A New Perspective on Accessibility in STEM: Going Beyond the Physical and Technological

Student and teacher read tactile map in classroom

Students with disabilities – in particular, those who are blind or visually impaired – remain under-represented in STEM disciplines, for a variety of reasons: A lack of mentors/role models in the field; inaccessible laboratories; lack of access to assistive technologies and alternative formats; negative attitudes of educators and service providers; a knowledge gap on how to instruct a student with a disability; and, a lack of knowledge of how to solve logistical concerns around integrating students with disabilities in STEM fields.

When we think of accessibility in the science lab environment, it is easy to think of the physical (accessibility of sinks, fume hoods and lab benches) and technological (potential requirements for assistive devices; adapting mainstream scientific instrumentation for someone with a disability) challenges. These are expensive issues, to be sure, and often require a level of creativity, an understanding of disability, and an intimate knowledge of the scientific discipline. They are, however, by no means, the only aspects of accessibility that need to be thought about in the context of STEM or science labs.

In July 2013, when we were asked by the Council of Ontario Universities to develop a background paper and resource guide for postsecondary faculty with respect to the accessibility of the science lab environment, we realized that this was the perfect opportunity to delve into those other areas of accessibility, to begin to research how to create a truly accessible science lab environment, and to create a novel educational resource for faculty, service providers and professionals working with students with disabilities at all levels of postsecondary, and in all scientific disciplines. In essence, we saw an opportunity to create broader, deeper, and more enriching conversations around accessibility in STEM than had been done previously.

Our mandate was broad – our work needed to be cross-disciplinary, cross-disability, and relevant to all levels of post-secondary education. We also accepted the challenge of developing a novel “cross-accessibility” approach. The project culminated in two background papers – one focusing on STEM laboratory environments specifically, the other expanding the discussion to other “practical spaces” where students experienced hands-on learning opportunities – and a series of 16 resource guides, many of which are applicable to multiple educational settings across the continent.

In “Identifying the Essential Requirements of a Course or Program” we highlight the concept of essential, or necessary, skills and competencies that a student must learn in a science lab environment, and work through a thought process for faculty, service providers and professionals to use in understanding what those requirements are and how a student may be accommodated within that framework.

Inclusive Teaching Practices in the Lab Setting” discusses the application of inclusive teaching practice (or Universal Instructional Design) principles to the specific nuances of the lab, as opposed to the classroom, environment.

Planning Accessible Science Lab Sessions” adapts an event-planning checklist framework to the planning of science lab demonstrations, and encourages the recognition that all students – not just students with disabilities – will learn differently from one another. Ways to deliver accessible content in the context student learning in the science lab environment are highlighted in “Resources on Accessible Content Delivery and Universal Design.”

The key elements of communication between faculty/educators and students with disabilities are highlighted in “Ensuring Effective Faculty-Student Interaction” while the importance of faculty mentorship, and what students with disabilities look for an good mentors, are described in “Faculty Mentoring Students with Disabilities.”

Novel approaches to accommodating students with disabilities in the science lab and practical space environments include the adaptation of mainstream technologies and scientific equipment for use by students with disabilities (“Selecting Accessible Science Equipment”); hiring technical or laboratory assistants for students with disabilities to serve as their “hands and eyes” in the lab (“Hiring Lab Assistants for Students with Disabilities”); and, simulation learning solutions (“Simulation Learning”).

A comprehensive “Checklist for Making Science Labs Accessible for Students with Disabilities” was also produced as part of this project. In thinking about all aspects of accessibility, including the physical, we also wanted to ensure that the entirety of the physical space in a science lab could be thought about and reviewed from an accessibility perspective. This checklist, developed specifically by one member of our study team, has already been utilized in the design of the laboratories in the new Science Building at the University of Toronto at Scarborough.

We also produced an “Overview of Assistive Technologies” as an educational resource for faculty who may not be familiar with the role such technologies play in enhancing the learning experience of students with disabilities.

Key principles for faculty, service providers and professionals to think through in working with students with disabilities in science lab and practical space environments were synthesized from our research findings, and discussed in “Creating Accessible Practical Spaces.”

Finally, a Glossary of Key Terms and an Annotated Bibliography of Online Resources were also developed and included as educational resources for faculty, service providers and professionals.

It is our hope that the background papers and attached resource guides will serve as an educational resource for faculty and service providers working with students with disabilities in STEM disciplines and laboratory/practical space environments. There is an opportunity now for faculty to work with students and service providers to develop creative solutions and work to adapt them to their students’ needs – and a need to do so in a flexible and solution-oriented manner.


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