By: Eliza Ali, PhD Student (Neuroscience)
Science education is becoming more inclusive, however there is still much work that needs to be done when considering students with physical disabilities. The under representation of students with physical disabilities is a systemic issue that starts before enrolling in college or university. In secondary school (Grades 6-12), the availability to integrate and provide genuine involvement for students is lacking. For example, students with impaired vision and restricted mobility are many times left to listen and observe an in-lab experiment that is being conducted by their peers (McDaniel et al., 1994; Sukhai et al, 2014). As such, the skills and excitement for considering science related studies in post-secondary can be deterred when applying for science programs. Therefore, opportunities for institutions to create accessible teaching laboratories is limited because of the lack of students with physical disabilities enrolling in science programs (Sukhai et al, 2014). If given the opportunity to teach a science course, and specifically a laboratory science course, I would create an accessible laboratory experience that will allow students with physical disabilities to fully participate.
According to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, the goal is to make Ontario fully accessible by 2025 and Carleton University is being proactive in ensuring accessibility of the campus and education. The Coordinated Accessibility Strategy identified education and learning as one of the seven broad themes. In accordance, implementing the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to ensure success for students in their learning includes accessibility (Carleton University, 2020). The UDL is a framework to encourage creating curricula and learning environments that are flexible and effective for all learners while maintaining the integrity of the learning objectives (CAST Inc., 2020; Bernacchio & Mullen, 2007). I believe that the UDL has to be implemented to create a fully accessible teaching laboratory for students with physical disabilities so they can fully participate. In the future it can encourage students with physical disabilities to consider science as part of their education journey.
A part of the UDL is creating fewer barriers to the physical learning environment to encourage engagement, motivation and confidence in learning (CAST Inc., 2020; Bernacchio & Mullen, 2007). When entering a university teaching laboratory there are striking features; lab benches, fume hoods, glassware, pipettes, centrifuges, reagents and various lab equipment. These labs are designed for the able-bodied student. Overall, lab benches are at standing height along with the computers, equipment, cabinets and materials that are on them. In addition, the aisles between lab benches may not be wide enough for students who use wheelchairs or mobility devices (like walking chairs and crutches). Importantly, safety equipment such as sinks, eye wash stations etc. are not easily accessible for those who cannot stand (Sukhai et al, 2014). To provide a meaningful and genuine laboratory experience, it would be ideal to have accessible lab benches that are at an optimal height or could be adjusted with the necessary equipment required to run experiments (McDaniel et al., 1994). The apparatus, equipment and materials, where applicable, should be within arm’s reach and that aisles must be wide enough for easy movement for all students. Creative adaptations can be having braille and raised symbols on the equipment or speaking thermometers, pH meters, screen readers and special programs to read out data. These enhancements can allow the physical environment of the laboratory to be inviting and accessible so that students with physical disabilities can actively participate and learn from the experiments that they conduct (Kucera, 1993). This would support further engagement with the concepts taught in the laboratory and in the corresponding courses.
Importantly, the UDL calls for materials to be created and utilized to maximize the ease of information to be learned by the student, as well as different modalities to be assessed (CAST Inc., 2020). With all laboratory-based courses, the laboratory manuals containing the methods and worksheets are required. These manuals should be made accessible for all abilities, for example printing manuals in large print, contrasting visibility (similar to dark-mode on electronic devices) and in braille to name a few (Supalo, 2012). Also, having electronic lab manuals so that they can be read on a screen or videos demonstrating the equipment and the techniques that will be used would be beneficial to all students of all abilities. In addition, important for learning in the laboratory is the utilization and upkeep of the lab book. A majority of students enrolled in a science lab learn to record concepts, methodology, results and observations in their lab book and are marked on how diligent they use and maintain it. Physical disabilities for each individual are unique and writing in a traditional lab book may be inaccessible and not conducive to their learning. As such other forms of recording into a lab book or creating online lab books should be welcomed. These forms can include scribes dedicated to writing in a lab book, using speech-to-text programs, creating touch screen lab books (on a tablet) are a few of the possibilities. This can provide equity and will level the playing field when students are assessed and students will gain important skills required for working in laboratories. Creating accessible options for laboratory manuals and using their lab books allows for equal learning opportunities like their peers.
The UDL focuses on using creative educational means for all students to learn and be tested in modalities that set them up for success, while maintaining the integrity of the course learning objectives. Implementing the UDL within the teaching laboratory for students with physical disabilities can aid for their meaningful and active participation in this component of their science program. The physical space of the laboratory and using adaptive means and technology to aid in performing the experiments and recording their findings can enhance their learning experience with fewer barriers. It will encourage them to continue taking science courses throughout their formal education journey. Developing and creating accessible teaching laboratories makes science education accessible for all abilities.
Bernacchio, C. and Mullen, M. (2007). Universal design for learning. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 31(2), 167–169.
Carleton University. Broad Themes. (2020). https://carleton.ca/read/accessibility-strategy/broad-themes/
CAST Inc. (2020). The UDL guidelines. Center for Applied Special Technology. http://udlguidelines.cast.org/?utm_medium=web&utm_campaign=none&utm_source=cast-about-udl
Kucera, T. J. (1993). Teaching chemistry to students with disabilities. Third edition. American Chemical Society. 5-50
McDaniel, N., Wolf, G., Mahaffy, C., and Teggin, J. (1994). Inclusion of students with disabilities in a college chemistry laboratory course. Journal on Postsecondary Education and Disability 11(1)
Sukhai, M. A., Mohler, C. E., Doyle, T., Carson, E., Nieder, C., Levy-Pinto, D., Duffet, E., and Smith, F. (2014). Creating an accessible science laboratory environment for students with disabilities. Council of Ontario Universities 1-28
Supalo, C. A. (2012). The next generation laboratory interface for students with blindness of low vision in the science laboratory. Journal of Science Education for Students with Disabilities 16(1), 34-39