Making Science Labs Accessible to Students with Disabilities

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Application of universal design to a science lab

by Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

Students with disabilities face access challenges to typical science labs in precollege and postsecondary settings. Access barriers may prevent a student from:

There are two approaches to making academic activities accessible to students with disabilities—accommodations and universal design (UD). Accommodations are alternate formats, assistive technology, and other adjustments for specific students once they are enrolled in a class. For examples of accommodations in science classes, consult the publications Working Together: Science Teachers and Students with Disabilities1 and The Winning Equation: Access + Attitude = Success in Math and Science.2

Universal Design

The Center for Universal Design3 defines universal design as "the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design." Applications of UD in education take proactive steps to create aademic products and environments that are accessible to students with a wide range of characteristics, including disabilities, thereby minimizing the need for future accommodations. For example, if a science lab contains an adjustable-height workstation, an accommodation will not be needed for a future student who uses a wheelchair that is too high for standard-height workstations. This workstation may also be comfortable for a student who needs to remain seated because of a health impairment or someone who is very tall or short in stature. In a science lab, UD can be applied to:

Making accommodations is reactive, whereas universal design is proactive.


Following are examples of accommodations that might benefit a student with a disability.

Typical science lab accommodations for students with specific disabilities include those in the following lists.


Low Vision

Mobility Impairments

Deaf and Hard of Hearing

Learning and Attention Disabilities

Health Impairments

Universal Design Considerations

Some of the accommodation suggestions listed above could be implemented within a lab now, anticipating that at some point a student with a disability may need access to the lab and that some changes may benefit all students. Here are some strategies that could be implemented in a science lab as a part of universal design efforts:

Additional Resources

DO-IT has created a collection of videos and publications that help teachers make math and science teachers coursework accessible to students with disabilities. They include:

These titles may be freely accessed online.4. DVDs can also be purchased from DO-IT. Permission is granted to reproduce DO-IT videos and publications for educational, noncommercial purposes, provided the source is acknowledged.

For more information about universal design in academic settings, read Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction5 and Universal Design in Education: Principles, Practices, and Applications.6 For a comprehensive set of resources, consult The Center for Universal Design in Education.7 The book Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice published by Harvard Education Press shares perspectives of UD leaders nationwide. To receive a 20% discount, visit the DO-IT website.8

Cited Web Resources


About DO-IT

DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) serves to increase the successful participation of individuals with disabilities in challenging academic programs such as those in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology. Primary funding for DO-IT is provided by the National Science Foundation, the State of Washington, and the U.S. Department of Education. DO-IT is a collaboration of UW Information Technology and the Colleges of Engineering and Education at the University of Washington.

To order free publications or newsletters use the DO-IT Publications Order Form; to order videos and training materials use the Videos, Books and Comprehensive Training Materials Order Form.

For further information, to be placed on the DO-IT mailing list, request materials in an alternate format, or to make comments or suggestions about DO-IT publications or web pages contact:

University of Washington
Box 354842
Seattle, WA 98195-4842
206-685-DOIT (3648) (voice/TTY)
888-972-DOIT (3648) (voice/TTY)
206-221-4171 (fax)
509-328-9331 (voice/TTY) Spokane

Founder and Director: Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

DO-IT Funding and Partners


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Cooperative Agreement #HRD-0227995. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Copyright © 2012, 2009, 2008, 2006, University of Washington. Permission is granted to copy these materials for educational, noncommercial purposes provided the source is acknowledged.