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Laboratory experiences are essential for students in many science courses. Students with disabilities will need to have access to the physical facility, equipment, materials, safety devices and other services. Access issues for students with disabilities vary considerably depending on the subject, the physical facility, and the needs of each student. For example, a student who is blind will be unable to use standard measurement equipment used in a chemistry or physics laboratory. A student with limited use of her hands may have difficulty manipulating lab tools and materials. A student who uses a wheelchair may be unable to access lab tables and computers, or maneuver in a crowded laboratory. Solutions to access barriers will vary considerably among individual students and the laboratory activities. Each student is the best source of information about his needs.
Working closely with a lab partner or assistant can facilitate involvement in the lab activity for some students with disabilities. For example, a student who is blind could enter observation data into the computer while his partner describes the lab findings. Or, a student with limited dexterity in her hands and fingers could dictate instructions and procedures to her partner who manipulates equipment and materials and carries out the measurement process.
Allowing the student extra time to set up a lab or complete the work can also provide an effective accommodation for some students with disabilities. This may allow more time to focus on procedures and results and eliminate the stress that may result from time constraints.
To assure safety, provide a thorough lab orientation and provide necessary adjustments to procedures, depending on the specific disability. Have a plan established that may involve moving equipment, placing the student in a specific location in the room, or involving another student as a back up in case of emergency.
The following paragraphs describe typical accommodation strategies for specific disabilities - blindness, low vision, mobility impairments, hearing impairments, learning disabilities, health impairments, and mental health or psychiatric impairments.
Following are examples of accommodations in science labs that can be used to maximize the participation of students who are blind:
- Include tactile drawings or graphs, three-dimensional models, and a lot of hands-on learning.
- Use a glue gun to make raised line drawings.
- Make a tactile syringe by cutting notches in the plunger at 5 ml. increments.
- Make a tactile triple beam balance by filing deep notches for each gram increment. Add glue drops on either side of the balance line so that the student will know when the weights are balanced.
- Create Braille labels with Dymo Labelers.
- Identify increments of temperature on stove using fabric paint.
- Use different textures such as sandpaper or yarn to identify drawers, cabinets, and equipment areas.
- Place staples on a meter stick to label centimeters.
- Use 3-D triangles or spheres to describe geometric shapes.
- Use Styrofoam and toothpicks or molecular kits to exemplify atoms or molecules.
- When measuring liquids, have glassware with specific measurements or make a tactile graduated cylinder.
- Use talking thermometers and calculators, light probes, and tactile timers.
- Implement auditory lab warning signals.
- Use clear verbal descriptions of demonstrations or visual aids.
For more information about students with blindness, consult the Blindness section of this website.
Following are typical accommodations in science labs that can be used to maximize the participation of students who have low vision:
- Create large-print instructions.
- Use large-print reading materials that include laboratory signs and equipment labels.
- Enlarge images by connecting TV monitors to microscopes.
- Use raised line drawings or tactile models for illustrations or maps.
- Verbally describe visual aids.
For more information about students with low vision, consult the Low Vision section of this website.
The following are typical accommodations in science labs that can be used to maximize the participation of students who have mobility impairments.
Basic requirements for a laboratory work station for a student in a wheelchair include:
- Work surfaces 30 inches from the floor.
- 29-inch clearance beneath the top to a depth of at least 20 inches, and a minimum width of 36 inches to allow leg space for the seated individual.
- Utility and equipment controls within easy reach for a wheelchair user.
- Clear aisle width of 42 to 48 inches sufficient to maneuver a wheelchair.
Additional accommodations and guidelines to enhance lab accessibility for students with mobility impairments include:
- Keep the lab layout uncluttered.
- Provide at least one adjustable laboratory workstation.
- Provide preferential seating to avoid obstacles and physical classroom barriers and that provides visual access to demonstrations.
- Use mirrors above the instructor or enlarged screen demonstrations.
- Provide c-clamps for holding objects.
- Provide surgical gloves for handling wet or slippery items.
- Provide beakers and other equipment with handles.
- Create alternative workspaces such as pullout or drop leaf shelves and counter tops, or lap-desks.
- Provide extended eyepieces so students who use wheelchairs can use microscopes.
- Use single-action lever controls or blade type handles in place of knobs.
- Provide flexible connections to electrical, water and gas lines.
- Create alternate lab storage methods (e.g., a portable Lazy Susan, or a storage cabinet on casters).
For more information about students with mobility impairments, consult the Mobility Impairments section of this website.
Following are typical accommodations in science labs that can be used to maximize the participation of students who have hearing impairments:
- Provide access to videotaped demonstrations or software with captioning.
- Provide written instructions or captioned video instructions prior to class.
- Use visual lab warning signals.
- Provide preferential seating to view demonstrations and watch the instructor.
For more information about students with hearing impairments, consult the Hearing Impairments section of this website.
Following are typical accommodations in science labs that can be used to maximize the participation of students who have learning disabilities:
- Use a combination of written, verbal, and pictorial instructions.
- Create opportunities to work with lab partners rather than alone.
- Extend the time allotted for set-up and process.
- Provide role-modeling/demonstration and allow practice.
For more information about students with learning disabilities, consult the Learning Disabilities section of this website.
Some students may not be able to manage certain chemicals or materials. Alternative experiences will need to be considered in these cases. For more information about students with health impairments, consult the Health Impairments section of this website.
Mental Health or Psychiatric Impairments
Following are examples of accommodations that are often appropriate for students with mental health or psychiatric impairments.
- Allow for extended set-up, process, and practice time.
- Use a combination of written, oral, and pictorial instructions.
- Demonstrate and role model procedures.
- Allow for frequent brief breaks.
- Provide preferential seating - particularly near the door.
- Decrease extraneous distracting stimuli.
- Allow student to bring a water bottle to lab.
For more information about students with psychiatric impairments, consult the Psychiatric Impairments section of this website.
Check Your Understanding
Suppose you have a student with a spinal cord injury who uses a wheelchair and has limited use of his hands. What accommodations would help him access your introductory chemistry lab? Choose a response.
- Assure that the physical facility of the lab is wheelchair accessible.
- Provide an adjustable workstation.
- Provide adaptive lab devices and tools.
- Ask a lab partner to provide assistance.
Additional content on this topic can be found in the DO-IT publications with accompanying videos, The Winning Equation: Access + Attitude = Success in Math and Science and Working Together: Science Teachers and Students with Disabilities. Consult The Faculty Room Knowledge Base for questions & answers, case studies, and promising practices.