National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) is held every October to raise awareness about disability employment issues and celebrate the contributions of workers with disabilities. This year, we asked Dr. David Mann, a senior researcher at Mathematica and alumni of our University of Pennsylvania predoctoral training program, to share his journey as a researcher with a physical disability as well as his current research on vocational rehabilitation.
As a person with a physical disability, how have your background and experiences shaped your scholarship and career?
Having a disability has profoundly shaped my scholarship and career. My research focuses on the employment, benefit receipt, and health of children and working age adults with disabilities. My interest in those topics is rooted in my own experience as a person with a disability. Before my injury and subsequent disability, I had limited interest in disability awareness or policy. But after joining the disability community, I came to appreciate the importance of generating evidence that can empower people with disabilities to live the lives they want. More personally, I view my disability and the insight it provides as a critical component of who I am.
What sparked your interest in education research?
My interest in education research is rooted in my personal experience. I acquired my disability at age 14, just after finishing the eighth grade. I was taught at a young age that education is critical to having a fulfilling career, but that insight became even more important after acquiring a disability. I knew that if I wanted to be independent as an adult, education would be critical. This personal experience made me interested in education research more broadly, especially the intersection of education and disability.
How does your research on vocational rehabilitation contribute to a better understanding of how to support students with disabilities as they enter the workforce?
The Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) program provides services and supports—including education-based supports—to people with disabilities who want to work. The services and supports are individually tailored based on each customer’s career goals and barriers to employment. I received VR services during my time in college and graduate school. My recent VR research focuses on testing new interventions that could improve employment outcomes for key groups of VR customers, such as transition age youth or people receiving subminimum wages. If we can generate evidence that identifies more effective strategies for helping people with disabilities achieve their employment goals, then we can have a large positive impact in the disability community.
What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered as a researcher with a disability and how did you overcome the challenge?
My biggest disability-related challenge as a researcher is managing the effects of my condition, which are wide-ranging. My limited stamina, inability to physically write, and limited ability to type are key challenges when trying to produce research and keep up with colleagues. I use assistive technology and other accommodations whenever possible to overcome these challenges. However, not all the effects of my condition are addressed with technology or accommodations. Consequently, I also do the best I can to take care of myself and avoid situations that demand more stamina than I have.
How can the broader education research community better support the careers and scholarship of researchers with disabilities?
If I had to highlight one thing the broader education research community can do to support researchers with disabilities, it would be creating a culture of encouragement. Reflecting on my experience in the predoctoral training program, a few key faculty members linked to the program regularly signaled to me that I could do what I set out to achieve. Put another way, they believed in me. I will always be grateful for that because it gave me the confidence to pursue the career I really wanted, not what I thought was expected of me. Any graduate student can benefit from encouragement but encouraging researchers with disabilities is especially important because of the additional challenges they must overcome.
What advice would you give to emerging scholars with disabilities who are pursuing a career in education research?
Pursue your research passion! I was interested in disability-related research since college, but early in my graduate career an advisor in the economics department dissuaded me from pursuing disability-related research because I have a disability. I now realize how misguided that advice was, but at the time, I followed his advice. It was only after graduate school that I felt free to examine the intersection of disability, education, and employment. Do not make the same mistake—start pursuing now the research topics you care most about.
This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of interviews (see here, 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.
David Mann is a senior researcher for Mathematica’s Center for Studying Disability Policy. His primary research interests include the labor force participation, human capital accumulation, and benefit receipt of youth and adults with disabilities. He also has expertise in disability policy reform.
This blog post was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), NCER program officer and co-chair of the IES Diversity Council.