Accessibility in Labs and Practicals

Providing Support and Addressing Challenges as a TA

In Canada, 2% of students at post-secondary institutions are registered to receive disability related services from their institutions (Fitchen et al. 2003). More recent data from Ontario universities, indicates that 6.6% of graduating students at Ontario universities report having a disability (McCloy & Declou, 2013, p. 17). At the University of Toronto, 4216 students are registered with Accessibility Services (AS) at the St. George Campus in 2017-2018. While these numbers are reported directly by AS, it is important to keep in mind that these statistics do not represent students not registered and, thus, provide only partial information about the number of students who may need these services. Many of students with disabilities regularly face barriers which inhibit them to fully participate and engage in the classroom.

Students with disabilities in STEM fields

However, students who identify as having a disability are vastly under-represented in STEM fields: according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), only 9-10% of all students in the US that identified themselves as someone with a disability were enrolled in STEM majors (Moon et al., 2012), and these percentages drop substantially at higher levels of education.

Percentage of students with disabilities pursuing STEM degrees/studies:

  • Undergraduate level – 9-10%
  • Graduate level – 5 %
  • Doctorate level – 1%

(From Moon et al., 2012)

There are many reasons why students with disabilities might be so under-represented in STEM fields. For one, laboratory environments are typically physically inaccessible to students with physical disabilities, and the barriers to access—even at the very junior levels of study—can seem to be very high to students: as Sukhai et al. (2014) note, “At best, the physical structure of most laboratories is unwelcoming to personal with physical disabilities; at worst, it is inaccessible” (p. 6).

Accessibility Services and accommodations

While some of these things may be true, especially regarding the physical design of laboratories, there are a lot of ways that laboratory environments can be made accessible and safe for students with many types of physical and intellectual needs. There is a responsibility at all levels of the university to create laboratory environments that are accessible to and that meet the needs of any student that wishes to access them. The University of Toronto has a stated commitment to “fostering academic community in which the learning and scholarship of every member may flourish, with vigilant protection for individual human rights, and a resolute commitment to the principles of equal opportunity, equity and justice” (University of Toronto, 1992). Students with disabilities can work with accessibility services (AS) at each of the campuses to determine necessary accommodations, which are communicated to the faculty, the department, and individual instructors (professor or course instructor) so that any structural issues that could present barriers to that student’s ability to fully participate in the laboratory environment.

Teaching Assistants' Role in Accommodation

The structural accommodations that some students require are the responsibility of the institution and will be determined by AS, who will be in contact with the course instructor. As such, TAs will not have any control over such accommodations, although TAs who are working with students for whom structural accommodations have been made will need to familiarize themselves with any protocols that are changed because of the accommodations. But while TAs do not have any control over the physical design of the laboratory or the structure of the course content, there are many ways that they can work to make labs and practicals conducive to the learning of students with disabilities.

Institutions are most often proactive in providing supplementary resources aimed to accommodate various students. In fact, students registered with AS are most likely to be accommodated for before TAs get involved. In such cases, there may only be a need for fine-tuning details of topics such as group work, assignments, etc. TAs are responsible for honouring the accommodations that are arranged for the student through the faculty and AS. However, beyond these formal structural accommodations that are decided by AS, there are many things that TAs can do to include students with disabilities and to facilitate a positive learning experience for all students. To do so, it is important to have a good understanding of the policies governing issues of accessibility as it relates to our roles.

Generally, students who are registered with AS will meet with a counsellor (or accessibility advisor) who will help them determine what accommodations might be necessary, including access to specialized equipment. Such a student may also be working with a learning strategist or adaptive technologists who may communicate with you. For every course, AS is required to provide the Course Instructor (CI) with specific recommendations for accommodating the student with a disability (in a Letter of Accommodation) rather than information about the disability. In turn, the CI is authorized to share these recommendations with the TA(s) who is/are involved with the teaching of that student. Whether this information is shared with you or not, if you have any questions regarding making accommodations for a student, it is within your right and responsibility to ask the CI and/or the advisor. As an alternative, you may also want to consider asking the student questions about ways in which you can help them. In these cases, it is important to keep in mind that details about a student’s disability or diagnosis are private and confidential and should not be included in a discussion of providing accommodations. However, you should ask about ways that you could help improve the learning experience for your students.

What else can TAs do to help students with disabilities?

One of the most fundamental ways that TAs can make sure that their labs and practicals are accessible to students with disabilities is to design their lessons and course materials using the principles of Universal Design. This guide will describe ways that the principles of Universal Design might be used by TAs to anticipate a broad array of students’ needs within their lab or practical teaching environment. In addition to each of the basic principles and how this UD principle could be of benefit to students with disabilities and non-disabled students, we will also suggest how structuring instruction according to these principles can work in concert with the formal, institutional accommodations facilitated by AS. The examples here of the applications of UD principles in a lab or practical teaching environment are not exhaustive; they provide a way to think about the broad needs that your students might have to maximize their learning experience in your lab or practical.

