Creating accessible practical classes for disabled students

2b. Responding to the need for adjustments

The creative approaches of staff to solving problems associated with inaccessibility of more standard practical teaching and teaching materials to some disabled students demonstrate the excitement and enthusiasm generated by such challenges. Solutions range from the low to the very high tech. Ideas, many of which are inspirational, are well documented by Chris Hopkins and Alan Jones (Able Scientist/Technologist, Disabled Person, Eslek Publications). These include an arm steadying device made from thick pieces of wood with holes for hands to reach apparatus, one handed clamp stands and rubber tubing over an adjustable plastic jubilee clip to enhance grip. Most departments have their own examples of improvisations.

“Stone carving normally suggests the need to have the use of both hands, some basic level of strength and of course the ability to conceptualise a form within an inert block of material. Some time ago I had a student with one hand who produced a very sophisticated piece of carving after I made a set of one-handed tools for her. The student is now teaching art in the secondary school system.”

“In the First Year Laboratory we built a lowered bench which overcame problems of reach. Technically it worked well, surprisingly so in the light of the short time available to devise it, but it was sited in the only available space and the student felt isolated from the rest of the class. The structure of part of the Second Year was such that students had to move around and this was facilitated by devising a low table with a power supply which could be moved close to the appropriate area. This proved to be more acceptable to the student, although it was less satisfactory technically.”

Items such as talking scientific calculators, portable colour CCTVs, talking measuring jugs, equipment for creating tactile graphics and adjustable height work surfaces are a few gadgets which are of potential use in practical class teaching. Techdis can advise about many others.

While it is not likely that routine preparation of teaching materials will include the re-presentation of visual, diagrammatic material into tactile format, such provision might well meet the needs of some students. Assumptions about whether such diagrams would or would not be appropriate or adequate for particular students in particular subject areas are to be avoided. Some students in disciplines which often rely on very detailed diagrammatic material, such as Chemistry, have studied successfully with tactile materials prepared by the National Centre for Tactile Diagrams. It of course does not follow that this solution would be equally usable by all blind or partially sighted students. But staff knowledge of such a possibility can lead to the investigation of this resource for some students.

Not all ‘tactile teaching’ requires a similar degree of advanced preparation.

“The simplest way of producing tactile images is by using plastic embossing film (also known as German film and available from RNIB) which is available in two sizes – 211 x 298 mm and 340 x 270 mm. The film, which needs to rest on a rubber mat, raises when drawn upon with a ball point pen or special embossing tools (also known as spur wheels). Braille text can be added using a hand frame and style. You can use this to make your own images.”

“The other day, a friend of mine, almost subconsciously, leant over and traced a finger down my arm to show me what nerve a lecturer was talking about… The lecturer had forgotten to use me as the model.” Sara’s diary.

As the previous example illustrates, responding quickly to disabled students’ needs for alternatives to some practical learning can involve providing an assistant to do tasks under the instruction of the disabled student. Whether this will work in a particular subject area depends on the extent to which it is the development of practical skill or expertise in craft rather than the mastery of theoretical understanding that really matters. Few academic departments have not had experience of working with students or staff who have sustained an injury leading to short-term inability to do certain things. These are useful examples as they are illustrative of ad hoc arrangements which might be considered as longer term solutions for some disabled students.

Ensuring equality of opportunity for disabled students means maintaining a teaching environment where any substitution of different activity for disabled students does not mean activity of lesser educational worth. The adaptation of activity to achieve accessibility for some disabled students may not always be possible, and there may be instances where the substitution of an alternative piece of work would be of equal or greater value. Whether something of core importance would thereby be lost takes judgment which really has to be prior judgment: if any student would be unable, for whatever reason, to do something deemed to be essential on the course, then this needs to be envisaged as courses are specified and advertised so that disabled applicants are well informed in advance about core course demands. (See Creating accessible information about courses and programmes of study for disabled students and applicants.)

The safe conduct of practical course work is of course as essential for disabled students as it is for all students. Disregard for the safety of disabled students in practical classes would be a clear form of substantial disadvantage.

“My pest control lecturer is very aware of the problems asthmatics encounter and tells me when some pesticides he may be showing might be harmful to me. Then I can stay out of the way!”

All arrangements for safe practical work, such as the provision of specialist equipment, for example an emergency eye wash fountain or deluge shower, or bulletin boards carrying information about safety arrangements and announcements, must be accessible to all students. The safe practical activity of some disabled students might require the provision of additional equipment or alternative arrangements.

“One of the problems is that someone who is sitting is more likely to have a spillage land on their lap. Suitable protective clothing can help here, but procedures to prevent this from happening are to be preferred.”

While no one would dispute the importance of the safety of practice by disabled students, it is wrong to start from the assumption that disabled students’ presence in practical classes necessarily presents a risk to health and safety. 

"There is a common misconception that the chemical laboratory is not a suitable place for people with disabilities. However this is not necessarily the case. Workers with disabilities may be safer than fellow workers without disabilities as they are more aware of their limitations." The Safety of Laboratory Workers with Disabilities, Royal Society of Chemistry.

Next page

Top of Page

Teachability Home Page