Accessibility and Inclusion in Physics: A Working Group Summary from FFPER

Jacquelyn J. Chini, University of Central Florida
Jennifer Blue, Miami University

The Working Group on Accessibility and Inclusion in physics met twice during the Foundations and Frontiers in Physics Education Research conference in June 2017. The group focused on exploring how the physics education research (PER) community could more intentionally incorporate people with disabilities in our teaching, curriculum development and research.

About 13% of the United State’s population is diagnosed with a disability, including 11% of undergraduate students and 7% of graduate students.1,2 Of college students with disabilities, about 25% pursue an undergraduate degree in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and 20% pursue a graduate degree in STEM.2 While many of us consider physical disabilities (like mobility, visual and hearing impairments),3 many students have “hidden” or “invisible” disabilities, such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder, and learning disabilities.4

Since research has shown we tend to focus on physical disabilities,3 our working group began with a brainstorming activity to generate a list of disabilities. Some pre-existing lists are available in references 5-7. We discussed how not all the lists were the same. For example, the American Disabilities Act lists drug addiction as a disability,5 while that is not something people are asked to disclose when they apply for a job,6 nor are students with drug addiction accommodated by university offices.7 Conversely, while learning disabilities are accommodated in the education system, people are not typically invited to disclose learning disabilities when they apply for jobs.

Next, participants brainstormed topics they would like to learn more about. Proposed topics included:

  • Interaction of anxiety and test anxiety with student participation and performance in social, participatory courses.
  • Participation and performance in collaborative groups of students with difficulty self-regulating.
  • Creating accessible conferences.
  • Interaction of student’s mental health with self-efficacy and academic performance.
  • Support available for students with dyslexia or other reading challenges.
  • Universal Design and other pedagogical strategies for students with disabilities.
  • Specific university programs that support students with disabilities, such as the Tufts and Rochester Institute for Technology programs for deaf students.
  • Methods for conducting research on sparsely populated groups, such as physics students and practicing physicists with disabilities.

Since most of the interest on Day 1 was related to teaching, we decided to discuss the Universal Design for Learning framework.8 Universal Design is a concept initially developed for architecture and emphasizes “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”9 Universal Design for Learning translates this concept for education through three main principles: 1) provide multiple means of representation (perception; language, mathematical expressions and symbols; and comprehension); 2) provide multiple means of action and expression (physical action; expression and communication; and executive function), and 3) provide multiple means of engagement (recruiting interest; sustaining effort and interest; and self-regulation). When applying Universal Design for Learning, an instructor intentionally plans for learner variability at the start, which may reduce (though likely not eliminate) the need for specific accommodations down the road.

After this brief introduction to Universal Design for Learning, participants brainstormed ways to implement the principles in physics courses. Due to time constraints, groups were only able to report out about their ideas for providing multiple forms of engagement. Ideas included:

  • Be flexible about room arrangement. One participant supported a deaf student’s engagement in a physics lab by moving the lab table and equipment. The standard setup had two lab partners standing side-by-side, facing a wall; this did not allow the student to see his interpreter. However, once the table was rotated, the students and interpreter were able to find an arrangement that worked for them.
  • Support student group work. Instructors should be attentive to the fact that group work can be challenging for many students, especially those with disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Participants discussed supports, such as providing students norms for how the group should function, sentence starters, group contracts and/or group roles. Additionally, instructors should consider varying the type of engagement; a student may be able to better participate in 20 minutes of group work if she knows an activity that is less challenging for her to engage in will happen next.

We also discussed ways to demonstrate empathy to both students with disabilities and all students to support open lines of communication between instructors and students. Some students with disabilities have expressed negative reactions to “boilerplate” disability statements that are often provided by post-secondary institutions. Instead, they request faculty to make a public statement about their commitment to accessibility and inclusion and to invite students to discuss their needs with the instructor personally. A participant suggested another option could be to survey all students in a course about what they would like the instructor to know about how they learn. This would put students with disabilities on equal footing with students without diagnosed disabilities in the course.

