Students with Disabilities in Science

Students with disabilities, including students with blindness and visual impairments (BVI), enjoy studying science as much as their non-disabled classmates. They are excited about investigating living organisms, our incredible world, and imagining molecules interacting in a beaker. Yet compared to all college graduates earning degrees in the STEM fields, few are students with disabilities.

Historically, parents, administrators, and instructors were apprehensive about the prospect of students with disabilities working with open flames, caustic chemicals, or microorganisms. As a result, many students with disabilities were dissuaded from taking science courses. Regrettably, some students with disabilities who have taken college science courses have reported that the instructors either were not welcoming or did not know how to support them.

Today, we know that students with disabilities both can and do successfully complete laboratory science courses. Their success is possible in part because of the specific accommodations provided, accommodations enabling them to both safely and actively participate in the laboratory activities. And their success is not limited to completing a single science course to satisfy a general education requirement. Though the numbers are well below students without disabilities, students with disabilities are earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in science fields. See the Successes page for links to articles about the success of individuals with disabilities.

While general accommodations, such as extended time on tests, subtitles, special lighting, and Braille textbooks, are provided for all students with disabilities, students with BVI and other disabilities often encounter obstacles participating in the laboratory activities of science courses. Specific accommodations, such as audible equipment, projections of microscopic images, and Braille-labeled models and equipment, are necessary for students with disabilities to safely and independently participate in laboratory activities. There is even PPE made especially for service animals in the laboratory.

My 2016 Study evaluated the effectiveness of the specific accommodations provided for students with BVI in the college biology laboratory. Results indicated that while students with visual impairment were successfully completing college lab science courses, there were several activities in which they were unable to actively participate. The National Federation of the Blind asked me to write an article summarizing that research for a special STEM edition of their publication, Future Reflections. That article is available at Science Is For Everyone.

Though my interests initially focused on students with BVI in the biology laboratory, I have expanded my research to include all students with disabilities in all of the sciences. One purpose of this website is to serve as a repository for methods and suggestions about specific accommodations that have been found useful in supporting students with disabilities in science laboratory activities (Specific Accommodations). Please share specific accommodations you have received or offered so that others can benefit from your experiences. Your input would be greatly appreciated.

This website also includes a Resources board with links to sites helpful in creating accessible materials, new technologies, lab-specific accommodations, and links to applicable videos. A Questions board offers a place for students with disabilities who have taken or are currently taking science classes, and science instructors who have taught or are teaching students with disabilities, to post questions. In My blog I’ll discuss techniques and information I find that I believe will be useful. Of course, feel free to use the links provided on the Resources page to help ensure that your laboratory science course is accessible to students with disabilities.

It’s important for instructors to be aware of specific accommodations that are available. An attitude I’ve often heard is, “How could it be possible for a student with that disability to complete lab?” What we should be asking is, “What accommodations can we provide that will give a student with that disability, whatever it is, the same opportunity for success as every other student in the class?” Instructors need to believe that students with disabilities can successfully participate and be successful in the science laboratory. Because they can!

With the right accommodations, more students with disabilities will be able to, and choose to, earn degrees in the sciences.  Please visit the Contact page and email me with suggestions or comments about this site, or if I can be of help.  Together, we can help to make a difference.

Thank you!

Barbara