Presentation Summaries

A presenter speaks in front of a powerpoint.


Accessible Equipment for Science and Engineering Labs

Lyla Crawford, University of Washington

Specialized equipment makes science and engineering labs more accessible, including tools such as magnetic stirrers; talking scales, thermometers, and tape measures; large print labels; liquid level indicators; and nonslip mats. They showcase how labs can be made more accessible, especially when universal design principles are considered in designing the lab and procuring equipment.

When working with vendors, ask about accessibility and emphasize your preference to use accessible software and equipment and commitment to help your institution meet its requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act. By providing accessible technology and equipment, vendors make their products more marketable to postsecondary institutions. Accessible equipment and tools contribute to increasing the participation of students with disabilities in science and engineering fields.

For examples of accessible science equipment and where it can be purchased, consult our DO-IT publication Accessible Science Equipment.

Accommodations and Universal Design

Sheryl Burgstahler, University of Washington

Ability exists on a continuum, where individuals are more or less able to see, hear, walk, read print, communicate verbally, tune out distractions, learn, and manage their health. For a long time, children with disabilities were kept out of mainstream education. Often, people with disabilities have been seen as people who needed to be cured or rehabilitated. However, after World War II and the Civil Rights movement, a social justice oriented approach to disability emerged, supporting the right for people with disabilities to have full access to K-12 and postsecondary education.

In the K-12 system, children with disabilities are offered free, appropriate education in as integrated of a setting as possible. However, in postsecondary education, students with disabilities must meet course or program requirements, with reasonable accommodations as requested. Accommodations include extra time on tests, a book in an alternate format, and a sign language interpreter. Whereas accommodations are a reactive process for providing access to a specific student and arise from a medical model of disability, universal design (UD) is a proactive process rooted in a social justice approach to disability.  UD advocates value diversity, equity, and inclusion.

UD is 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. UD is beneficial to all students, not just students with disabilities; for example, people who face challenges related to socioeconomic status, race, culture, gender, age, and language also benefit from UD practices. Universally designed information technology has built in accessibility features and ensures compatibility with assistive technology. A universally designed website has text alternatives for graphics, content presented via text and visuals, captioned and transcribed video and audio content is captioned and transcribed, content and navigation that can be reached with the keyboard alone, spelled out acronyms. and other characteristics that benefit a diverse variety of visitors.

UD can be implemented incrementally, focuses on benefiting all students, promotes good teaching practice, does not lower academic standards, and minimizes the need for accommodations. UD can be applied to all aspects of instruction, including class climate, interactions, physical environments and products, delivery methods, information resources and technology, feedback, and assessment. Examples include

  • Arranging seating so that everyone has a clear line of sight.
  • Avoiding undue attention being drawn to differences between students.
  • Using large, bold fonts with high contrast on uncluttered overhead displays and speaking all content aloud.
  • Providing multiple ways to gain and demonstrate knowledge; using multiple senses.
  • Avoiding unnecessary jargon; defining terms.
  • Providing scaffolding tools (e.g., outlines).
  • Providing materials in accessible formats.
  • Providing corrective opportunities.
  • Testing in same manner in which you teach.
  • Minimizing time constraints as appropriate.

Educators who effectively apply UD and accommodations level the playing field for students with disabilities and make instruction welcoming to, accessible to, and usable by all students. DO-IT hosts a comprehensive resource, The Center for Universal Design in Education, which features guidance on how to apply UD to instruction, physical spaces, student services, and technology.

Engineering Students with Disabilities

Invisible Challenges, Unmet Needs: Understanding Students with Psychiatric Disabilities 

By Mei-Fang Lan, University of Florida

Increasing number of students with mental health disabilities are enrolled in college. Without adequate support, young adults experiencing a mental health issue are more likely to receive lower GPAs, drop out of college, or be unemployed than their peers without a mental health challenge. Unfortunately, most college students with mental health problems do not receive treatment. In a recent study by Dr. Eisenberg and his colleagues, they found that, among students with apparent mental health problems, approximately one in three received mental health treatment in the previous year. Reasons for not seeking treatment include thinking that problems will get better by themselves, stress is normal in college, and there is no time to seek treatment.

