Question: How have you adapted the laboratory for students and researchers with disabilities?

I have some posts gestating on ethical issues in science, but I have to clear a bit more grading and committee work before I can do them justice. In the meantime, I want to pose a set of questions to those of you who teach labs and/or supervise laboratory research:

Have you been asked to adapt your laboratories for students or researchers with disabilities?

If so, what kinds of adaptations have you been able to implement?

What kinds of disabilities have provided the biggest challenge from the point of view of coming up with a good adaptation?

Are there instances in which your efforts to come up with a "reasonable accommodation" have resulted in something other than an adaptation of the existing laboratory set-up? If so, what alternative did you end up with and why?

Do you feel like you have enough institutional support in instances where you have been asked to make accommodations for a student or researcher with disabilities? (Do you have a favorite resource to point us to?)

Although I've framed my questions around laboratory work, those of you who do field work are invited to answer the analogous questions about adaptations and accommodations for students and researchers in the field.

As always, thanks for sharing your experiences and expertise.

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I teach a Technology class and manage a lab for the class, but this issue has not come up yet. In the last three years I have been with the department I have not seen a student with a disability.

But if the occasion does arrive I think the main classroom for the sequence will be ok because the computer desks should allow for the student to work with the other students. And if not, it wouldn't be too difficult to re-organize a computer on one of the other tables. If the disability is blindness though there could be a problem, but I don't foresee too many students with blindness going into an Industrial Technology major.

He wasn't my student, but there was a student in a lab course that I TA'd who was deaf. The university's office of disability services provided him with a stenographer who typed up everything the instructor said (in lecture and in lab), and he was able to read it immediately on a laptop.

Many of my students have appeared brain dead, but I think they were merely lazy.

Not in the lab, but I do volunteer work with an organization that administers a certification exam. We got queried about providing a candidate with the opportunity to take the exam in her own home. The claim was multiple chemical sensitivities, and she said she couldn't do it in a hotel (our usual venue) as the carpets or other fabrics may cause a reaction, or around other people (usually 20-30 folks take the exam in the room) because they may be wearing perfume, deodorant, hair products, etc.

We looked into the ADA guidelines and our options as providers of a service. Ended up telling her that we could provide her with some accomodations (room at another "safe" place if we had local folks who could administer the exam), but couldn't give her a "take home" test, and we couldn't have proctors fly out to her house, slip the exam under her door, and watch her take it from outside (not in so many words, but c'mon!). Haven't heard from her lawyer, so I guess we did OK.

Years ago (long before personal computers), I worked for several years with a really bright, very likable guy who was then a scientific/chemical librarian. He had a BS and MS in chemistry and an MLS in Library Science. He also had severe cerebral palsy, with difficulty in locomotion, motor control, and speech. He told me that he'd gotten through the two chemistry degrees, completing all labs, by virtue of the university providing extra scholarship aid to deserving students who were taking the same courses for being his lab partner. The only other accommodation was a specially built lab stool that had a low seat back and one armrest. I believe his masters thesis work was largely theoretical, which meant he didn't have to do much independent lab work.

This will seem a bit facetious but I found a lot of my physics 101 lab students to be abject klutzes. I wrote computer programs that simulated the labs for which they were otherwise breaking equipment and learning nothing. That was 30 years ago. All that has changed since then is that half the students come in completely at home with videogaming where, after photorealistic graphics, a "physics engine" is the other reason all the action looks they take it for granted. ever try to surmount the handicap of someone who took things for granted?

I worked in a lab at the old Bureau of Mines as an undergrad. it was a place where we did p-chem of metals and getting dirty was part of the job. My co-worker had only one arm, having lost the other in Viet Nam. Washing hands is a problem if you only have one. I screwed a scrub brush and a sponge to the inside of the lab sink in just the right place and he could wash up pretty well. We handled radioactive tracers...getting clean was a big deal.

I usually lurk but I'm going to put my two cents worth in, speaking from experience.

First of all, you have to build it before they will come. If you built a corner of the lab suitable for someone who either can't stand and/or is in a wheelchair or needs some kind of modification to sit, and you made it widely known, you would be more likely to have people enrolling and/or using it. Same with accessible buildings. Also not everyone who needs a special area is necessarily in a wheelchair. If you set something like this up, you might be surprised who's using it.

Next, it's funny how nobody mentions flexibility as a key issue for most of us who have a disability especially when it results in pain or energy issues. Have lab sections available at different times. Buy some decent lab furniture. Make allowances for more frequent breaks. At a research level, consider flex-time or part time workers. A lot of us are actually very efficient workers and yet get burned because it's more important to look like you are working 20h a day then to actually produce important research.

The other issue would be something like a few 'free-rides' per class, or flex sick days for workers. Anyone who's been sick or had disabilities knows that you have good days and bad days. And when you have the bad days, ain't nothing going to happen. Part of the stress is feeling like you never get the benefit of the doubt. Lord help you if you aren't in a wheelchair because if you 'look good', as so many of us do, then you are screwed because you must just be a malingerer and full of crap and lazy and trying to get an advantage.

