Science Labs and Accessibility

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

In all of the time I have been working on making real science labs available over the Internet, I’ve spent little time on accessibility. Of course, I made the obligatory efforts with ALT and TITLE tags to images and made sure that font sizes can be set by the user. The question of who would be using the new technology to reap the benefits of doing real science labs was not foremost in my mind until I read an article in the Montana Kaimin entitled “Disability Services Undermanned and Overworked” written by Kimball Bennion.

Here’s the excerpt that grabbed my attention:

Justyn Field, a senior in print journalism, said he dropped a science class he was taking in the 2008 spring semester because he wasn’t able to get to the class’s science lab in the Health Sciences Building.

Field was born with VACTRL association, a birth defect that limits his mobility and also inflicts other internal problems. Field is able to walk a little, but moves mostly with a wheelchair.

Field said he tried to keep the class while doing an online lab that the department put together for him, but it wasn’t comparable to working in the actual lab.

“How do you do an online lab?” Field said. He also had to pay an extra fee for taking the class online.

“It was absolutely atrocious,” he said.

This small story highlights two significant messages. Online technology holds out great hope for access to learning opportunities denied due to disabilities, and it hasn’t fully delivered on this hope.

Consider the issues surrounding a person in a wheelchair taking a chemistry lab. The aisles where students work back-to-back on their experiments are probably too narrow to accommodate a wheelchair. The countertops are too short for a seated person to reach. Some disabilities affect fine motor coordination and make working with dangerous chemicals, well, dangerous. Safety equipment disabledsuch as eyewash fountains are too high to be useful to a seated person. The lab benches don’t usually have knee space underneath and so prevent a wheelchair user from getting close enough to the bench to do the work even if it weren’t so high. As very much a tyro at understanding disability issues in schools, I am sure that I’ve only begun a list that experts can readily expand. I’m making the point that just getting a wheelchair inside the door of a chemistry lab may not be sufficient.

A great online science lab experience could make a world of difference for Justyn Field and many others. The University of Montana made an effort to provide online labs for him. The article doesn’t say what the subject was, and I suspect that it wasn’t chemistry. Still, the same concepts apply, although not so severely, to many other subjects. Mr. Field ended up taking an astronomy class that had access to the lab facilities.

Our schools and disabled students should have excellent online science labs, not the “absolutely atrocious” ones that Mr. Field was subjected to. I have a personal stake in this discussion because I have worked on one solution for the last ten years. We should have great online lab experiences ready for the Justyn Fields of the world. They would also help immensely in cases where sick students must stay at home for extended periods, for juvenile detention facilities that must provide education to their wards, for very small schools in poor rural areas, for alternative education schools with students who have social problems, and for many others.

This all may seem to be a somewhat minor point to many, but it’s not so minor to the very large number of students affected by the lack of access to science labs. They’re being denied the education they deserve.

One Response

  1. You really hit the concrete issues faced by students in wheelchairs, Harry. One argument used by academic administrators not to pay for the necessary architectural and “furniture” changes to accommodate them is that they will meet the same problems in careers that their degree should open to them.

    Yet universities and schools must show the way – and if online labs can make it cheaper and as efficient, this is great.

    Will you tell us more about the solution you have been working on?

    You also rightly point out that one can be “disabled from accessing” a brick-and-mortar educational activity for other reasons than a permanent physical disability.

    It reminds me of a discussion with the administrator of an MA course where I was teaching a small intensive French workshop: the students had been given the readings for the main course as photographic scans, and they asked for OCRed textual scans instead. The administrator said the photographic format had been chosen to prevent plagiarism. I found a polite way to say that this was daft, and added that it was against accessibility norms. She retorted that no blind students were enrolled. I pointed out to her that out of the 4 students of the workshop, 2 had their right arm in a cast, and would have greatly benefited from the possibilty to annotate the text on a computer.

    And then last July there was a WIPO meeting entitled Meeting the Needs of the Visually Impaired Persons: What Challenges for IP?. Now the World Blind Union had been advocating a change to copyright law in favor of visually impaired AND reading disabled people, while strict copyright champions prefered to separate the issues.

    So Chris Friend, for WBU, just went on speaking of visually impaired and reading disabled people at that meeting. And almost at the end, the Embassador of Yemen at the UN in Geneva said that people who could not access proper schooling because they were too poor should be also benefit from the same exception that would give them access to electronic texts across borders.

    Other instance where defending the rights of blind people is of general use: the threat that many universities might adopt Amazon’s Kindle e-bbook reader caused blind students to protest: in spite of Bezos’ promises, Amazon has not made the new Kindle usable by blind people (no keyboard, hence no keyboard commands), and Amazon has allowed right holders to disable the text-to-speech for their texts through DRM.

    This is a total hindrance for blind users, but DRM is also a grave hurdle for everybody – as appeared when 2 books by Orwell vanished from the Kindle readers of people who had paid for them, because Amazon spirited them away via DRM, because “the publisher changed its mind about offering an electronic version, and Amazon caved into their demand to sneak into people’s electronic libraries and take back the book at the publisher’s request.” (Amazon zaps purchased copies of Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm from Kindles , Mark Frauenfelder, BoingBoing, July 17, 09). And the notes people had taken on the books disappeared as well.

    In Amazon to pay $150,000 over Kindle eating Orwell — and teen’s homework (LA Times, Oct. 1, 2009) Carolyn Kellogg reports of a financially happy ending for one user who sued Amazon.But he says nonetheless:

    “Amazon has just proven that when I buy a book on the Kindle, I don’t really own it,…I just feel that is wrong.”

    And other people who saw the Orwell books they had bought disappear from their Kindles but had not sued Amazon only got a refund for what they had paid.

    So if educational institutions desist from adopting the Kindle because it is not accessible to blind students, it will save non-blind students big headaches too. Ensuring access for people with disabilities benefits all, and thus is well worth the cost and/or time needed to look for appropriate solutions.

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