In spite of these trends, postsecondary students with mental health issues often do not receive adequate treatment and support to succeed in college and graduate school. It can be difficult for students to explain how they are affected. This makes it especially important for postsecondary institutions to provide potential and enrolled students with mental health disabilities the resources and knowledge about potential accommodations that may help them succeed in school.

Walking a Mile in Their Shoes: Experiencing What it is Like to Have a Learning Disability

By Chang-Yu Wu, University of Florida

A learning disability (LD) is a neurological disorder resulting from a difference in the way a person’s brain is wired. Students with LDs have average or above intelligence but have difficulty with specific tasks such as reading, writing, spelling, reasoning, recalling, or organization. LDs cannot be cured. With the right support and intervention, people with LDs can succeed in school and go on to successful careers. The following are the most common LDs:

  • dyslexia: difficulty reading
  • dyscalculia: difficulty calculating mathematics
  • dysgraphia: difficulty writing

Reasonable accommodations can help people with LDs succeed in college and careers. People with LDs often think outside of the box, seeing solutions to problems that someone else may not see. People with LDs bring different strengths to the table and diversity in solving problems, an asset in engineering fields. Successful people with learning disabilities include Albert Einstein, John Franklin Kennedy, and Alexander Graham Bell.

To glimpse into how people with different learning disabilities process the world, try out the exercises from PBS’s Misunderstood Minds.

For more resources on learning disabilities, visit

Strategies for Recruiting and Engaging REU Students with Disabilities 

By Chris Andersen and Michelle McCombs, The Ohio State University

Including students with disabilities in these research experiences brings more students into the engineering field and increases the diversity in ideas, perspectives, and solutions. The Center for Emergent Materials (CEM) at The Ohio State University recruits students with disabilities for engaging research experiences for undergraduates (REUs) through EntryPoint! and the Ohio STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) Ability Alliance (OSAA). In internships, students encounter experimental and theoretical research in physics and materials science. Part of their training is working with sophisticated lab equipment.

They provide training for faculty and mentors, ask faculty to commit to providing a supportive atmosphere for students, and seek out supportive graduate students to serve as mentors. They continue to provide support for both the faculty and the student in the lab, and, when necessary, they include the office of disability services in order to provide accommodations or address other needs. For students with visual impairments or physical disabilities, state vocational services or disability services provides support. Training for faculty members includes information about common issues, misconceptions, and resources. Follow up meetings with faculty are held after students have been in their labs for 2-4 weeks.

When faculty members are supportive and students are provided with the technology and workspace they need, students with disabilities succeed in engineering labs. It is important for students with disabilities to communicate their needs and utilize resources, including colleagues and disability services, to ensure they get support and accommodations. The students with disabilities who are interested in these research positions are equally qualified to any other student to complete the tasks and research required.

Ohio’s STEM Ability Alliance: Interventions and Outcomes for Students with Disabilities in STEM at Wright State University 

By Jason Gepperth, Wright State University

Engineering is a growing major, and having more students with disabilities in engineering fields will provide more diversity and options.  To address the underrepresentation of students with disabilities in engineering fields, Ohio’s STEM Ability Alliance (OSAA) was established in 2009 at Wright State University (WSU). WSU is a mid-sized research university with near open enrollment and a large population of non-traditional students. WSU’s nationally recognized Office of Disability Services (ODS) serves over 500 students annually. 

