Creating accessible practical classes for disabled students

2. Reflecting on practice

The questions of how practical class teaching can be planned with accessibility in mind, and what additional adjustments may, or in some cases may not, be possible, rest on:

Such clarity in itself has nothing to do with disability. However, it provides a secure starting point for thinking about how to build accessibility into practical class design as a matter of routine, and also for approaching the task of making more one-off adjustments to practical work as required by disabled students.

“We have to decide what actually is the core of the unit. Can the learning objective be achieved differently? Do students, who may already be sure that they don’t want to do a practical lab-based job, but who want a degree with science have to do dissections, or chemistry experiments?”

The role of practical work within the whole course or programme of study varies from discipline to discipline, as well as across different University presentations of the same or similar subject areas.

“For people with motor difficulties who would not be able to use much of the apparatus that is essential in chemistry, assistance could be given by a helper working under the student’s instructions.”

“Virtual experiments are suitable for some purposes, but for an intending career chemist, they are not a satisfactory substitute for real practical chemistry.”

Benchmarking statements from the Quality Assurance Agency indicate significant differences for the role of practical activity across different disciplines. Thus, for example, the benchmarking statement for Geography lists laboratory practical classes, including the use of scientific laboratories as, simply, among ‘the learning and teaching methods that geographers have experienced to date’. On the other hand, the benchmarking statement for Art and Design notes a wide range of approaches to teaching, learning and assessment, but regards these as ‘based around an essential core of studio and workshop tuition.’ The importance which is attached to practical work in the Dentistry benchmark statement is, arguably, stronger still:

4.7 Opportunities must be provided for the identification and acquisition of practical clinical skills. The most common methods adopted are for students to spend time in a clinical skills laboratory or an appropriately equipped clinical area where they rehearse the procedures they will be required to perform on patients.
4.8….The transfer and continued development to clinical reality of practical clinical skills is fundamental to the successful progression of the dental student, as is the acquisition of professional, attitudinal and ethical attributes appropriate to the practice of dentistry.

The role of particular tasks within any practical setting calls for further, and detailed, judgment. Questions about whether all students must do all tasks are probably raised least often in relation to disabled students, and most often in relation to considerations of cost:

“High quality lab work is expensive to provide, and it is important that we are sure that students do indeed gain all that they might from it, especially as the number of students present may have increased, more part time demonstrators are used, and the frills have been trimmed to cut costs.” (Centre for Teaching, Learning and Assessment, University of Edinburgh, A Manual for Course Organisers)

The underlying questions for academic staff are therefore about the educational objectives of practical work and hence the scope, or lack of scope, for alternative ways of achieving these, or appropriate alternative objectives. If understanding theories, concepts and processes is the primary aim of practical classes, rather than the development of practical skill, then the educational objective may be achievable in an alternative way, such as through observation, or through virtual practice.

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