Accessibility of Engineering Tools

Anna Kirkpatrick


Engineering students will encounter a variety of tools during their education. Tools ranging from rulers and spring scales to computer-aided design software are essential for engineers. Most of these tools were designed with able-bodied users in mind and can therefore pose significant obstacles to engineers with disabilities. By inviting engineering students to examine these tools through the lens of accessibility, they can learn to recognize the diverse needs of their peers and consider accessibility when designing.

Activity Participants and Supplies

The following activity is intended to introduce participants to the process of thinking about accessibility in engineering tools.  Allow about 1 hour to complete the activity.

Participants should be divided into groups of three to five, and each group should be provided with an engineering tool to study. For this activity, low tech tools are recommended. Tools may be selected from among those already used in a class or curriculum. Below are suggestions for suitable tools, but we also recommend participants think about what is used in their own labs:

  • Ruler
  • Protractor
  • Level
  • Calipers (any style)
  • Cutting mat and utility knife
  • Spring scale
  • Volt-ohmmeter
  • Breadboard and components (e.g. resistors, capacitors, jumper wires)
  • Wire cutter/stripper
  • Graduated cylinder
  • Pipette
  • Socket set
  • Pliers

Each participant should also have paper and a pen or pencil for taking notes and possibly making informal design sketches (Computer software, modeling clay, etc. may be used to accommodate participants with disabilities).

If possible, the inclusion of one or more engineers or engineering students (or other STEM professionals) with disabilities who are comfortable discussing those disabilities will be helpful. If only one or two engineers with disabilities are available, each can give a short discussion of his/her disability at the beginning of the activity and then circulate among groups. If enough engineers with disabilities are available, placing one in each participant group will allow the class to explore a larger range of disability contexts.

Activity Instructions: Introduction and Set up (10-15 minutes)

Divide participants into groups of three to five individuals. Provide each group with an engineering tool to study. If enough engineers with disabilities are available, place one in each group.

Introduce all participants to the primary question for the activity: How accessible are engineering tools for engineers with disabilities, and how might we improve these tools?

If only one or two engineers with disabilities are participating, invite each to speak for about five minutes about themselves, their disability, and the obstacles they face.

Activity Instructions: Examining the Tool (20 minutes)

Invite each group to discuss the following questions (10 minutes):

  1. What is the primary function of this tool? What is the main thing achieved by using it?
  2. What secondary functions (if any) does this tool have? For example, the primary function of ruler is to measure distance, but it can also be used to draw straight lines.
  3. Can this tool be easily, efficiently, and safely used by an engineer with a disability? Consider a wide variety of disabilities for example blindness, low vision, colorblindness, deafness, hard of hearing, dexterity impairments, mobility impairments, attention deficit disorders, autism, etc.

Invite each group to share their conclusions with the larger group. (10 minutes large-group discussion)

Activity Instructions – Improving the Tool (25-30 minutes)

Invite each group to discuss the following questions (15 minutes):

  1. Using your observations from part one, select one disability group for whom this tool poses a significant obstacle. You will brainstorm accessibility improvements to better serve this group.
  2. Recall the primary function of the tool that you determined in the previous exercise. Are there other tools that achieve the same function? Would any of these other tools be more usable for your selected disability group?
  3. Are there modifications that you could make, either to your original tool or to another that performs an equivalent function, that would improve its usefulness for this group? If applicable, you might want to make some informal design sketches.
  4. Do you need to design a new tool for this group?
  5. Once you have a description of an improvement or of a new tool: What advantages and disadvantages does this new design have for the target disability population? For other disability groups? For able-bodied engineers?

Invite a member of each small group to share their group’s ideas with the larger group. (10-15 minutes larger-group discussion.)

If time allows, consider allowing any disabled engineers/students participating to give feedback on proposed designs.


Note: Resources on this topic are limited, and so some of the resources below address tools for doing science, broadly defined, as opposed to strictly engineering.

Discussion Questions

  • Did any of the designs proposed during this activity create new accessibility barriers (for a group other than the one specifically targeted)? If so, how might this be addressed?
  • Engineers not only use tools; they also design tools. What changes to the engineering design process might help engineers build tools that work for more people?

Project Ideas

  • Expand one of the ideas generated during this exercise into a graded project. Depending on the course, students might produce detailed engineering sketches and other design documents, prototype their designs, or even perform user testing.