OSAA’s main goals are to:

  • Increase the recruitment of high school students with disabilities into STEM majors at WSU
  • Increase retention and graduation rates for existing STEM students with disabilities
  • Increase successful entry rates of OSAA STEM graduates with disabilities into STEM graduate programs or STEM employment 

OSAA has two strategies for recruiting high school students. First, we host a 5-day residential summer camp called DiverseAbility U. for high school students with disabilities with a strong interest in STEM. Participants engage in STEM, personal skill development, and mentoring activities. Second, we reach out to incoming students through presentations at the ODS Orientation. These efforts have lead to a dramatic increase in the number of students with disabilities enrolling in STEM majors.

University students can also join the OSAA Scholars program and participate in learning communities, academic support through tutoring, and mentoring activities. OSAA helps connect students with internship and scholarship opportunities. Finally, OSAA offers Ability Advising, modeled on student athlete advising programs, through which an advisor acts as a mentor, coach, advocate, and facilitator to help a student address academic and personal issues.

OSAA Scholars have an 85% first year retention rate, compared to 61% for all students across campus. Likewise, 73% of the 2009 OSAA cohort graduated in 5 years, compared to the 40% WSU six year graduate rate. Along with National Science Foundation funding, WSU began providing internal financial support for OSAA in 2014.

Outreach and Students with Disabilities

Auburn University’s Promising Practices for K-12 Students with Disabilities 

By Overtoun Jenda, Auburn University

The Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs at Auburn University engages in efforts that help students from a wide variety of underrepresented groups succeed in college and get into successful careers. We focus on increasing the number of students with disabilities pursuing science, technology, and engineering. Some capable students with disabilities are not encouraged to attend college while they are in high school; that is something we would like to change.

At Auburn, we host educational conferences and presentations that focus on how students with disabilities can successfully transition to college, including an annual statewide transition conference for high school special education students. Through these presentations, teachers, parents, and students learn more about accommodations, living arrangements, success stories, and a wide variety of other transitional topics.

Auburn also has multiple summer camps. Our Computer Science K-12 Inclusive Outreach camp aims to create an environment that is inclusive of students with disabilities in elementary and middle school; it introduces computer science and computational thinking. Our week-long ACT/College Prep for high school students with disabilities, funded by the Alabama Governor’s Office on Disability, introduces students to a college campus while providing ACT and college prep materials and presentations from individuals with disabilities.

Finally, through the Alabama Alliance for Students with Disabilities in STEM, a National Science Foundation funded program that includes four universities, a community college, and local school districts, students participate in peer mentoring. In audition, Auburn students and faculty visit high schools, and high school students and teachers visit the Auburn campus. These activities help high school and postsecondary students learn about and prepare for the next steps in progressing through undergraduate and graduate studies and entering STEM careers.

K-12 Engineering Outreach for Students with Disabilities: Inspiring Engineers Inside and Outside of the Classroom 

By Anna Leyf Starling, North Carolina State University

The Engineering Place at North Carolina State University educates, both directly and indirectly, the citizens of North Carolina, particularly K-12 students, about the nature of engineering and the opportunities and careers in engineering fields. Its goals are accomplished through hands-on, inquiry- and problem- based programs and informational workshops and tools. Our vision is that every student, educator, and parent in North Carolina will know what engineering entails as well as the impact that engineering has on everyday life. K-12 students engage in engineering through hands-on programs and informational workshops. We work on curriculum development and host a series of different programs, including Family STEM night, Engineering on the Road, and summer engineering camps.

This year, we are building on research and promising practices to increase efforts in actively recruit students with disabilities, taking care to address issues since engineering topics appeal to a variety of learners and a variety of skill sets. We recently published an article titled “Improving science scores for students with learning disabilities through engineering problem solving activities” in the Journal of the American Academy of Special Education Professionals that looked at how hands-on versus explicit instruction in engineering projects affects science quiz scores for students with learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). We found that students with learning disabilities or ADHD benefit from a combination of hands-on learning and explicit instruction. Teachers should provide students with structure, guided notes, and repetition of material, as well as opportunities to engage in hands-on, problem solving activities that allow students to apply what they know.