People have talked about 'science culture' esp on Zuska's blog, but it's not often I see mention that this macho, die-working-with-my-lab-coat-on bullcrap in science shuts out anyone who can't 'appear' to be working for many hours. Forget about actual productivity. Because people who can't 'appear' to be working must not be 'serious' enough for science.

People without a disability or who haven't been seriously ill have this stereotype about disability. It's either 1. a wheelchair, 2. someone retarded, 3. someone dyslexic, or 4. old people with canes. That's pretty close to it. The reality is that the vast majority of working or trying-to-be working people with disabilities are actually chronically ill, injured, and/or partially disabled. There is no tattoo on our forehead. We don't often 'look' it. The special accomodation we need need is more vague and is a lot more about attitude and flexibility than having a special desk.

You might already be working with us and not know it. The coworker who seems fine yet gets sick a lot. The one that walks or sits funny. The one that seems tired a lot. The one who isn't a 'morning person' yet isn't an alcoholic. The one that is a little too thin. We're there and your attitudes force us into a double burden of lies and silence. And it's this same inflexibility that shuts out many parents of small children, so it's not just us getting affected either.

By narrowviews (not verified) on 18 Apr 2007 #permalink

I had an almost stone-deaf student, who had a sign language interpreter, that worked out OK.

In medicine, profound disabilities that would require another helper (i.e. a seeing-eye person for the blind or someone to use a stethoscope for the deaf) are really beyond the pale. My school had a stone-blind person sue to be a doctor, and the amout of accomodation (plus the risks to patients during patient care rotations) were insurmountable. It's like having a blind airplane pilot, with advances and help it's possible, but a bloody bad idea.

By William the Coroner (not verified) on 19 Apr 2007 #permalink

Not our lab, but an affiliate lab recently had to change all their lights to accommodate for someone with epilepsy.

I take back what I said above. I have had a student with a disability, but he blended in so well that I totally forgot about him. He was severely dyslexic, to the point where he was unable to read or write in class (okay, he was able to read and write, but not at a level appropriate for the course). He took all of his exams and quizes at the office of disability services, where the questions were read to him and, if needed, he dictated his answers to someone who would write them. He also had computer software that would read documents aloud and allowed him to write by speaking rather than typing.

He was one of the top students in the class, and his disability did not hinder his performance.

For both students (the deaf one mentioned above and the dyslexic one mentioned here), our university's office of disability services took care of most of the work for us.

Almost all of your responses deal with physical disabilities, my question concerns an inordinately bright student that has been diagnosed with a mental illness. Albeit, his illness is, for the most part, controlled by psychotropic medication; however, there are days when I know he wants and needs to be in class but his concentration is approximately sixty per-cent.
I contend he needs to be present for several obvious reasons, but, on those days when he's non-communicative and laughing aloud (barely audible) what do any of you suggest that I do?
As a caveat, his classmates would rather he attend class and be treated as normally as possible.

howard, sounds like you are already doing the right thing. he's trying hard, it doesn't sound like he's too disruptive (right?) and the classmates are supportive. so let him try to do his thing. if it gets too distracting for you or the other students then meet with him at the disability office to discuss alternate options.

also, i think most 'inordinately bright' students are borderline on being, shall we say, neurotypical. in any case, try to make decisions with him and not for him. it's great that you're all trying.

By narrowviews (not verified) on 25 Apr 2007 #permalink

Boy, I have plenty of experience when it comes to this one! I have a movement disorder (post-encephalitis syndrome) that means I have trouble with balance and upper body control. I type instead of writing and usually use a powerchair for mobility. I'm also in my first year of a Ph.D. program in ecology. Here are the adaptations I've used so far.

Lab stuff:
1. Having lab partners, either classmates or students paid by disability services. I ended up doing essentially the same thing as an intern at Kennedy Space Center.
2. Placing microscope on the floor. For some reason, I have better fine motor control on the floor. This also works for things like owl pellet dissection.
3. Using a wearable magnifying visor instead of a low-power microscope for keying out plants.
4. Hooking up digital camera to microscope instead of drawing.

Field stuff:
1. Bringing an assistant to a field station.
2. The station (Cranberry Lake Biological Station) put in ramps where necessary and gave me a private room.
3. Developing good off-road powerchair driving skills. I also walk with assistance and can ride a horse.
4. Recruiting volunteers to help with my big undergrad research project (in restoration ecology).

In class, I have a notetaker but tend to rely on the textbook or handouts more than notes. I do use extra time for exams, which I normally type. (Math was a pain before I learned to use Mathematica.) Once in a while, I'll need an extension on an assignment, but that's rare. And when taking mycology, I'd meet with the TA individually to review specimens and take notes on them.

Whew, I think that's it! :-)