Assistive Technology and Science

Making Science Labs Accessible to Students with Disabilities
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She prefers a video phone because it enables face-to-face conversation. Being deaf or hard of hearing is a social disability because you're very isolated. The video phone puts me more at ease. Through the visual input, we are able to see how the other person is feeling.


With assists from technology, these scientists and engineers are getting their work done. Like any technology, technologies designed as adaptations for people with disabilities have limitations.

Making Science Labs Accessible to Students with Disabilities

Imke Durre , a physical scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who is blind, says that some Web sites and applications aren't fully accessible using assistive technology so her screen reader -- which translates written materials into Braille or voice output -- sometimes can't "see" clickable images, tables, or page headings. Durre also notes that voice-recognition software is slower and more prone to errors than typing on a keyboard; the software "isn't complete friends" with her screen-reader software, so she spends a lot of time getting everything to work together.

To some extent, if I put in a regular 8- to hour workday, the time that I'm losing is my free time. Occasionally, assistive technologies' very benefits can also present unexpected problems, says University of Delaware chemist Karl Booksh, who uses a power wheelchair and other technologies because of a spinal cord injury. When teaching, Booksh uses a tablet PC with a touch screen that enables him to present and make notes on PowerPoint slides.

The tablet PC saves Booksh from having to go to a blackboard to teach -- and it saves the students some note taking, a feature you might think they'd relish.

But many students actually complain more, Booksh has found, grousing that the slides aren't posted on the Web fast enough, that his handwriting isn't clear enough, or that they had to download software updates to read his Office files. Many of the qualities needed to succeed in science -- resourcefulness, creativity, perseverance -- are the same ones needed to cope with disability.

Hakansson's experience bears out the idea. Because his disability began in childhood and is progressive, "There have always been things that I could do in the past I can no longer do," he says.

Assistive Technology Research Series

And then as things progress, you need to find a new way again. If we want to do something, even if it seems farfetched, we can find a way to do it.

Making the most of assistive technologies often also demands technical savvy -- for example, the ability to tweak software parameters to make assistive devices work together, or to fix equipment when it breaks. Food and Drug Administration's Philadelphia office. Summers-Gates has had very low vision since birth and also has multiple sclerosis, repetitive stress injuries, and other medical problems.

She has learned to combine many assistive technologies. For reading, she uses voice-recognition, voice-output, and screen-magnification software, as well as a closed-circuit TV CCTV , which she can connect to a microscope for a larger display.

In her chemistry laboratory she uses another, lightweight CCTV to examine, close up, reactions taking place under the hood. She uses a bioptic telescope a miniature telescope mounted on the top of her eyeglasses , and carries an electronic magnifier to read items she can't take with her, such as signs on bulletin boards. In warm weather, when her MS symptoms are most pronounced, she often uses a power wheelchair or crutches. And because her voice becomes garbled during warm weather, she carries a portable keyboard with a speech-output device, similar to the device that physicist Stephen Hawking uses.

In addition to honing the technical skills necessary for troubleshooting so many technologies, Summers-Gates has had to learn to be mentally flexible, focusing on the tasks she needs to accomplish. At bottom, she knows, a blind chemist does the same things any other chemist would do: gather and analyze data and look for trends.

Technology's limitations

The National Science Digital Library includes a variety of educational resources to further STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. Assistive Technology in the Inclusive Science Classroom. 3/1/ - Sandy Watson and Linda Johnston. Computer-assisted instruction device Federal.

Knowing when to disclose to potential employers your disability and need for assistive technologies can be tricky. AAAS's Stern recommends that scientists on the job market present their technology needs early in the hiring process -- not in the initial application, perhaps, but before arriving for an interview. Describe your needs tactfully but matter-of-factly.

Once a potential employer knows about your disability, be prepared to answer the question that prospective employers are likely wondering about, even if they know enough not to ask: How can you do this job? Summers-Gates favors directness.