At our second meeting, we focused on issues involved with research on students with disabilities. We considered several questions:

How do we identify participants in our population of interest? Several methods for identifying participants were discussed. While a researcher or instructor does not have access to a list of students and their identified disabilities, a campus Disability Services Office will have a list of the students who have received services through their office. This office may be able to send your recruitment information to students matching your inclusion criteria. One disadvantage of using this method alone is that not all students with a diagnosed disability register with the campus Disability Services Office. To cast a wider net, the researcher could recruit entire classes and make explicit the eligibility criteria. If this technique is used to recruit students with non-apparent disabilities, it may be possible to use a measure to assess the dimension of interest to support the validity of your sample. For example, a study recruiting students with executive function disorders could use the Barkley Deficits in Executive Functioning Scale10 to assess participants’ executive function. Additionally, researchers could use the “snowball” method, by starting with individuals who have disclosed a disability to the researcher, and asking participants to suggest future participants.

How do we operationalize or categorize disability in our research? As discussed on Day 1, there is no generally “accepted” framework for describing disabilities. In fact, the categories used in the education system change from K-12 to postsecondary.11 Thus, researchers should carefully select a framework for operationalizing disability that matches their research question. One participant suggested being explicit about the dimensions the research addresses (e.g., social, physical, cognitive and affective). For example, a study about ways to support students with visual impairments to experience the motion of a cart on a track might categorize students as “identified as visually impaired” and “not identified as visually impaired”. However, a study about participation in social learning may require a more complex categorization, as multiple diagnoses, from social anxiety to hearing impairments, may impact participation.

It is also important to make sure your recruitment methods and research instruments are accessible to anyone you are inviting to participate in your research.

Participants were encouraged to attend sessions on access and inclusion for students and physicists with disabilities at this summer’s American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) meeting and Physics Education Research Conference (PERC). Several sessions focused on these topics, including an AAPT session on Being Disabled in Physics and a PERC session on Accessibility and Universal Design in Physics Education. Both sessions included a mixture of presentations on personal experiences with disability and research on accessibility and inclusion. Another PERC workshop focused on Considerations and Best Practices in Operationalizing Identity through Demographic variables. All sessions were well attended, and the community is encouraged to continue discussing how we can better integrate students with disabilities in our teaching and research.


The following references may be useful for readers in learning more about teaching individuals with disabilities:

  • Guidelines from the National Center on Universal Design for Learning8
  • Free resources from the Center for Applied Special Technology12
    The following references may be useful for readers in learning more about researching individuals with disabilities:
  • “Researching Students with Disabilities: The Importance of Critical Perspectives”11
  • “Students with Disabilities in Higher Education: A Review of the Literature and an Agenda for Future Research”13


We thank the working group participants for their interest and insights. Of the 56 participants at FFPER, 25 participated in the first day of the working group and 14 participated in the second day, indicating their continuing interest in this topic. This work is supported in part by National Science Foundation grant #1612009.

Jackie Chini is an Assistant Professor at the University of Central Florida. She conducts research on how research-based instructional strategies work for diverse populations of students and instructors.

Jennifer Blue is an Associate Professor at Miami University. She works to give more people access to physics, including advocating for traditionally excluded populations.


1. Lewis Kraus, 2016 Disability Statistics Annual Report. (University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH, 2017).

2. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering, Special NSF 17-310. (National Science Foundation, Arlington, VA, 2017).

3. Christopher L. Atchison and Julie C. Libarkin, “Professionally held perceptions about the accessibility of the geosciences.” Geosphere, 12.4 (2016): 1154–1165.

4. Thomas D. Snyder, Cristobal de Brey, and Sally A. Dillow. Digest of Education Statistics 2014, NCES 2016-006. (National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC, 2016).

5. Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 35.108,

6. Voluntary Self-Identification Forms at the US Department of Labor,

7. Student Disability Services at Miami University,

8. National Center on the Universal Design for Learning,

9. The Center for Universal Design,

10. Russell A. Barkley, Barkley Deficits in Executive Functioning Scale – Children and Adolescents (BDEFS-CA). Guilford Press, 2012.

11. Annemarie Vaccaro, Ezekiel W. Kimball, Ryan S. Wells, and Benjamin J. Ostiguy, “Researching Students with Disabilities: The Importance of Critical Perspectives.” New Directions for Institutional Research 2014.163 (2017): 25-41.

12. Center for Applied Special Technology,

13. Ezekiel W. Kimball, Ryan S. Wells, Benjamin J. Ostiguy, Catherine A. Manly, and Alexandra A. Lauterbach, “Students with Disabilities in Higher Education: A Review of the Literature and an Agenda for Future Research,” in Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, Michael B. Paulson (Ed.), (Springer, 2016): 91-156.

Disclaimer – The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.