Universal Design in Labs

By definition, Universal Design (UD) is a set of established guidelines to design products and environments to be “usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design” (Connell et al., 1997). When applied to a learning environment, this concept becomes a global pedagogical approach that ensures students with various abilities and learning styles are supported.

The seven principles of UD are valuable in structuring course materials for all students, and can provide ways of asking questions about the ways that course material, delivery, and evaluation are designed and how they can be improved to be accessible to as many students as possible. The principles of UD can also be extremely useful when considering the accessibility of physical environments in which particular physical learning activities take place, such as wet labs, computer labs, or other environments where students are engaged in practical experimentation. Embracing the practice of UD or inclusive teaching practices allows “students with disabilities [to] have increased access to course participation with fewer special accommodations” (Shaw, 2011, p.29) while enhancing the quality and safety of the laboratory experience for all students.

Many issues of equity in a lab environment may be structural, and will therefore be out of a TA’s control: the placement of equipment, availability of accessible equipment for persons with mobility devices, etc. are the responsibility of the university and AS in conjunction with the department and the course instructor to arrange. However, as a TA, there are questions you can ask yourself about the way that you have organized the lab/practical, how you deliver information and expectations to your students, and what you ask of them while they are in the lab/practical learning environment. Are there physical barriers in the learning environment that make doing the work more difficult for certain students? What is the reason for the difficulty, and are there simple workarounds? Are there physical barriers in the learning environment that make doing the required work more dangerous for certain students? It is important to design instructional materials in ways that can be be useful for and accessible to people with diverse abilities. Students are provided equal opportunities to make use of instruction in the lab setting. Since there may be structural challenges in the lab, you may need to provide new and engaging ways for students to access the content as well as demonstrate their aptitude and skills.

As a TA, you may also be able to request access to specific hardware and software which enhance the learning experience for your students.

  • On your request, the institution might be able provide Braille texts, equipment, and labels; equipment for enlarging microscopic images, including binoculars and magnifiers; large print calculators; text-to-speech software; captioning for video presentations; or plastic replacements for glassware.

Instruction is designed to accommodate a wide range of individual abilities. This principle is built on the understanding that people learn best when content is presented multi-modally, so that they have opportunity to encounter material in different forms and engage with it through various media. Presenting all materials through several different means will ensure that more students have the opportunity to learn from and engage with content. When possible, provide students with a choice of methods to access materials.

  • When providing written material, provide access to the material in both a hard copy and a digital copy. This will allow students to decide how they can best engage with the material, and will give students who are reliant on screen-readers and other accessibility software the chance to access the material using these supports.
  • When labelling materials, or providing written instructions or illustrations, use large print and avoid text and/or background colours that render content inaccessible to people with colour blindness.
    When possible, allow student to participate and engage with peers and/or content in a variety of different ways.

Instruction is designed in a straightforward, and predictable manner. This involves removing unnecessary complexities in content and instruction.

  • Consider using a routine pattern for the layout of your lab pre-talk so that all students know what to expect when entering the lab and can anticipate when they will be given instructions, when they will have an opportunity to ask questions, etc.
  • Let students know when you will be distributing material prior to the lab/practical meeting, so that they can anticipate starting to prepare; this is good practice for all students, but it is essential for students who meet with a tutor or learning strategist to prepare for class, or for students who access course documents and notes using software or tools that they may have to book in advance.

Instruction is designed so that necessary information is communicated effectively to the student: this includes information that is given aloud and that is given through documents or other media. Acknowledge that labs and practicals can be somewhat chaotic environments, and try to minimize the amount of outside distraction for all students. Anticipate that some students might be distracted by a lot of noise and if you can, close the door to the lab to minimize outside noise: this will be of benefit to all students, but will be especially beneficial to those with sensory disabilities (such as those who are hard of hearing or those who are visually impaired and rely heavily on auditory instructions) as well as those with sensory processing disorders (such as students with ADD/ADHD and ASD).

  • When developing resources for your students, including handouts, lab notes, study questions, etc., make sure that these documents comply with the formatting requirements of Accessible Documents.
  • If presenting information using PowerPoint, provide students with your slides in advance: this will give students with visual or hearing difficulties an opportunity to make whatever alterations they need to these documents.
  • When giving instructions and safety tips, make sure that you speak slowly and loudly so that all students can hear you. Face the group while you are speaking: this is good practice when speaking to students, but is essential for students who may be reading lips to supplement their hearing. It is also a good idea to repeat important information several times, especially if you can repeat it using different ways of articulating the concept: like the principle of multi-modal learning, talking to students about material from several different angles benefits all students; and using alternative and varied ways of articulating an expression, concept, or symbol also helps deal with the challenges that deaf and hard of hearing students face in the comprehension of word problems.
  • If questions are asked by students, repeat the question to ensure that all students had an opportunity to hear it. If you are performing a demonstration, describe what you are doing in words, and highlight important steps as you go.

Students who have recognized accessibility requirements will have support from AS, and hopefully will be clear with you about what they require; however, establishing a supportive and inclusive learning environment will help these students to feel comfortable speaking to you about their needs. Most importantly, the way that you treat and engage with students with disabilities will model to other students expected behaviours: establish that every member of the class is to be treated with respect, and other students will follow that lead!

