Creating accessible practical classes for disabled students

2a. Planning for Accessibility

There are likely to be institutional variations in the extent to which particular academic departments can influence the location of the teaching accommodation they use for practical classes, but perhaps there is generally greater scope for active involvement in choice of furnishings, equipment and audio-visual resources.

A useful starting point is to think through the tasks or activities which students are going to be asked to perform. What do you usually expect students to be able to do? Are there foreseeable ways in which some disabled students might be enabled to do these things differently, and can appropriate planning help to make that more likely?

“If I was going into a lab I would like to know what I am going to do in the lab first so I can have read information about it. But working in engineering labs they like to keep it a surprise until you’re in there. Then you’re supposed to read this information which they hand you IN the lab and then do the lab experiment. It takes me the first lab to read it.”

The department’s acquisition over time of a variety of types of equipment can help to prepare for the diverse needs of future students. For example:

The larger design of interior space may often be a given, but where there is an opportunity to provide flexible working space, there is also greater opportunity to arrange seating to suit students’ needs, such as for the purpose of lip-reading by deaf students, both of the lecturer and of other students, or for creating additional space adjacent to a student, for example to accommodate a wheelchair, or a guide dog.

Planning with accessibility in mind is not limited, however, to thinking about physical access to space or equipment. The ways in which lecturers organise student activity within teaching space may also lend itself to ease of inclusion of future students. For activities carried out by students in pairs or in groups, there may be scope for the allocation of tasks on a basis other than that of all students doing all elements of all tasks. Where for a particular task the aim is the understanding rather than the doing of the task, there may be scope for observation rather than performance of tasks. The desired learning outcome may in some instances be achieved equally well by virtual rather than real activity. This example underlines the necessity to plan accessibility well in advance: a virtual alternative to a real task cannot readily be prepared at short notice.

Timetabling of classes and scheduling of tasks within sessions is a further aspect of practical class teaching which may be used to enhance accessibility. It is easy to suppose that some students will have unavoidable periods of absence, not necessarily or usually for reasons related to a disability, and that some students will require longer to carry out the practical work assigned to them. Flexibility of timetabling, with the possibility of offering students some additional teaching at unscheduled class time, might well make it possible for some disabled students to deal with the requisite volume of practical work.

“If material for practical classes were delivered to you sooner than the main body of the class, it would be easier to keep up with the rest.”

Staff training which prepares teaching staff to respond to the needs of disabled students in practical classes can certainly be planned. The accessibility of a practical session may well depend on staff awareness of relevant techniques.

These include:

Routine provision of support staff may well be a key part of a department’s strategy to plan for the kind of flexibility which is ready for the needs of a diverse student population.

“The classes are supported by demonstrators who can spend time with any student requiring extra assistance.”

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