Incorporating engineering in K-12 education will better prepare all students for engineering programs in college and give them the background to be successful in engineering careers. We want to give students with disabilities the tools and role models to succeed. This year, we plan on hosting a summer engineering experience for students with visual impairments, as well as a STEM Career showcase for students with disabilities.

Teach Engineering provides a plethora of educational tools and resources on engineering topics.

Disability, Accessibility, and Universal Design in the Engineering Curriculum

Gaming for the Greater Good: A Classroom Experience at the Intersection of Technology and Disability

By David Chesney, University of Michigan

In the electrical engineering and computer science department at the University of Michigan, I teach two courses that include accessibility topics. The first, Gaming for the Greater Good, an intro course focused on creating a game with accessibility features for a specific disability, is used as a recruitment tool for students interested in computer science. The second, a software engineering capstone class, focuses on children with disabilities in the community and how to create accessibility solutions using the latest and greatest technology.

In each class, we focus on specific accessibility issues, usually around one individual’s needs. We go through a set of steps to solve the problem: proposing and pitching a solution, describing the requirements and design, building the product, and testing and maintenance. One example of a project we have designed includes using facial movements to control a keyboard. A number of the projects developed in these courses have commercial potential. We are in the process of forming a non-profit organization to commercialize software products where 50% of the revenue will go toward purchasing assistive technology for children with disabilities.

In these sorts of courses, social context and individual focus matter. Working with an individual with a disability helps students to better understand the engineering problem that they are trying to solve. Not only do these classes result in products that people with disabilities can use, but students in the class bring an awareness of accessibility into their careers as engineers. For more information on Gaming for the Greater Good, visit our website or watch a video about working with a child named Grace.

User-Centered Design and Accessibility in MIT 6.811: Principles and Practice of Assistive Technology 

By William Li, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), we have a full semester, project-based course called Principles and Practice of Assistive Technology (PPAT). In the course, engineering students develop customized, assistive devices with people with disabilities in the Boston area. Students enroll in the class because of its project-based design, the survey learning opportunity, or a personal interest or experience with disability. In 2014, 35 students enrolled in the class and worked with 11 clients. 

PPAT Learning goals include

  • Demonstrating the principles of user-centered assistive technology design and engineering.
  • Learning how to work with a real client in a design/engineering team project.
  • Understanding the challenges and realities of people with disabilities and becoming equipped as an advocate.

Students work on their projects each week, which includes client meetings, iterative design and evaluation, and prototyping and fabrication. Two hours per week are dedicated to lectures where students learn about communicating with people with disabilities, user-centered design, clinical perspectives, and more. Another two hours per week are spent on lab activities, surveying campus facilities for accessibility, and creating short films.

Examples projects are

  • The Claw, a tool to help individuals grip objects better; 
  • Successible Maps, a tool that showed all the accessibility features on campus; and 
  • Your Friendly Reminder, an application that sends reminders out for the day. 

In Feburary 2015, we hosted our first hackathon, a large event centered around students creating assistive technology in one day. Eighty students and 17 clients participated.  The event was organized by undergraduates and many students who had taken PPAT participated.

To learn about student projects and the design process, visit the student-run design blog.

Strategies for Introducing Accessibility Topics into Engineering Courses 

By Richard Ladner, University of Washington

Having an entire class on accessibility in web design or engineering is great; however, it’s possible to incorporate accessibility topics into almost any engineering class. You could give part of a lecture, a full lecture, or an entire course on an accessibility topic. Teaching about accessibility or inviting in a guest speaker can help change engineering knowledge and perspective as a whole. 

There are interesting engineering problems that have to do with accessibility. These are good ways to include information about them as part of a lecture. For example, when discussing data compression, you could use an example about braille. Signal processing lectures could draw from acoustic modems used in TTY systems or directional hearing aids. Other courses lend themselves to having a whole lecture on accessibility topics. A human computer interaction course might include lectures on universal design or ability-based design. A computer vision course might include a lecture on tactile graphics. 

