How to Create Space for Students with Disabilities to Learn

Feb. 3, 2021

It was the end of the first week of classes; the students in my Pathogenic Bacteriology course were Gram staining unknowns. Linda looked up from her microscope, raised her hand high and declared, “I think they are gram negative! Am I right?!” I took a peek in her microscope, and gasped. Half of the bacteria were swimming around her slide, clearly not heat-fixed, not dead, certainly not pink, and the other half of the live bacteria were no doubt in the sink from the washing steps. As I quickly searched in my head for which pathogen she may have unwittingly tossed in the sink, she commented, “I have a hard time seeing things.” She continued, “I’m legally blind.” I paused and said, “Hold on, let me get my unknown key.” After I regained my composure, I went back to her bench, declared she was correct, “Gram negative indeed!” and added quietly, “…but I think there may be some live ones still on here, so let’s give your lens a good wipe down,” and I also carefully doused the sink with quaternary disinfectant. Luckily, it was generic Ecoli and she was the last student to leave. I took the opportunity to talk with her in private about how to accommodate her in the lab for her safety and the safety of others around her, as well as for her optimal learning. We came up with a plan and had a successful semester. She earned the second highest grade in the class.

Fast forward 15 years later: I was watching a student in my General Microbiology lab “heat fix” his slide and completely miss the flame. Same with his loop, despite his intense attention. When he was done, I walked over to his bench and said, “I want to show you something.” When we were out in the hallway in private, I said, ‘It looks like you may be having difficulty seeing the flame. If you want, you can use these pre-sterilized loops,” and I gave them to him on a tray that would provide a bold contrasting color. He was relieved and said, “I can only see in one eye and even that is hard some days. This is really great, thank you!”

That same semester, I noticed one of my students working at the bench on her tiptoes; she was maybe 4’8”. I asked our shop to make a 3”x 14”x 12” platform. The next lab, I took her aside quietly to show it to her, and offered that if she wanted to use it, I could place it under her bench prior to lab. She was thrilled, and said, “You know, this is my last lab class before I graduate, and you are the first professor to offer me such a thing.” She added to my horror, “In OChem, I had to climb onto the bench to reach the glassware.”

Making Your Lab Space More Accessible to Students With Disabilities

When we stay in our Ivory Tower, we miss the best view, the one on the ground engaging with our students. They each have a story to tell. Get to know your students and watch how they move through the lab and the lab activities. If something isn’t quite right, don’t assume you know how best to fix it. Provide a private way for students to express their needs and solutions. They have made it through life for nearly 20 years and know how best to move through it. Listen to their ideas, give them a safe and private space to practice, and together you can find the best way to accommodate their needs. Take the time to consider changes that will incorporate Universal Design in equipping your laboratory to benefit everyone. Many universities have a budget for safety needs across campus that you could tap into. I am happy to report that we are now in a new science building that is ADA compliant with shorter benches, and we are moving away from open flames, opting instead for ASM recommended micro-incinerators and disposable sterile loops, changes that benefit everyone.

Making Your Classroom More Accessible to Students With Disabilities

Although the teaching lab poses unique challenges, the lecture room is no different when it comes to the need for student support. We know that it is not equality but equity that is important, and we should strive for Universal Design in developing our course curriculum, as it benefits everyone. If these concepts are new to you, reach out to your campus’ Teaching and Learning Center, a treasure trove of resources. We have all become accustomed to students who provide paperwork for additional time on tests, but we need to remain vigilant, looking for students who have not yet navigated their way to the disabilities office or even know that they may need this support. Keep an eye out for students who clearly know the material when they are talking with you, and yet regularly bomb the exams, or earn only “C” grades. They may have undiagnosed dyslexia or severe test anxiety. Be aware of students with physical needs too. In the classroom, make sure that chairs are situated in the room so that there is a clear path that people of all sizes can get through. If there is a desk in the room specific for students with disabilities, be sure it is cleared off and inviting. When a student sits there, do not give them the stink eye—many disabilities are not outwardly evident. When working with our students, inclusivity training teaches us to engage empathetically, to apologize when we err, to learn and move forward together. We are encouraged to “slow down,” think before speaking and allow the situation to educate us best in how we can help those who need our support.

Last year, after spending a delightful Friday afternoon one-on-one with a student who was learning to streak plates and do tube transfers, I asked myself, “Has the number of students with disabilities recently increased, or have my years of teaching experience given me the wisdom to slow down, watch and listen?” The student was born with an arm that ended at their elbow. When given the space and time apart from other students, they mastered those corner-stone techniques quickly, and like my student years before, was a top student in the class. The 2019 NSF report on Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering, indicates an astonishing 19.5% of undergraduate students reported having one or more disabilities in 2016. Furthermore, these same students were equally likely to enroll in science and engineering programs as often as any other program on campus. In other words, nearly one fifth of the students in our STEM classrooms and laboratories across the U.S. have an identified disability. The sooner we embrace Universal Design and compassionate teaching, the sooner we all slow down, watch, listen to our students and create spaces for success, the better it will be for everyone.

During this time of COVID-19 and remote teaching/learning, the challenges to support our disabled students are even greater. We have students with disabilities they never knew existed, like blue-screen induced headaches, that force them to limit their screen-time and new instances of depression or anxiety exacerbated by loneliness. In addition, students are facing severe circumstances, such as lost income, racial injustices or infirm family members. Furthermore, those students whose disabilities could have been discerned in a face-to-face setting are now hidden behind a dark Zoom rectangle on our computer screen. So once again, we are called upon to “slow down,” create a space for students to ask for help, listen and do the best we can to support them. One of my colleagues created a survey for the first week of class that included the prompt, “How can I support you in your learning this semester?” How else might you invite your students to communicate their learning needs with you?

All of this is not easy. I am grateful for my colleagues at Sacramento State who share a common passion for inclusivity and empathy. Even more so, I appreciate my students, who through the years have taught me the importance of listening and how incredibly abled they are despite society-designed obstacles that have encumbered their path of learning.
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Author: Susanne Lindgren, Ph.D.

Susanne Lindgren, Ph.D.
Susanne Lindgren is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at California State University, Sacramento.