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.