Beyond including accessibility in mainstream courses, consider offering an entire course in your department. This could be as part of a freshman design course, like ones that exist at the University of Michigan or the University of Portland or a capstone course, like at MIT, the University of Michigan, or at the University of Washington (UW). When talking about accessibility topics, any course can introduce profiles of successful scientists and engineers who happen to have a disability. 

If disability topics are included multiple times throughout the curriculum, students realize that these are important issues. It’s great to weave accessible design knowledge throughout a student’s education. Having a whole course, as well as individual lectures within courses, promotes the idea that these issues are common in engineering and computing.

Senior Design Projects to Aid Individuals with Disabilities: The University of Toledo Experience 

By Mohamed Hefzy, University of Toledo

For the past twenty years at the University of Toledo, we have been introducing students to assistive technology through senior design projects. There are over 35 million people in the United States who have disabilities, all of whom have different needs. A lot of the assistive technology needed is either unavailable, very expensive, or requires custom modification. Many people with disabilities cannot afford custom modifications. 

In 1988, the National Science Foundation began a program called Bioengineering and Research to Aid the Disabled (BRAD), which provides funding for engineering students to construct custom designed devices and software for individuals with disabilities. These projects provide unique opportunities for students, improve the quality of life for people with disabilities, and allow universities to provide a service to their communities. 

Since 1994, at the University of Toledo over 600 students have participated in over 150 projects. Through the class, approximately 100 students per year participate in self-directed, semester-long group projects for both commercial and private clients. We start identifying project ideas before the semester begins through our partnerships with community organizations. Students rank the projects that they are interested in and are assigned to groups. Within groups, each student is assigned a role and submits weekly progress reports throughout the semester. During the eighth week of the semester students present their preliminary designs, and by the tenth week they begin constructing and testing a prototype. 

The teams showcase their projects at the Undergraduate Research and Senior Design Engineering Project Exposition. In a recent project, students designed a temporary prosthetic for a nun who had lost all of her limbs following an infection. Their design placed first in the 2014 Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA) Student Design Competition. 

We see multiple benefits from this course, including

  • Students gain new experiences and perspectives,
  • Clients have improved quality of life, and
  • The university gains connections to our community.

Using Design Projects to Serve Veterans with Disabilities 

By Samee Khan, North Dakota State University

In our courses at North Dakota State University, engineering students develop customized assistive technologies for veterans with disabilities. Student projects must be cost-effective, have a long lifespan, be robust, and be technologically superior to existing options.

Students enroll in a three semester sequence of courses. The first semester focuses on the ideology of building accessible designs. The second semester we focus on the project itself, including design stages, creating a plan for the client, and ordering parts. The third semester focuses on further development, prototyping, feasibility, testing with the client, and long term plans.

Often after the course is finished, students continue to work on the technology that they have developed. There have been seven patents awarded to technology developed through these projects, and two start-up companies have formed, Myriad Devices and Packet Digital. Project examples include a device that turns sign language into text, a voice-controlled door opener, and a voice-activated vending machine. Find more information about the courses and student projects online.

Universal Design in a Web Design and Development Course Curriculum 

By Terrill Thompson, University of Washington

When creating digital content such as web pages or online documents, we may envision our typical user as an able-bodied person using a desktop computer. In reality, users utilize a wide variety of technologies to access the web including assistive technologies and mobile, and everyone has different levels of ability when it comes to seeing, hearing, or using a mouse or keyboard. 

Diversity among web users provides technology teachers with a great opportunity. When learning to code, students should actively consider their users, including user differences. In partnership with K-12 teachers in the Bellingham, WA school district, DO-IT developed a web design curriculum. It is platform and vendor-neutral, so that it teaches concepts rather than how to use a specific tool. Standards-based, accessible design is taught early as a core design principle, and reinforced throughout the course. 

