To support students with disabilities so they can be successful in science courses, it is important for instructors to be aware of how to ensure course content is accessible and to be aware of many of the specific accommodations that are available for students with disabilities. To that end, this website includes a Resources page with links to sites helpful in creating accessible materials, new technologies, lab-specific accommodations, and links to applicable videos. A Questions page 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 in supporting students with disabilities. Additionally, I recently published an article, Supporting Students with Blindness and Visual Impairments in Microbiology, in the journal, Microbiology Letters, a publication of the Federation of European Microbiological Societies, that outlined considerations concerning safety, accessibility, and accommodations that you may find helpful.
Today, we know that students with disabilities both can and do successfully complete laboratory science courses. Their success is possible in part because of instructors who have taken the time to ensure that all of their course materials are accessible, and in part to 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 or related 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 more routinely provided for students with disabilities, students with visual impairments 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.
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! At my college, for example, students with total blindness, hearing impairments, and physical disabilities have successfully completed lab science courses.
Why is this so important? Students with disabilities, including students with visual impairments, enjoy studying science as much as their non-disabled classmates. They are excited to investigate living organisms and imagine molecules interacting in a beaker. Yet fewer students with disabilities attain college degrees than those without disabilities. In a report for the year 2011-2012, after two years at 2-year institutions, just over 7% of first time post secondary students with disabilities had completed a degree compared to almost 9 1/2% of students without disabilities. While more than 63% of the latter group of students were still enrolled, the percentage dropped close to 52% for students with disabilities (U.S. Department, 2017). The 2015 U.S. Census Bureau found that 45% of adults 25 or older had an associate’s degree and almost 35% had a bachelor’s degree. For individuals with disabilities, those numbers are almost 25% and 17% for associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, respectively (Ryan & Bauman, 2016). Additionally, a report from 2011 noted that of the 32,827 students earning a doctoral degree in science and engineering in 2008, 360 were earned by students with disabilities (Burrelli, 2011).
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 (Heard, 2016).
My 2016 Study evaluated the effectiveness of the specific accommodations provided for students with visual impairments in the college biology laboratory. Results indicated that while students with visual impairments 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 visual impairments 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.
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.
Burrelli, J. (2011, June). What the data show about students with disabilities in STEM. National Science Foundation: Division of Science Resources Statistics. https://cmd-it.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Data-About-Students-with-Disabilities-in-STEM-2011.pdf
Heard, B. R. (2016). Evaluating college biology laboratory accommodations for students with blindness and visual impairments. All Theses and Dissertations. Paper 48. http://dune.une.edu/theses/48
Ryan, C. L. & Bauman, K. (2016, March). Educational attainment in the United States: 2015. United States Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2016/demo/p20-578.pdf
U.S. Department of Education: WebTables. (2017, December). Characteristics and outcomes of undergraduates with disabilities. Institute of Education Sciences: National Center for Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2018/2018432.pdf