By Chelsea E. Mohler and Dr. Mahadeo A. Sukhai
As education becomes increasingly interdisciplinary in its approach, it is typical for students to be exposed to at least one science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) course during their post-secondary experience. However, STEM courses present unique challenges, which may be especially highlighted as students move out of highschool and into post-secondary education. Understanding the barriers and potential solutions at the post-secondary level can inform accommodations at a post-secondary level, but also lend insight to potential accommodations in highschool or earlier.
Barriers in STEM Courses for Students with Disabilities
Barriers to science education for students with disabilities are well-documented. These include:
- Diminished support systems after secondary school (students entering STEM courses may not be aware of available supports in their university, or the supports simply may not be available);
- Lack of awareness of successful role models (students may not be aware that there are many successful scientists with disabilities whose experiences they can learn from);
- Lack of access to technologies (students may not have access to the required assistive technology that would enable them to take part in lab activities);
- Underdeveloped self-advocacy skills on the part of students;
- Inadequate accommodations; and
- Low expectations from faculty (Hilliard et al., 2011).
Further research is required to go beyond describing these barriers and to provide practical and implementable solutions for educators. While not a solution on its own, mainstream and assistive technologies are often part of the solution to address the barriers we have outlined above. Here, we describe some of the mainstream and assistive technologies available to students with disabilities in STEM programs and courses, and how technology can be used to facilitate a student’s independence.
Mainstream Technology, Students with Disabilities and The Science Lab
Mainstream technology can be used as one tool to address some of the challenges we have noted above. When mainstream technology is implemented to simulate an activity or to aid in performing a lab, this is likely technology the educator is familiar with and therefore, feels comfortable with using to instruct the student.
Many learning needs of students with disabilities can be accommodated with the creative adaptation of mainstream and off-the-shelf technology or equipment. Adapting existing or readily available scientific equipment, or of newer technologies such as smartphones and tablets, can open up a range of accommodation possibilities in the teaching and research lab settings and during co-op or fieldwork opportunities. In considering what technology solutions may be appropriate to employ as an accommodation tool, it is important to involve all relevant members of the team, which may include the student, faculty member(s) (and teaching assistants and/or lab coordinators), disability services staff, and preferably a technology expert and / or occupational therapist. This group should discuss what task(s) the technology solutions are intended to aid, the essential requirements of the course or program, the range of possible technology solutions, and what may likely be the best fit for the student based on their specific accommodation need(s). The two scenarios below provide examples of technology use to support participation in the biology lab setting.
Scenario #1: Simulations
Simulation is a technique for practice and learning that can be applied to many different disciplines and types of trainees. It is a technique (not a technology) to replace and amplify real experiences with guided ones, often “immersive” in nature, that evoke or replicate substantial aspects of the real world in a fully interactive fashion (D’Angelo, Rutstein, Harris, Bernard, Borokhovsski, and Haertel, 2014). Simulation learning can be a valuable tool for supporting the learning of students with disabilities in the sciences. One example of this would be a simulation exercise run on a computer workstation or online of a force and motion experiment, such a one demonstrating the principles of projectile motion, run in a physics lab. Students who, for disability-related reasons, are unable to participate in the hands-on activity may benefit from such a simulation – if carefully adapted, the simulation may allow the student to participate fully in the lab activity.
In considering the application of simulation learning as an accommodation for a student with a disability, it becomes important to distinguish between the quality of the simulation and the accessibility of the simulation. The simulation is essentially a computer program – either run on a computer workstation, or run on a dedicated simulator. Therefore, the accessibility of the simulation is very dependent on the accessibility of the simulator and the interface between adaptive software and the simulation program on the computer.
The quality of the computer-aided simulation, on the other hand, depends on the validity of the underlying modeling and computer code, and the ability of the simulation to achieve the designated learning objectives. Ultimately, any new simulation designed from the ground up ought to be designed with the learning objectives, learning styles to be engaged, and universal accessibility in mind – it becomes difficult to retrofit accessibility onto a simulation, but it is also important to not compromise the learning objectives for accessibility either. Ultimately, while the quality of the simulation is not an accessibility issue, accessibility is a quality issue, and ought to be considered as part of the design process.
