 77 (45%) nominated an individual who was a special mentor or role model in STEM, while the remaining 93 participants (55%) did not. Of the 77 participants who nominated a STEM mentor, the most common type of mentor was a schoolteacher in grades K-12 (30 participants, 39%), followed by a parent (15 participants, 20%), a college professor (13 participants, 17%), a family friend (3 participants, 2%), a counselor or mentor from a summer program (2 participants, 1%), or “other” (14 participants, 18%). Examples of mentors in the “other” category included an uncle, job and internship supervisors, teachers of the visually impaired, braillists, blind professionals working in STEM fields, and even Star Trek characters.

Participants provided brief comments about their mentoring relationships. Examples of comments included:

  • “I remember my math teacher in elementary school was one of the few teachers who was willing at the time to treat me like another student; some of my teachers at the time were either giving me inflated grades or handing me easier assignment as they were quite ignorant of how to work with a student who was legally blind. My math teacher–whom I regret I don't remember the name of–was always giving me the same lessons, and often gave me some extra projects when I found them fun like having to work with stocks when investigating the math behind the stock market in third grade.”
  • “I began a web design class in my junior year of high school. My teacher was always willing to answer my questions and research what technology could help me in his class. His class was structured so that you could learn at your own pace, so if I got ahead of people that was OK because other people were doing it as well. He was very encouraging and always suggesting alternatives if things were too confusing for me and my technology. He really gave me confidence to pursue these skills that I didn't know I had before taking his class.”
  • “My parents are both engineers and had the knowledge to assist me with learning the material required for high school science courses.”
  • “My mother took modern math classes, and algebra during night school, in order to help me master the new ways these subjects were taught.”
  • “My father's family all have STEM backgrounds; he helped me in school with those types of assignments as much as he could.”
  • “Faculty member in an undergraduate research program. I spent three summers doing research. I published a paper with him and he assigned me to teach other students about public speaking and presentations.”
  • “The professor spent hours working with me explaining coding examples on his own time.”
  • “The blind chiropractor was someone who came to my elementary school to promote the Braille Olympics which was targeted for blind kids. He was successful in his field and would speak about the program positively. I interacted with him a couple of times throughout my school years. The fact that he was Hispanic impacted me positively.”
  • “ABVI and CBVH in NY connected me with a retired engineer, Jon Kriegel, who helped me develop my CADD skills with limited vision. He encouraged me to join the Rochester Engineering Society. From there, I spent some time tutoring with RES at the grade school level for reading/math/science.”
  • “My vision teacher recognized that I had an aptitude for academics and tried her best to teach me things and get the support that I needed. I was blessed to have her. I had other vision teachers in my life that were absolutely clueless and forced me to be dependent instead of independent.”

Associations Between Mentorship and STEM Interest. The participants who nominated a STEM mentor reported higher levels of current interest in science and math (M = 6.55, SD = 2.09) than did the participants without a STEM mentor (M = 5.31, SD = 2.04; t(1,168) = 3.90, p < .001, d = .65.

Associations Between Mentorship and STEM Engagement. A higher percentage of the participants with a STEM mentor reported considering a STEM career at some point in their lives (90%) compared with only 62% of the participants without a STEM mentor (X2 = 17.61, p < .001). Of the participants who considered a STEM career at some point in their lives, 41% of the participants with a STEM mentor reported that their interest level increased over time, 31% reported that their interest level decreased, and 28% reported that their interest level stayed the same. For the participants without a STEM mentor, 26% of the participants reported that their interest level increased, 49% reported that their interest level decreased, and 25% reported that their interest level stayed the same. The percentage of participants whose STEM interest decreased was significantly higher for the participants without a STEM mentor (X2 = 3.88, p = .049), while the percentage of participants whose STEM interest increased was marginally higher for the participants with a STEM mentor (X2 = 2.83, p = .093).

