Amy Christiansen, Department of Chemistry

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a way to make instruction accessible to students with disabilities (SwD) and different learning preferences. UDL strives to make instruction inclusive by providing diverse curriculum delivery formats and building accommodations into curriculum design. UDL is a well-established technique for making classrooms more accessible, but is less commonly implemented in laboratories. As an educator in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), I grappled with the idea of how to make lab spaces more accessible for SwD.

SwD are discouraged from STEM fields, often because they (or their educators) do not believe they can safely perform lab work. In fact, many educators do not know how to accommodate SwD and report a lack of training regarding this (Norman et al., 1998). But SwD are interested in STEM careers—SwD enroll in college STEM programs at a rate of 23% (Jeannis et al., 2018). Yet only 7% hold a bachelor’s degree and work in STEM fields, meaning student success is hindered during college education (Jeannis et al., 2018). These barriers may arise from many factors, for example inaccessible lab spaces. If we can make classrooms accessible for SwD, then why can’t we do this in labs as well?

Physical Disabilities

Previously, research has focused on aiding students with physical disabilities. An example comes from Neely (2007), in which lab accommodations were determined for SwD that also preserved safety. College students with physical disabilities performed lab tasks, and these students guided instructors in how to make these tasks more accessible. For instance, such modifications include:

  1. Wheelchair modifications: lowering the lab bench level and providing portable/modified lab benches
  2. Upper body mobility modifications: sticky mats to prevent spilling, flexible support arms for clamps, and beakers with handles
  3. Visual impairment modifications: magnification cameras, braille labels on equipment, and digital readouts on instruments

Many accommodations are cheap and easy to make, and can also be used by able-bodied students. It can be difficult to include modifications if a student’s particular disability is unknown prior to the start of a course, thus Neely (2007) suggests that faculty work closely with their university’s disability center to make sure necessary accommodations are made.

Mental Illnesses

What about students whose disabilities are not physical? Mental illnesses are widely prevalent among university students—63% and 42% of college students reported feeling overwhelming anxiety and depression, respectively, during the past year (American College Health Association, 2018). Undoubtedly, mental illnesses impair the ability of students to organize and complete tasks. It is no secret that students are stressed and anxious in laboratory settings, which reduces their success. Therefore, we, as educators, have the ability to make labs less stressful and increase student success. Miller and Lang (2016) propose a framework for UDL in the lab based on three main principles:

  1. Open-mindedness: recognizing that problem behavior may be due to reasons other than student laziness, and stress and mental illness impair a student’s ability to complete tasks.
  2. Supportive communication: remaining calm with students; maintaining a welcoming environment through voice and body language; giving positive feedback.
  3. Lab curriculum adaptation: providing access to what students learn in lab by delivering lab curricula in many formats; accepting multiple forms of assessment such as projects or presentations.

UDL applies to both the physicality and mentality of our students, and we should strive to make our labs accessible for all students. By providing accommodations and working with our university’s disability center, we can encourage the participation and success of young scientists from all backgrounds.


American College Health Association. (2018). National College Health Assessment II: Spring 2018 reference group executive summary.

Jeannis, H., Joseph, J., Goldberg, M., Seelman, K., Schmeler, M., & Cooper, R. A. (2018). Full-participation of students with physical disabilities in science and engineering laboratories. Disability and Rehabilitation: Assistive Technology, 13(2), 186–193.

Miller, D. K., & Lang, P. L. (2016). Using the Universal Design for Learning Approach in Science Laboratories To Minimize Student Stress. Journal of Chemical Education, 93(11), 1823–1828.

Neely, M. B. (2007). Using Technology and Other Assistive Strategies To Aid Students with Disabilities in Performing Chemistry Lab Tasks. Journal of Chemical Education, 84(10), 1697.

Norman, K., Caseau, D., & Stefanich, G. P. (1998). Teaching students with disabilities in inclusive science classrooms: Survey results. Science Education, 82(2), 127–146.

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on April 24th, 2019.