As part of our recognition of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), we asked IES-funded researcher L. Penny Rosenblum how having a disability impacted the development of her career as a special education researcher.
As a person with a visual impairment, how have your background and experiences shaped your scholarship and career?
I have a congenital visual impairment, so I have had low vision all my life. When I began my undergraduate studies, I quickly realized that I wanted to become a teacher of students with visual impairments (TVI). Once I began work, I came to the realization that I could have a larger and more sustaining impact on the education of students with visual impairments if I prepared TVIs. After earning my doctorate, I first was faculty at Florida State University and then at the University of Arizona. The combination of my own experiences as a child and adult with a visual impairment coupled with my experiences teaching children and then preparing TVIs worked together to shape my research agenda.
What got you interested in a career in special education research?
During my master’s program at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, I was hired to enter data for a research study. I saw a pattern in the data others had not noticed and I shared this observation with the lead researcher and his doctoral students. This was a pivotal moment for me and sparked an interest in research. When I began my doctoral program and started to learn more about research methods and how outcomes can be used to shape intervention and policy, I was hooked!
What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered and how did you overcome the challenge?
As a researcher, the biggest challenge is funding. I was funded by “soft money” (funding through external sources) at the University of Arizona for 2 decades, the last 7.5 of which were primarily with funding from NCSER. During my career in academia, colleagues and I spent countless hours writing grants. I wish there were more efficient mechanisms to fund research so that researchers can spend more time engaged in research and less time chasing dollars to do research.
How does your research contribute to a better understanding of how to support students with disabilities?
I engage in research that directly impacts students with visual impairments. I was privileged to serve as a project director for two related NCSER projects: AnimalWatch-VI Suite: A comprehensive program for increasing access to science and math for students with visual impairments and An Intervention to Provide Youth with Visual Impairments with Strategies to Access Graphical Information in Math Word Problems. Through these projects we developed materials to support students at the middle school math level to build their skills with the ultimate goal of having more students with visual impairments enter STEM careers. More specifically, the first project developed and tested an instructional program that teaches students with visual impairment computation, fractions, and variables and expressions through solving math word problems embedded in an environmental science context; the second one developed and tested a program to teach students to locate and understand information in graphics that accompany math problems using tactile graphics and accessible image descriptions. I am proud that the materials we developed are available through the American Printing House for the Blind. Our two apps are available at no cost!
In your area of research, what do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to improve the career outcomes of students with disabilities?
We live in a digital world and until we have addressed the issue of universal access, students with visual impairments will continue to be at a disadvantage. If you’re at a disadvantage in K-12 education, then you’re not going to be as well prepared as others for post-secondary education and employment. I’d like to see research funding that addresses access issues and the development of technologies and tools to level the playing field for all students.
How can the broader education research community better support the careers and scholarship of researchers with disabilities?
Mentorship is so important to me. I have been fortunate in my journey to have some amazing mentors, including Dr. Carole R. Beal who was a principal investigator on the two NCSER-funded projects described above. Dr. Beal was always willing to discuss accommodations I needed due to my visual impairment and to work with me to find solutions. She mentored me in research methodology and professional writing. Researchers, whether they have a disability or not, need to mentor the next generation. I think this is even more important if an emerging scholar has a disability or is from another marginalized group.
What advice would you give to emerging scholars with disabilities who are pursuing a career in education research?
When I think about advice, I again immediately go back to mentorship. I encourage emerging scholars to seek out mentors, both with and without disabilities and in and outside their professional field. I also think it is important to seek out and take advantage of opportunities that come your way, and not wait for someone to come to you. The more networking you can do, the more doors that will open for you. If you’re passionate about your field and your work, people will quickly look beyond your disability and focus on your commitment and skills as a researcher.
L. Penny Rosenblum, PhD is the owner of Vision for Independence, LLC. She has more than 35 years of experience in the field of visual impairment.
This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of interviews (see here and here) showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. This NDEAM blog post was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council and NCER Program Officer, and Amy Sussman (Amy.Sussman@ed.gov), NCSER Program Officer. See this related NDEAM blog post by NCSER Program Officer Akilah Swinton Nelson (Akilah.Nelson@ed.gov) for information about IES Research on improving career readiness and employment outcomes for students with disabilities.