Science Labs

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 type of disability. 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 equipment. A student who uses a wheelchair may be unable to access lab tables and computers, or maneuver in a crowded laboratory. Often the student is the best source of information regarding access strategies.

General Suggestions

Working closely with a lab partner or assistant can facilitate involvement in a 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 extra time to set up a lab or complete the work can also provide an effective accommodation for some students with disabilities. This approach allows more time to focus on procedures and results, and eliminates 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 or placing the student in a specific location in the room.

The following paragraphs describe typical accommodation strategies for specific types of disabilities.

Blindness

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 working with students who are blind, consult the Blindness section of the AccessSTEM website.

Low Vision

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 the AccessSTEM website.

Mobility Impairments

Following is a description of a laboratory work station for a student in a wheelchair:

  • 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 student.
  • Utility and equipment controls within easy reach from a seated position.
  • Clear aisle width of 42 to 48 inches sufficient to maneuver a wheelchair.

Additional suggestions for guidelines enhancing 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 the AccessSTEM website.

Hearing Impairments

Following are typical accommodations in science labs that can be used to maximize the participation of students who have hearing impairments:

  • Provide access to video demonstrations or software with captioning.
  • Provide written instructions or captioned video instructions prior to class.
  • Provide preferential seating to view demonstrations and watch the instructor.
  • Use visual lab warning signals.

For more information about students with hearing impairments, consult the Hearing Impairments section of the AccessSTEM website.

Learning Disabilities

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.
  • Demonstrate and allow practice of experiment steps.

For more information about students with learning disabilities, consult the Learning Disabilities section of the AccessSTEM website.

Health Impairments

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 the AccessSTEM 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 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 the AccessSTEM website.

Check Your Understanding

Suppose you have a student who uses a wheelchair and has limited use of his hands. Which of the following accommodations might help him access your introductory chemistry lab?

  1. Assure that the physical facility of the lab is wheelchair accessible.
  2. Provide an adjustable workstation.
  3. Provide adaptive lab devices and tools.
  4. Ask a lab partner to provide assistance.

Check Your Understanding Responses

  1. Assure that the physical facility of the lab is wheelchair accessible.
    It is important to assess the wheelchair accessibility of the science lab. A student needs to access the physical facility, as well as the science lab materials and resources. Lab tables, sinks, and other workspaces should allow wheelchair access and proper workspace height. If the physical facility is not wheelchair accessible, you should contact the facilities management and disabled students services offices. A temporary solution will need to be negotiated with the student, facilities management, and disabled student services staff. Additional guidelines to enhance access to laboratory spaces and equipment include keeping the aisles wide and clear and storing materials and equipment within the reach of someone in a wheelchair.
  2. Provide an adjustable workstation.
    An adjustable workstation is beneficial for students with wheelchairs as well as students of various heights. Your lab should have at least one adjustable workstation.
  3. Provide adaptive lab devices and tools.
    For students with limited use of their hands, a range of adaptive devices for lab equipment or for computers are available to provide access to lab procedures that require fine motor coordination, dexterity and precision. For example, clamps can be used to stabilize objects, or software can be used for measuring and graphing. The student, instructor and disabled student services staff will need to determine which adaptive devices are appropriate as needs vary greatly among students and lab requirements.
  4. Ask a lab partner to provide assistance.
    Working closely with a lab partner can provide access to a lab activity for some students with disabilities. In this case the lab partner could manipulate the equipment and materials and carry out the measurement process, while the student recorded a data or observations with a computer, or gave the lab instructions. It would be important to assure that the student with a disability has an active and essential role in any "hands on" lab activity.

For more information about fully including students with disabilities in math and science classes, refer to the publication The Winning Equation: Access + Attitude = Success in Math and Science or view the video by the same title.

Questions and answers, case studies, and promising practices can be found in the searchable AccessSTEM Knowledge Base.