  • Include an accessibility statement in your lab/practical syllabus, that articulates the university’s commitment to accessibility in learning, but that also highlights your commitment to support your students’ learning needs.
  • Check in with students regularly to ensure that the learning environment if welcoming and encouraging for all your students.

Instruction is designed to minimize non-essential physical effort to allow maximum attention to learning. As a TA, this principle might involve you asking yourself what aspects of the lesson plan may be unnecessary, even though they are “the way things have always been done”.

  • Ensure that students can sit down during your pre-lab lecture as standing may be taxing for some students, and standing for a period of time before the lab work even begins might put these students at a disadvantage once they begin.
  • Students who have sensory impairment may need to be close to you when you speak, or may need to be close to demonstrations in order to be able to see clearly: ensure that there are appropriate seats saved for these students.

Similar to the principle, above, of ensuring that information is clear and easy to perceive, acknowledge that the bustle of the lab environment might be very demanding for some students.

  • If you know that you have a student with a sensory disability that would benefit from being closer to you when you speak, further from outside distractions, arrange with the student that a appropriate seat will be saved for them to minimize the effort they have to make to hear or see you.

Instruction is designed to be possible regardless of a student’s body size, posture, mobility, and communication needs. In labs and practicals, this principle is primarily aimed at structural issues, such as accessible lab furniture and equipment, which will be outside of the scope of things a TA can control or change. Mobility and space issues in labs and practicals will need to be addressed by the university, in conjunction with AS, the department and the CI. However, there are space and use issues that can be addressed on a day-by-day basis by TAs.

  • When you arrive in your lab, make sure that there are no obvious and unnecessary obstructions to movement. Move garbage/recycling bins out of the path of students’ movement around the lab.
  • If you have students who use mobility devices, make sure that there is enough room for them to maneuver at their lab bench and move furniture or unnecessary, moveable equipment from their workspace.
  • Make sure that there are no tripping hazards for students with vision difficulties; include a policy in your lab syllabus that bags and other extraneous materials must be left outside the lab to ensure that students don’t leave stuff on the floor that could be tripping hazards.

Additionally, if given the opportunity to contribute to lab redesign plans, share your knowledge about accessibility needs in the lab from the perspective of a teaching assistant and strongly encourage consultation from students with disabilities in your program about design plans for teaching and research spaces.

Universal Design benefits everyone!

Universal Instructional Design (UID) or Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is “the philosophical foundation for inclusive teaching” (Moon, Utschig, Todd, and Bozzorg, 2011, p. 332). The obstacles that students with disabilities encounter are often the same obstacles faced by students with different learning styles and those whose native language is not English (Sukhai and Mohler, 2016). Therefore, although the tips provided above are aimed to aid learners with disabilities, their implementation can enhance learning opportunities for everyone within a diverse student body. Through inclusive and accessible teaching practices, we can provide all our students with the support they need, thereby improving the quality of the classroom experience for ourselves and our students.

References and Resources


Connell, B. R., Jones, M., Mace, R., Mueller, J., Mullick, A., Ostroff, E., & Vanderheiden, G. (1997). The principles of universal design.

McCloy, U. and DeClou, L. (2013). Disability in Ontario: Postsecondary education participation rates, student experience and labour market outcomes. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Moon, N. W., Todd, R. L., Morton, D. L., & Ivey, E. (2012). Accommodating students with disabilities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Atlanta, GA: Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access, Georgia Institute of Technology.

Moon, N. W., Utschig, T. T., Todd, R. L., & Bozzorg, A. (2011). Evaluation of Programmatic Interventions to Improve Postsecondary STEM Education for Students with Disabilities: Findings from SciTrain University. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 24(4), 331-349.

Scott, S., McGuire, J. M., & Embry, P. (2002). Universal design for instruction fact sheet. University of Connecticut, Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability.

Scott, S. S., McGuire, J. M., & Shaw, S. F. (2001). Principles of universal design for instruction. Storrs: University of Connecticut, Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability.

Shaw, R. A. (2011). Employing universal design for instruction. New Directions for Student Services, 2011(134), 21-33.

Sukhai, M. A., & Mohler, C. E. (2016). Creating a Culture of Accessibility in the Sciences. Academic Press.

Sukhai, M.A., Mohler, C.E., Doyle, T., Carson, E., Nieder, C., Levy-Pinto, D., Duffett, E. & Smith, F. (2014). Creating an Accessible Science Laboratory Environment for Students with Disabilities. Council of Ontario Universities. Council of Ontario Universities.

University of Toronto. (1992). Purpose of the University. Retrieved May 8, 2018.


Campus resources:

University of Toronto Accessibility Services   

U of T Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act office

University of Toronto, Students for Barrier-free Access (SBA) office 

Resources with Guidelines for Accessible Document Creation

Accessibility information at U of T

Accessible documents (Queen’s University)

Accessible documents (California Community Colleges)

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