MESA Curriculum Addendum: How to Fully Include Students with Disabilities

The multidisciplinary activities of the MESA curriculum offer students opportunities for hands-on learning experiences. The teacher's guide assumes that participants have the abilities of an average student. Given the increasing diversity of classroom students and learning styles, you can expect to have students with a wide range of abilities and disabilities in your classes. This addendum to the MESA materials provides you with general guidelines for addressing the needs of students with disabilities while conducting the activities in the MESA series. For accommodation strategies to make specific MESA lessons accessible to students with a variety of disabilities consult the MESA Curriculum Supplement: How to Fully Include Students with Disabilities.


People with disabilities are underrepresented in many challenging fields, including those in science, mathematics, technology, and engineering. Although people with disabilities constitute more than 10% of the general workforce, they represent only 2% of the scientific and engineering workforce. In middle and high school, students with disabilities are often discouraged from taking math and science courses and, even when enrolled, are not fully included in rigorous work. Poor high school preparation in these areas limits choices for postsecondary studies and careers. As scientific fields make increasing use of technology, new opportunities emerge for people with a broad range of abilities and disabilities.

When students with disabilities and science teachers form learning partnerships, the possibilities for academic and career success multiply. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and its 2008 amendments and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) all require that public schools equal access to appropriate curriculum and programs for students with disabilities.

Each student is unique; the disability may be visible or invisible. Limitations may affect gaining and demonstrating knowledge. The best solutions for maximizing participation come about when the student and the teacher work together. In most cases, addressing the challenges begins with open communication, followed by creative brainstorming of common-sense solutions.

Most students with disabilities have Section 504 or Individual Education Plans (IEPs) created by a multidisciplinary team at your school. Reviewing a student’s 504 plan or IEP, which describes aids and services that student uses, will provide an overview of the unique needs of that particular student.

Universal Design of Instruction

Your students represent a range of backgrounds and experiences. Some students will have a disability. For some, English is not their first language. In most classes there are also many types of learning styles, including both visual and auditory learners. Students are also diverse with respect to gender, race, ethnicity, age, and other characteristics.

How can you design instruction to maximize the learning of all students? The field of universal design provides a good starting point for developing an inclusive model for instruction. You can apply universal design principles to create lectures, discussion, visual aids, printed material, and labs that are accessible to all students.

Universal design refers to the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation. Making an environment or a product accessible to people with disabilities often benefits all. Curb cuts on sidewalks are a good example of how universal design principles accommodate many users. Parents pushing baby strollers, skateboarders, and people with delivery carts, as well as people who use wheelchairs, all benefit. Universal design principles can be applied to many products and services, including instruction.

In terms of learning, universal design means the design of instructional materials and activities that allows the learning goals to be achievable by individuals with wide differences in their abilities to see, hear, speak, move, read, write, understand English, attend, organize, engage, and remember. Universal design for learning is achieved by means of flexible curricular materials and activities that provide alternatives for students with disparities in abilities and backgrounds. These alternatives should be built into the instructional design and operating systems of educational materials—they should not have to be added on later. (Council for Exceptional Children, 1998)

Listed below are aspects of instruction that employ principles of universal design. They make course content and activities accessible to people with a wide range of abilities, disabilities, ethnic backgrounds, language skills, and learning styles.

  • Inclusiveness. Create a classroom culture of respect for and appreciation of diversity.
  • Physical Access. Ensure that classrooms and labs are accessible to individuals with a wide range of physical abilities. Include considerations for accommodations in field trip planning.
  • Delivery Methods. Alternate delivery methods, including lecture, discussion, hands-on activities, and web-based interaction. Face the class and speak clearly in an environment that is comfortable and free from distractions. Repeat discussion questions and points.
  • Information Access. Use captioned videos. Make printed materials available in electronic format. Provide text descriptions of graphics presented. Create printed and web-based materials in simple, intuitive, and consistent formats.
  • Demonstration of Knowledge. Provide multiple ways for students to demonstrate knowledge.

Examples of Accommodations

Employing universal design principles in instruction may reduce but may not always eliminate the need for specific accommodations for students with disabilities. Although accommodations are unique to each individual, there are general practices that can be employed for students with disabilities. Discuss accommodations with the student to gain his or her insight into what might be effective.