Scenario #2: Lab equipment as an accommodation
Some students with visual disabilities have difficulty focusing or resolving images in a microscope field of view. For students in this case, the essential requirement of their course or program is being able to visualize and interpret the information contained on the microscope slide, as opposed to being able to operate the microscope itself. Students with visual disabilities in a teaching lab setting can, in this scenario, take advantage of specialized scanners capable of imaging a microscope slide. While this technology is too expensive for teaching labs or individual research labs, it may be available as part of a core microscopy imaging service at the university, or at a nearby teaching hospital or research institute. Slide scanners render high-resolution images as graphics files that can be viewed by a student on their laptop or tablet, which typically allows more flexibility in magnification and visual enhancements.
Using Assistive Technology in the Science Lab
Today, technology is crucial in all educational, employment, and recreational activities. Computer access has the potential to help people with disabilities complete coursework independently, participate in class discussions, communicate with peers and mentors, access distance learning courses, participate in high tech careers, and lead independent lives (Burgstahler & , 2001). According to Mohler (2012), assistive technology (AT) is “any item, piece of equipment or product system, whether acquired commercially off-the-shelf, modified or customized, that is used to increase, maintain or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.” Assistive technology can be simple or complex. Examples of low tech tools for students with disabilities might include enlarged text or raised line paper, while high tech tools may encompass digital tools that “read” to the student, connect to a Braille display, or even incorporate GPS. Though traditionally not designed specifically for the science laboratory, it is possible to retrofit assistive technology to serve specific purposes in the lab environment for students with disabilities. One example of this adaptation may be to use a closed circuit television or CCTV as a dissection platform for animal surgery in a biological sciences lab. Therefore, it is important for faculty to be aware of available assistive technology resources and to work with the student and staff from the disability services office on campus to determine the most applicable and creative uses for these technologies.
The use of mainstream, assistive technology, and simulation learning in the context of accommodating a student with a disability in the lab setting is an innovative way to work around many of the barriers in the science lab faced by students with disabilities. It is important for the student, instructor, technology specialist, and disability services staff to work together to ensure the student is using the most appropriate technology for completion of tasks within the lab setting. The use of technology as an accommodation solution is merely a tool for the student to use in achieving the appropriate competency, and should not be misconstrued as a method to short-cut or interfere with the student’s learning. Though the technologies we have discussed above do not completely replace the need for a human assistant, these technologies do facilitate, to a large degree, independence for students with disabilities in the science lab.
Dr. Mahadeo A. Sukhai is the world’s first congenitally blind biomedical research scientist. Dr. Sukhai is currently Head of the Variant Interpretation Group within the Advanced Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory at the University Health Network in Toronto. He holds senior roles in the non-profit, higher education and disability sectors, serving as Research Director for the National Educational Association of Disabled Students and as a National Board member for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. Dr. Sukhai is the Chair of the National Taskforce on the Experience of Graduate Students with Disabilities, established by NEADS, and the Director of the NEADS National Student Awards Program. Dr. Sukhai is the Principal Investigator for and co-author of “Creating a Culture of Accessibility in the Sciences,” a book based on his groundbreaking work on access to science within higher education, published on accessiblecampus.ca.
Chelsea E. Mohler is a researcher, educator, advocate, and passionate scholar who happens to be legally blind. She holds a Master’s of Science in Occupational Sciences from Western University, Canada. Chelsea currently works as a researcher for the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS). Chelsea has co-authored articles exploring the culture of inclusive education for students with visible and invisible disabilities, in the context of the graduate education environment. Chelsea places a strong emphasis on volunteering, leadership, engagement and mentorship for youth with disabilities. Chelsea is an active volunteer with the CNIB where she hosts workshops for youth with vision loss focusing on the importance of engaging in community volunteer work throughout secondary and post-secondary education, and as a peer mentor. In her capacity as mentor, she aims to empower students to become engaged advocates and leaders within their community. Chelsea has co-authored a book titled, “Creating a Culture of Accessibility in the Sciences,” based on her groundbreaking work on access to science within higher education, published on accessiblecampus.ca.
Burgstahler, S., & Cronheim, D. (2001). Supporting peer-peer and mentor-protégé relationships on the Internet. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 34(1), 59-74.
D’Angelo, C., Rutstein, D., Harris, C., Bernard, R., Borokhovski, E., Haertel, G. (2014). Simulations for STEM Learning: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.
Hilliard, L., Dunston, P., McGlothin, J., & Duerstock, B. (2011). Designing beyond the ADA—creating an accessible research lab for students and scientists with physical disabilities. Institute for Accessible Science: Purdue University.
Mohler, C. (2012). The Process Of Obtaining And Retaining Employment Among The Vision-restricted. London: Western University. Available at: http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/digitizedtheses