Teaching Lab Courses to Students with Disabilities

Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D

As scientific fields make increasing use of technology, new opportunities emerge for people with a variety of abilities. When students with disabilities and science teachers form learning partnerships, the possibilities for academic and career success multiply. Some students with disabilities have conditions that are invisible; some are visible. Their challenges include gaining knowledge and demonstrating knowledge. In most cases, it takes just a little creativity, patience, and common sense to make it possible for everyone to learn and contribute.

Below I have summarized some examples of alternative arrangements that can be made. They come from participants in the DO-IT project at the University of Washington. DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology) is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation. It makes extensive use of computers, adaptive technology and the Internet to increase the successful participation of people with disabilities in academic programs and careers in science, engineering, and mathematics.

Gaining Knowledge

Many students with disabilities face challenges to gaining knowledge. Examples of specific challenges and accommodations follow.

  • For the student who has difficulty reading standard text or graphics due to a visual impairment, materials can be provided in large print or Braille, on tape, or via computer and tactile drawings. Access to adaptive technology that provides enlarged, voice, and/or Braille output can be useful.
  • If seeing material on a blackboard or overhead projector due to a visual impairment is a challenge, a student may use binoculars and the instructor can be sure to verbalize the content of all visually displayed materials.
  • For the student who cannot read output from standard science equipment because of a visual impairment, try interfacing lab equipment with computer and providing large print and/or speech output. Also, mark scientific equipment with Braille and large print labels can be helpful as well.
  • If hearing presentations and instructions is a challenge, a student can use an FM system, interpreter, and/or printed materials. An instructor can help by facing a student who is lip reading and writing important points on an overhead projector or blackboard.
  • If a student cannot hear multimedia and videotaped presentations, captioned presentations and/or an interpreter can be provided.
  • When understanding concepts due to a specific learning disability is a challenge, visual, aural, and tactile demonstrations incorporated into instruction can be helpful.
  • If a student has difficulty reading because of specific learning disability, providing extra time and access to materials via a computer equipped with speech and large print output can sometimes be helpful. Internet access with a system like this can also be an important resource.
  • For a student who has difficulty taking notes in class because of a mobility or visual impairment, use of a portable computer system with word processing and adaptive technology can allow independent note-taking.
  • A student who cannot operate lab equipment and conduct lab experiments due to a mobility impairment can benefit from an accessible lab facility and adjustable-height tables. A lab partner or scribe can facilitate participation. In addition, computer-controlled lab equipment with alternative input devices (e.g., speech, Morse code, alternative keyboard) and modified scientific equipment can provide access.
  • For the student who cannot complete an assignment or lab on time because of a health impairment, flexible scheduling arrangements allow completion of work.
  • For the student who has difficulty completing research because of a disability, access to research materials on the Internet can be helpful.

Demonstrating Knowledge

Some student with disabilities cannot demonstrate mastery of a subject by writing, speaking, or by working through a problem in a lab. Many of the accommodations for gaining knowledge can help the student demonstrate mastery of a subject as well. Examples of other accommodations follow.

  • For the student who has difficulty completing and submitting worksheets and tests because of a visual impairment and/or a specific learning disability, instructors can provide worksheets and tests in large print or Braille, on tape, or via computer. Access to adaptive technology that provides enlarged, voice and /or Braille as well as standard print output can maximize student independence.
  • If completing a test or assignment on time because of a disability that affects the speed at which it can be completed is a problem, extra time or alternative testing arrangements can provide an appropriate accommodation.
  • If a student cannot complete a test or assignment because of an inability to write, in-class access to a computer with alternative input devices (e.g., Morse code, speech, alternative keyboard) can help that student submit work independently.


The examples provided demonstrate a wide variety of alternatives for helping a student fully participate in science labs. Since each person's situation is unique, the best solutions for maximizing participation come about when the student and teacher work together to develop creative alternatives that address the specific challenges faced by students with disabilities.

Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph. D.
Assistant Director, Information Systems
Computing & Communications
University of Washington
4545 15th Ave NE
Seattle, WA 98105
(206) 543-0622