  • Select class materials in time to allow for alternate formats (audio, Braille, large print).
  • Make syllabi, assignments, and reading lists available in electronic format.
  • Allow students to complete and submit assignments in electronic format.
  • Configure groups so all students can contribute according to their abilities.
  • Give both oral and written directions.
  • Use untimed tests and exams.

The following table summarizes examples of accommodations often provided to students with specific disabilities.

Disabilities and Accommodations

Low Vision

  • Flexible seating
  • Note takers
  • Large-print handouts, lab signs, and equipment labels
  • Class assignments made available in electronic format
  • Computer with a large monitor equipped to enlarge screen characters and images


  • Audiotaped, Brailled, or electronic-formatted lecture notes, handouts, and tests
  • Verbal descriptions of visual aids
  • Raised-line drawings and tactile models of graphic materials
  • Braille lab signs and equipment labels; auditory lab warning signals
  • Adaptive lab equipment (e.g., talking thermometers and calculators, light probes, tactile timers)
  • Computer with optical character reader, speech output, Braille screen display and printer output

Hearing Impairments

  • Interpreters, real-time captioning, FM system
  • Note taker
  • Open- or closed-captioned films; use of visual aids
  • Written assignments, lab instructions, demonstration summaries
  • Visual warning system for lab emergencies
  • Use of electronic mail for class and private discussions

Learning Disabilities / Attention Deficits

  • Note takers and/or audiotaped class sessions
  • Captioned films
  • Extra exam time
  • Alternative testing arrangements
  • Visual, aural, and tactile instructional demonstrations
  • Computer with speech output, spelling and grammar checkers
  • Minimized distractions

Health Impairments

  • Note takers
  • Flexible attendance requirements
  • Extra exam time
  • Assignments made available in electronic format
  • Use of email to facilitate communication

Mobility Impairments

  • Note takers, lab assistants
  • Group lab assignments
  • Classrooms, labs, and field trips in accessible locations
  • Adjustable tables; lab equipment located within reach
  • Class assignments made available in electronic format
  • Computer equipped with special input device (e.g., voice input, Morse code, alternative keyboard)

Psychosocial Impairments

  • Clear expectations, written and verbal
  • Established schedule; routines and rules
  • Student paired with supportive peer or allowed to work alone
  • Quiet area for students to take breaks

As students mature and understand more about how they learn, they will become the experts on what works for them. Allowing them to try out different approaches is a way they can refine their accommodations.

An Accommodation Model

DO-IT has developed a model for creating accommodations in science and mathematics classes. The Accommodation Model is composed of four steps and can be used in conjunction with the Student Abilities Profile. The Student Abilities Profile provides a format in which to record the information gathered.

Step #1: What does the task or assignment require?

Break down all of the components of the experiment, assignment, or exercise. As an educator, you are usually focused on the overall outcome of the project. To accommodate a student with a disability, think about the specific settings, tools, skills, and tasks that are required at each step. By analyzing and evaluating the task thoroughly, you will be able to determine how best to fully and effectively include a student with a specific disability.

Step 2: What physical, sensory, and cognitive skills are needed?

Match the tasks required to the skills needed to successfully complete the project. It is easy to say, "If I had a physical disability, I would not be able to complete this assignment," without really determining what skills are needed for specific aspects of the project. We need to separate the real requirements of a specific task from the perceived requirements of the project in total. It is impossible to place yourself in the shoes of the student with the disability. He or she may have learned ways to solve a specific problem or task and work around the limitations imposed by the disability.

Step 3: What components of the task require accommodation?

Once the task has been analyzed and the skills needed are identified, determine what accommodations may be required or how the learning experience might be altered to make it more accessible. Determine the level of difficulty of the project, and determine how best to make an accommodation to create an inclusive environment for a student with a disability. It is very important to consult with the student to determine what he or she perceives as aspects of a project in which he or she may need accommodation or assistance.

Step 4: What accommodation options exist?

Now that the tasks that need accommodations have been determined, identify what resources exist for providing the needed accommodation(s). The student may have some good ideas; however, this is a time when other staff and professionals may have expertise in specific areas and be called on to provide input. In some cases, having students work in groups where each person is assigned a task that he or she has the ability to complete provides a reasonable alternative.


Accommodations are unique to each student. For more information about fully including students with disabilities in your science courses, consult the following resources.


Development of this content was funded by the National Science Foundation (Grant # HRD-0227995) and the Boeing Company (2011-2012). The contents do not necessarily reflect the policies of the funding sources and you should not assume their endorsement.