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STEM Accessibility in School

The AODA does not yet have an education standard. Two committees are making recommendations about what an education standard should include. Our recent articles have considered how the education standards can build on requirements from the AODA’s existing standards. Now, we will explore new mandates that the education standards could create. One area that an education standard should address is an accessible Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) curriculum. Students with disabilities, including students with print disabilities, need STEM accessibility in school.

STEM Accessibility in School, Part 1

All students need a basic understanding of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects. These subjects are part of a well-rounded education and they expand people’s career options. Unfortunately, a lack of accessibility excludes too many students from learning these subjects.

According to a report by the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS), not all students are fully exposed to these subjects in elementary and high school. As a result, students who might have talents for STEM may concentrate on more accessible subjects. Likewise, they may avoid STEM in college or university and choose to follow non-STEM career paths. The NEADS report suggests that students with print disabilities face many barriers to learning STEM and to pursuing career paths involving STEM.

Barriers to STEM Accessibility in School

Barriers of Knowledge

Students face challenges in STEM subjects due to lack of knowledge by teaching staff. Classroom teachers do not always know how to present primarily visual information non-visually or in other ways that a student with a print disability can understand. In addition, teachers, educational assistants, and other staff supporting students with disabilities do not always know the subject matter well. As a result, support staff  have trouble adapting how material is presented. Classroom teachers and support staff must work together to provide a full and accessible curriculum. Otherwise, students cannot participate and enjoy STEM subjects to their full potential.

Fear and Other False Beliefs

In addition, some teachers or parents believe that students with disabilities would not be interested in STEM subjects, or would find them too challenging. This false belief negatively impacts a student’s ability to succeed in these fields. If teachers and support staff approach math and the sciences with too much fear, this fear can be transferred to the student. The student then  questions their own abilities and fails to reach their full potential in these areas.

For instance, a teacher fearing for a student’s safety in science class might place the student too far away from an experiment to see it properly. As a result, the teacher excludes the student from learning. However, students with disabilities can contribute in meaningful ways in science labs. For instance, with the right tools and training, a blind student with steady hands can light a Bunsen burner. Nonetheless, the fear of others, however well-meant, often holds these students back. If a student never has direct exposure to science labs, they may pass high school courses but will lack the experience to do well at science in college, in university, or at work.

Barriers of Flexibility

Another barrier to STEM subjects is that they are often taught in only one way. Teachers expect students to understand math visually, and to memorize rules rather than discuss in-depth why those rules exist. Students who want to understand why a concept works, but who do not receive an adequate explanation, can fall behind. Students who have difficulty interpreting visual information, including students with print disabilities, can fall farther behind. For this reason, teachers must use creative teaching methods to reach all students.

In Part 2 of this article, we discuss how teachers and support staff can work together to overcome these barriers.