The Winning Equation: Access + Attitude = Success in Math and Science

How teachers can fully include students with disabilities

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and other federal and state legislation require that schools make programs accessible to students with disabilities. People with disabilities are underrepresented in many challenging careers, including those in science, technology, mathematics, and engineering (STEM). Negative stereotyping and attitudes are reported as the most significant factors faced by people with disabilities in these fields.

At the precollege level, students with disabilities are often discouraged from taking math and science courses and, when enrolled, are often not fully included in rigorous work in these classes. Poor high school preparation limits their options in college and careers.

Access or Attitude?

One of the greatest difficulties facing people with disabilities is created when their capacity to be educated and function in the world is evaluated solely by limitations imposed by their disabilities. They essentially become defined by their disabilities, rather than their broad range of interests and abilities. For example, many people who sustain spinal cord injuries are encouraged to participate in wheelchair basketball after they leave rehabilitation facilities. This may be fine for some people. But for those who have never had an interest in playing basketball before, why should they become basketball players now? In an example like this people are making assumptions about ability based solely upon the characteristics of a person's disability.

Another assumption is that a disability limits an individual in every aspect of their functioning, including the ability to be educated. To meet the intent of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), educators must develop an attitude that is disability-positive. Students with disabilities can work hard and be productive and should be expected to do so.

Accommodations are Unique to the Individual

Conversations about disabilities in an educational setting are quickly dominated by the one-size-fits-all syndrome. Whether we are talking about a person who has a physical, sensory, learning, or cognitive disability, we like to have simple solutions that fit all. In truth, students with disabilities have the same variety of needs and preferences as anyone else. Although the energy and construction costs of every business could be cut dramatically by simply lowering all of the interior ceilings to a maximum height of fifty-two inches and this solution would work very well for many people who use wheelchairs or are of short stature, others might grumble when they have to maneuver on their knees as they move around the office. Examples of accommodations for students with disabilities in math and science classes can be found in the DO-IT publications, The Winning Equation: Access + Attitude = Success in Math and Science, Working Together: Science Teachers and Students with Disabilities, and Equal Access: Making Science Labs Accessible to Students with Sensory Impairments at

Where to Go from Here?

DO-IT has developed a model process and a Student Abilities Profile for creating effective accommodations in science and math classes. It can be used by any teacher and is composed of the following four steps:

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 it's important to 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 physical, sensory, and cognitive skills needed to successfully complete the project. It is easy to say, "If I had a physical, sensory, or cognitive 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 fictional or perceived requirements of the project in total. It is impossible to place yourself in the shoes of the student with a disability. They may have learned many 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 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 they perceive as aspects of a project which they may need an accommodation or assistance.

Step #4: What accommodation options exist?

Now that the tasks that need accommodation 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 they have the ability to complete provides a reasonable alternative.

Universal Design

Building accessibility features into an environment or services, such as a science or math class, can make it more usable by all students. For example, having one workstation in a science lab that is adjustable in height makes the space accessible to future students who might use wheelchairs or be large or small in stature. More information and examples about universal design can be found in the brochure Universal Design: Process, Principles, and Applications at

Following is the Student Abilities Profile designed to guide you in determining a student's skills and abilities as well as assisting you in breaking down the individual components of a science or mathematics assignment. The form asks you to briefly describe the student, the classroom or laboratory environment, equipment or supplies needed, available professional and external resources, possible effective accommodations and the physical, sensory, and cognitive skills needed for the task.

Student Abilities Profile

Student Abilities Profile 



Equipment: (lab equipment, furniture, protective clothing, chemicals, etc.)

Environment: (facility, fumes, odors, dust, temperature, noise, lighting, etc.)

Physical Challenges

Potential Strategies / Accommodations


Sensory Challenges

Potential Strategies / Accommodations


Cognitive Challenges

Potential Strategies / Accommodations


Physical, Sensory, and Cognitive Issues and Challenges 

Physical Issues

Think of the required physical aspects of the task. What will make the environment accessible, keep the student safe and allow them to be an active participant? What lab equipment must be manipulated?

Physical Challenges

  1. lift / carry
  2. stamina / endurance
  3. push / pull
  4. kneel / squat
  5. reach
  6. repetitive tasks
  7. fine motor: pinch / grasp
  8. fine motor: manipulate / maneuver
  9. gross motor
  10. sit in chair
  11. walk / stand
  12. balance
  13. bend / twist
  14. stoop / crouch
  15. other

Sensory Issues

Think of room temperature, noise, fumes, dust, odors, and allergies. Also consider the ability to speak and/or communicate, and the visual aspects of the task or assignment.

Sensory Issues

  1. vision
  2. hearing
  3. touch
  4. smell
  5. taste
  6. oral communication
  7. temperature
  8. fumes
  9. external stimuli
  10. lighting
  11. other

Cognitive Issues

Is the assignment done with a group, partner or individually? What memory and communication skills are needed? What is the level of complexity of the task.

Cognitive Challenges

  1. short term memory
  2. long term memory
  3. task complexity
  4. reading
  5. writing
  6. spelling
  7. string of numbers (math)
  8. paying attention
  9. visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner.
  10. self-esteem / advocacy issues
  11. behavior issues / acting out
  12. other


About DO-IT

DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) serves to increase the successful participation of individuals with disabilities in challenging academic programs such as those in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology. Primary funding for DO-IT is provided by the National Science Foundation, the State of Washington, and the U.S. Department of Education. DO-IT is a collaboration of UW Information Technology and the Colleges of Engineering and Education at the University of Washington.

Grants and gifts fund DO-IT publications, videos, and programs to support the academic and career success of people with disabilities. Contribute today by sending a check to DO-IT, Box 354842, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195-4842.

Your gift is tax deductible as specified in IRS regulations. Pursuant to RCW 19.09, the University of Washington is registered as a charitable organization with the Secretary of State, state of Washington. For more information call the Office of the Secretary of State, 1-800-322-4483.

To order free publications or newsletters use the DO-IT Publications Order Form; to order videos and training materials use the Videos, Books and Comprehensive Training Materials Order Form.

For further information, to be placed on the DO-IT mailing list, request materials in an alternate format, or to make comments or suggestions about DO-IT publications or web pages contact:

University of Washington 
Box 354842 
Seattle, WA 98195-4842

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Founder and Director: Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

DO-IT Funding and Partners


This publication and accompanying video were funded by a Dwight D. Eisenhower Professional Development Program (Grant #GR91915) and through the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (Grant #9550003). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the federal government.

Copyright © 2012, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2006, 2001, 1999, 1998, University of Washington. Permission is granted to copy these materials for noncommercial purposes provided the source is acknowledged.