Sheryl Burgstahler

Faculty Facilitate Research for Students with Disabilities

Burgstahler, S. (1995) Faculty facilitate research for students with disabilities. Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly, 8-11.

Sheryl Burgstahler

Both laboratory and field sciences have traditionally posed many difficulties for students with disabilities, and often these students have been excluded from pursuing careers in science. However, there are many ways to overcome the problems and meet the challenges of including students with disabilities in science research. The DO-IT program at the University of Washington offers advice and models.

Dr. Burgstahler is Assistant Director- Information Systems, Computing & Communications and Director DO-IT, University of Washington.

Recent advances in adaptive computer technology, greater reliance on computers, and increased job specialization have resulted in career opportunities in fields that were once considered unattainable for individuals who have disabilities. Many of those careers require knowledge and skills obtained through post-secondary education. The number of individuals with disabilities seeking post-secondary education has tripled over the past decade. Reasons include:

  • advances in medical technology and techniques result in greater numbers of people who survive traumatic accidents and problematic births;
  • improvements in technology make it possible for more people with disabilities to live independently and have productive lives;
  • the creation of federal and state mandated pre-college academic support programs help more students with disabilities complete high school and consider post-secondary education options; and
  • publicity of recently passed federal disability-related legislation increases awareness of the right to accommodations in education and employment.

Although the total number of individuals with disabilities seeking post-secondary education has increased, this group is still underrepresented in some academic and career areas. Those areas include science, engineering, and mathematics.

Legal Issues

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities. According to these laws, no otherwise qualified individual with a disability shall, solely by reason of his/her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity of a public entity. Qualified students with disabilities are to have educational opportunities that are equal to those of their non-disabled peers.

“Qualified” with respect to post-secondary educational services means a person who meets the academic and technical standards requisite to admission or participation in the education program or activity, with or without reasonable modifications to rules, policies, or practices; the removal of architectural, communication or transportation barriers; or the provision of auxiliary aids and services.

Often students with disabilities are not encouraged to participate because expectations regarding their academic skills and career potential are lower than for other students.

“Person with a disability” means any person who has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major activities [including walking, speaking, breathing, learning, and working], or is regarded as having such an impairment.

Disabilities covered by legislation include (but are not limited to) AIDS, cancer, cerebral palsy, diabetes, epilepsy, head injuries, hearing impairments, specific learning disabilities, loss of limbs, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, psychiatric disorders, speech impairments, spinal cord injuries, and vision impairments.

Access to Undergraduate Research

Although it is well accepted that undergraduate research experiences provide learning opportunities that enhance education and future employment, students with disabilities are not often included in these experiences. They are rarely encouraged to participate in academic “extras,” and accommodation issues can pose barriers. A National Science Foundation task force (Changing America, 1989) found that negative attitudes are the single most significant barrier faced by individuals with disabilities in science and engineering. However, faculty members who have had previous contact with people with disabilities and who have information about disabilities generally have more positive attitudes about working with students who have disabilities (Aksamit, Leunberger, & Morris, 1987; Fonosch & Schwab, 1981: Sedlacek & Stovall, 1983). Further, those who are familiar with accommodation strategies are better prepared to make arrangements which will ensure that students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to participate in their programs.

In some cases, including a student with a disability can require a significant amount of extra time on the part of faculty and staff. However, in most cases, creative problem solving which involves the student and uses campus resources can make the process and outcome more positive for all involved. This article outlines a few first steps toward encouraging the participation of undergraduate students with disabilities in research and then helping make their experiences productive.


Often students with disabilities are not encouraged to participate in research because expectations regarding their academic skills and career potential are lower than for other students. Efforts should be made to recruit and welcome them into special programs. A statement inviting students with disabilities to discuss academic needs with faculty should be included in class syllabi and departmental publications describing research opportunities and other special programs. For example, “If you have a disability and wish to discuss academic accommodations, please contact (name).” In addition, flyers describing research opportunities can be distributed to disabled students through the campus disabled student services office as a part of a recruiting effect.