With regard to employment, 64% of the participants with a STEM mentor reported currently holding a paying job of any kind, compared with 54% of the participants without a STEM mentor. This difference was not statistically significant (X2 = 2.07; p = .15). However, when we examined the type of job held by the employed participants, twice as many of the employed participants with STEM mentors were working in a STEM job (31 participants, 63%) compared with the employed participants who did not have a STEM mentor (15 participants, 31%; X2 = 10.49; p = .001). Examples of STEM-related jobs held by participants with STEM mentors included wildlife biologist, senior systems programmer, software engineer, and assistive technology specialist.


Mentoring is long known to facilitate students’ career interests. In this study, we found that legally blind adults with a specific STEM-related mentor had higher levels of current interest in math and science subjects, were more likely to develop an interest in STEM careers, and were less likely to disengage from STEM interests than those without a specific mentor. They were also twice as likely to hold a STEM-related job. The most commonly nominated STEM mentors included elementary or high school teachers, parents, college professors, and scientists who were themselves blind.

Mentors and teachers provide important supports for all students, and long-term mentoring relationships can impact career trajectories. However, the benefits of individualized mentoring may be especially crucial for blind students studying in a field that is often rife with accessibility barriers. Indeed, several of the participants in this study described their mentors as taking extraordinary steps to help them overcome access barriers. Other commonly described themes within these mentoring relationships included high expectations, enthusiasm for the STEM subjects, and a belief that the participant was capable of full participation in STEM. Thus, these mentors assisted their mentees to overcome internalized self-doubt as well as external barriers that might have otherwise led them to disengage from STEM. Finally, mentors may help facilitate networking relationships within the STEM professions, enabling mentees who are blind to demonstrate their competence to colleagues who may assist them in finding employment.

This study had a few limitations. First, this was a retrospective study where participants reflected on past experiences with mentoring. It is possible that individuals who are invested in the STEM fields or working in STEM-related jobs might be more likely to recall a STEM mentor than those who have disengaged or were never interested in STEM. Individuals who are more intrinsically interested in STEM may also be more likely to seek out mentors in the field. However, many of the participants in this study nominated mentors from childhood (such as parents or elementary-school teachers) whom they did not choose. These individuals could have catalyzed an early, lasting interest in STEM.

Other important limitations include the convenience sample of blind participants recruited from blindness organizations, as well as the researcher-generated questionnaire. Future longitudinal research may be useful to evaluate the effectiveness of mentoring interventions for blind students’ ongoing engagement in STEM fields, using highly validated measures and a more representative sample.

Implications for Practitioners and Families

These findings have implications for both practice and research. Regarding promising practices, these findings replicate prior findings pointing to the usefulness of STEM mentoring relationships, formal and informal, for blind students at all educational levels. Formal relationships may be cultivated through STEM-related camps and other group learning activities for blind students and through programs matching individual students with mentors. For example, the University of Arizona’s Project POEM matches blind middle and high school students with two mentors: a sighted STEM major at the local university and a long-distance mentor who is blind and working in a STEM field. The national Engineering Quotient program sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB EQ) is a weeklong summer camp for high school students who participate in interactive STEM activities under the direction of blind mentors. These types of programs may lead to measurable increases in STEM engagement and employment for blind adults.

Another implication of the findings is that mainstream educators, teachers of blind students, and parents of blind children can serve as valuable mentors for blind students. It may be beneficial to invest resources in educating mainstream math and science teachers on ways to make their subjects non-visually accessible. It is also important for teachers of blind students to hold high expectations, and to be willing to invest in creating accessible materials so that their students can excel in STEM subjects. Finally, programming for parents of blind children could assist them to support their children in their STEM learning.

Regarding implications for research, there is a need for longitudinal research to evaluate the efficacy of specific STEM mentoring interventions. Another research question relates to the specific effects of mentoring by individuals who are also blind. In this study, most participants nominated mentors who were sighted, such as parents and mainstream educators, but a few participants described specific benefits of having a mentor who was blind and working in a STEM field. While blind and sighted mentors may both be beneficial, blind mentors in STEM may be able to offer advice on specific issues or to provide a stronger example of what is possible for blind students to achieve. Finally, more research may be useful to establish what qualities are most important in a mentoring relationship. The findings can be applied to develop mentoring programs tailored to the specific needs of blind students pursuing STEM careers.


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