For assignments students must use valid code and conform to accessibility standards. For example, when learning how to add an image, students are taught to use alt tags. Likewise, they are taught to add caption files to videos. The curriculum is constantly being upgraded, is freely available, and has been used across the US and the world.

To access the web design and course curriculum for your own use, visit DO-IT's website. For more information about web accessibility, check out these resources:

Working with Professional Organizations

Making Professional Organizations More Inclusive for People with Disabilities: A Case Study

By Jonathan Lazar, Towson University

It’s important to make courses accessible to people with disabilities, but we also need to consider future employment. Professional organizations and conferences play a major part in career development, including

  • Career development through conference attendance and presentation 
  • Consumption and production of digital resources including blogs, websites, and digital libraries
  • Mentorship programs, networking, and job searches
  • Informal socializing among peers

We need to make sure all of these things, and the professional organizations running them, are inclusive of people with disabilities. There are three potential areas to focus on:

  • physical conference accessibility including accessible conference facilities, accessible hotel rooms, and sign language interpretation
  • digital resource accessibility including the paper submission and reviewing
  • professional organization accessibility including mentorship programs and officer elections

The Association for Computing Machinery’s (ACM) Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI) has been working to improve accessibility. Discussion on the topic began in January 2011 during a long-term planning meeting for the SIGCHI organization. Tasks were divided into two areas: physical accessibility and digital accessibility, since different people in different roles usually have responsibility for each

Physical accessibility included designing a checklist for conference accessibility, site walkthroughs of potential conference sites, adding someone as the physical accessibility chair to the conference committee, and posting information on the website about the physical accessibility of conference locations and hotels. 

Planning for digital accessibility has been more complicated. We had professional evaluations done to ensure accessibility of our conference web site and mobile app. We have also worked on publication to ensure the submission and review processes as well as accepted papers are accessible. Ultimately, we designed five specific guidelines for pdf accessibility. Easy to understand guidelines were developed and posted on the website. An automated check based on these guidelines was run on accepted papers and results were sent to authors. Making the pdf accessible was encouraged, but not required.

If you’d like to make your professional organization more accessible, consider the following: 

  • Reach out to the ACM Special Interest Group on Accessibility (SIGACCESS) and AccessComputing.
  • Add feedback loops, in both directions. 
  • Include people with disabilities in your decision-making processes
  • Be clear about prioritization and communicate the rationale. 
  • Recognize and explicitly address and communicate trade-offs.

Advancing Access and Inclusion in the STEM Workforce through Professional Society Partnerships 

By Chris Atchison, University of Cincinnati  

According to the United States Office of Personnel Management, “A key goal of federal government recruitment policies is to attain a workforce that draws from all segments of society and that leverages diversity to deliver the best public service.” However, STEM disciplines are still lacking diversity, particularly when it comes to individuals with disabilities. Opportunities for STEM careers are growing; these are careers where individuals can earn good salaries.

Students with disabilities are often discouraged from pursuing geoscience disciplines because of the significant requirement of field-based study. The image of a geoscientist evokes field research in remote and rugged areas, which are often not accessible for students with mobility or sensory impairments. The reality is that there are geoscientists with disabilities and ways to ensure that students with disabilities can participate in fieldwork.

Through promoting a broad and inclusive pathway, we can help to increase the participation of students with disabilities. This could include programs that foster interest among elementary school students, outreach activities aligned with career and educational opportunities for middle school and high school students, and financial assistance to support postsecondary education. 

I have been working to create change through my organization, the International Association for Geoscience Diversity (IAGD). The IAGD mission is to improve access to the geosciences for individuals with disabilities while promoting communities of research, instruction and student support.  The IAGD community

  • Celebrates the diverse abilities of all geoscientists while fostering student engagement in geoscience career pathways.
  • Provides faculty professional development in instructional access and inclusion.
  • Unifies and promote efforts of collaboration in research and instructional best practices.
  • Develops a community of resources for faculty and student support.
  • Advances knowledge of access and accommodation within the geosciences through scientific research.