Asee peer logo

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

Download Paper |


2021 CoNECD


Virtual - 1pm to 5pm Eastern Time Each Day

Publication Date

January 24, 2021

Start Date

January 24, 2021

End Date

January 28, 2021

Conference Session

CoNECD Session : Day 1 Slot 2 Technical Session 4

Tagged Topics

Diversity and CoNECD Paper Submissions

Page Count


Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Courtney Zongrone Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Orcid 16x16

visit author page

Courtney Zongrone is a second year doctoral student in the Counselor Education and Supervision Program at Virginia Tech. She earned her BA in English Literature and M.Ed. in Counselor Education from Lynchburg College. Her primary research interest includes examining the lived experiences of individuals who have been mandated to receive substance use disorder treatment. Currently, Courtney serves as a graduate research assistant in the Department of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech. In this role, she conducts qualitative research to expand and deepen existing literature related to the experiences of civil engineering students who identify as having a disability.

visit author page


Cassandra J. McCall Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

visit author page

Cassandra McCall, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Engineering Education Department at Utah State University. She holds a Ph.D. in Engineering Education from Virginia Tech and M.S. and B.S. degrees in Civil Engineering from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. The core of Dr. McCall's work is to broaden participation in engineering by exploring the intersections of identity, engineering, and culture as students become or fail to become engineers. Her research interests include utilizing a discipline-based focus to explore the professional identity formation of undergraduate civil engineering students and the in- and out-of-class experiences that shape these identities. She is also interested in the application of Grounded Theory and other qualitative methods to gain a nuanced understanding of individual student experiences. Dr. McCall's current work includes an NSF-funded project examining the professional identity formation of undergraduate students with disabilities.

visit author page


Marie C. Paretti Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Orcid 16x16

visit author page

Marie C. Paretti is a Professor of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech, where she directs the Virginia Tech Engineering Communications Center (VTECC). Her research focuses on communication in engineering design, interdisciplinary communication and collaboration, design education, and gender in engineering. She was awarded a CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation to study expert teaching in capstone design courses, and is co-PI on numerous NSF grants exploring communication, design, and identity in engineering. Drawing on theories of situated learning and identity development, her work includes studies on the teaching and learning of communication, effective teaching practices in design education, the effects of differing design pedagogies on retention and motivation, the dynamics of cross-disciplinary collaboration in both academic and industry design environments, and gender and identity in engineering.

visit author page


Ashley Shew Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

visit author page

Ashley Shew, Assistant Professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech, works in philosophy of technology at its intersection with disability studies, emerging technologies, and animal studies. She is author of Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge (Lexington, 2017) and co-editor (with Joseph C. Pitt) of Spaces for the Future: A Companion to Philosophy of Technology (Routledge 2017). Shew is a recent awardee of a National Science Foundation CAREER Grant, running from 2018 to 2023, to study narratives about technology from the disability community that often stand in contrast to dominant media and engineering narratives about disability. She keeps her teaching materials on technology and disability at

visit author page


Denise Rutledge Simmons P.E. University of Florida Orcid 16x16

visit author page

Denise R. Simmons, Ph.D., PE, LEED-AP, is an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Coastal Engineering in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering at the University of Florida. She holds a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in civil engineering and a graduate certificate in engineering education – all from Clemson University. She has over ten years of construction and civil engineering experience working for energy companies and as a project management consultant.

Dr. Simmons has extensive experience leading and conducting multi-institutional, workforce-related research and outreach. She is a leader in research investigating the competencies professionals need to compete in and sustain the construction workforce. Dr. Simmons oversees the Simmons Research Lab (, which is home to a dynamic, interdisciplinary mix of graduate researchers and postdoctoral researchers who work together to explore human, technology and society interactions to transform civil engineering education and practice with an emphasis on understanding hazard recognition, competencies, satisfaction, personal resilience, organizational culture, training, informal learning and social considerations. The broader impact of this work lies in achieving and sustaining safe, productive, and inclusive project organizations composed of engaged, competent and diverse people. The SRL is supported by multiple research grants, including a CAREER award, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Dr. Simmons is a former project director of the Summer Transportation Institute (STI) at South Carolina State University and Savannah River Environmental Sciences Field Station (SRESFS). Both programs were aimed at recruiting, retaining and training women and minorities in transportation, environmental science and engineering and natural resources-related fields of study. As SRESFS director, she led a board composed of 29 colleges and universities.

visit author page


Lisa D. McNair Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

visit author page

Lisa D. McNair a Professor of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech and Director of the Center for Educational Networks and Impacts (CENI) at the Institute for Creativity, Arts and Technology (ICAT). She develops integrative education projects that transverse perspectives within and beyond the university. Her currently funded NSF projects include revolutionizing the VT ECE department, identifying practices in intentionally inclusive Maker spaces, and exploring professional identity development in Civil Engineering students with disabilities. Her work in CENI focuses on building networks between the University and multiple community sectors and supporting engagement in science, engineering, arts, and design. ORCID:

visit author page

Download Paper |


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Zongrone, C., & McCall, C. J., & Paretti, M. C., & Shew, A., & Simmons, D. R., & McNair, L. D. (2021, January), “I'm Looking at You, You're a Perfectly Good Person …”: Describing Non-Apparent Disability in Engineering Paper presented at 2021 CoNECD, Virtual - 1pm to 5pm Eastern Time Each Day .

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2021 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015