Work with the Student

The student with a disability is the best source of information regarding necessary accommodations. In post-secondary settings it is the student’s responsibility to request special accommodations when needed. However, a faculty member can make a student comfortable by inquiring about special needs. In most cases accommodations do not require a great deal of time, effort, or money. Although needs vary, general suggestions to faculty include:

  • When talking with the student, inquire about special needs in the lab, in fieldwork and on field trips. Work with the student to determine and provide appropriate accommodations.
  • Discuss lab safety concerns with the student. Depending on her/his disability, ensure that safety equipment is adapted with Braille or large print labels, pull-chains are lengthened, and visual or auditory warning systems are in place.
  • Arrange lab equipment so that is easily accessible.
  • Work with the student to identify, modify, and provide appropriate lab equipment, such as adjustable tables, ramps, talking thermometers and calculators, liquid level indicators, large print and tactile timers, and computers.
  • Assign group research lab projects in which all the students contribute according to their abilities. In this way, participants with disabilities can focus on their abilities to contribute, rather than be limited by their disabilities.
  • Ask the student how s/he might be able to do specific aspects of fieldwork. Whenever possible, include the student in fieldwork opportunities, rather than automatically suggesting non-field work alternatives.
  • Select printed materials early and distribute them in electronic format (e.g. on disk, over campus network) to facilitate translation into alternative formats (audio, Braille, and large print) for students with visual and learning disabilities and to facilitate documentation access to those with mobility impairments.
  • Give oral and written lab instructions.
  • Verbally describe visual aids for a student with a visual impairment. For example, you might say, “The 3 inch long steel rod,” rather than point and say, “this.”
  • Provide raised-line drawings and tactile models of graphic materials for students with visual impairments.
  • Hand out assignments in writing and face students with hearing impairments. Provide written summaries of demonstrations in advance and used captioned films.
  • Measure knowledge and comprehension rather than physical performance of a task when testing a student’s understanding.
  • Allow flexible time to complete research.

Use Resources

Most campuses provide an office to coordinate special support services for students with disabilities. This office generally arranges for sign language interpreters, scribes, and other accommodations. Staff in this office can also provide documentation regarding an individual student’s disability and recommend appropriate accommodations. This office may be able to you work with a particular student with a disability. On some campuses, central or departmental computing services can assist with selecting and providing appropriate adaptive technologies that allow students with disabilities to use computers and Internet resources.

In addition to campus resources, professional organizations, government agencies and other groups provide ideas and support. As a starting point, DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internet-working, and Technology) at the University of Washington provides printed publications, videotapes and electronic resources to assist campuses in making programs more accessible to students with disabilities. In these materials, DO-IT participants, who have a wide range of disabilities, share their experiences and suggestions for making programs accessible. For example, one student who is blind suggests that teachers send him assignments over the Internet. Another student with a health impairment points out how Internet access helps her keep up with studies when attendance is difficult. Still another, who has no arms, suggests that allowing him to work with a partner helps him participate even when he cannot perform all tasks.

DO-IT maintains a World Wide Web home page on issues related to the inclusion of people with disabilities in education and employment and includes links to many other sites. It has also created a set of presentation materials, including a videotape that are designed for creating and delivering faculty presentations in order to help them become more aware of the potential contributions and accommodation needs of students with disabilities in academic programs. Working Together: Faculty and Students with Disabilities—Presentation Materials is sold at cost for $30 per copy.


Helping students with disabilities reach their full potential can be both challenging and rewarding. Faculty are often surprised at how creative students with disabilities can be in providing ideas for appropriate accommodations, and how much a little cooperation from a faculty member can contribute to a student’s success. Undergraduate research projects provide rich educational experiences for all students. Let’s assure that students with disabilities are not left out of important academic activities – it’s the right thing to do, it makes economic sense for our country, and…it’s the law.

Contact DO-IT:

University of Washington
Box 354842
Seattle, WA 98195
Voice/TTY (206) 685-DOIT
FAX: (206) 685-4045
World Wide Web:


  • Aksamit, D., Leuenberger, J., & Morris, M. (1987). Preparation of student services professionals and faculty for serving learning-disabled college students. Journal of College Student Personnel, 28, 53-59.
  • Changing America: The New Face of Science and Engineering. (1989). Washington, D.C.: National Science Foundation Task Force on Women, Minorities, and the Handicapped in Science and Technology.
  • Fonosch, G.G., & Schwab, L.O. (1981). Attitudes of selected university faculty members toward disabled students. Journal of College Student Personnel, 22, 229-235.
  • Sedlacek, W., & Stovall, C. (1983). Attitudes of male and female university students toward students with different physical disabilities. Journal of College Student Personnel, 24, 325-330.

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Sheryl Burgstahler