University of Colorado student Amelia Dickerson is used to sitting next to her lab partner and being told how the experiment is going.
Since a car accident in high school left Dickerson blind, there are certain activities — such as science experiments — that she can’t do in the same way she did before, so she sat quietly and listened as her peers did the work.
After years of being told by classmates what lab work looked like, Dickerson decided she was tired of being left out of the experiments.
“I knew I could do these things; I just needed to do them in a different way than other students,” Dickerson said.
Before classes started in the fall, she approached her soon-to-be chemistry instructor, Susan Hendrickson, and asked if she would be willing to put in a little extra time to help her participate in the lab.
“Lab helps us understand what we’re reading in a practical way, and I didn’t want to miss out on that anymore,” Dickerson said. “I needed to know that she was going to work with me and help me actually participate.”
Dickerson’s passion inspired the general chemistry faculty members to begin making their labs more accessible. Over the past two semesters, with Dickerson’s help, the chemistry department began incorporating new equipment to make experiments easier for students with disabilities.
Several of the experiments require students to pour liquids into beakers and read measurements labeled by visual markers. Hendrickson cut notches in the glass to allow Dickerson to feel the markers.
“That only costs 25 cents per test tube,” Hendrickson said. “We also bought a textured rug at Target for $9.99 that tells her where the sink is.”
Other changes were more expensive. An electronic probe system cost the department nearly $900, though Hendrickson said it was worth every penny.
“The system allows Amelia to collect data through interchangeable probes and then it’s transferred to her computer, which can then read her the information out loud so she can hear the results,” Hendrickson said. “And the best thing about it is that we have it now so we’ll be able to use it anytime we have a student who needs it.”
Dickerson said the system allows her to take temperatures and measure pH levels, data that she’s otherwise never been able to collect.
Hendrickson said the labs are required to have benches that make equipment accessible to students in wheelchairs, but there are no requirements to accommodate blind students. She said in her experience, many students who face challenges in the classroom due to disabilities “just sit back quietly because they’re too shy to do anything about it.”
But Dickerson wasn’t an ordinary student.
“She was determined, and her motivation is what really pushed us to put in the extra time and effort to help her,” Hendrickson said. “She made it easy for us to want to help her.”
Dickerson was so touched by the efforts that she nominated the department for the President’s Diversity Award. Hendrickson said the department won a commendation but not the award.
Hendrickson said she hopes other departments will begin better preparing for disabled students.
“I’m really excited to talk to other departments who might be interested in making similar changes,” she said. “All it took for us was an eager student who was passionate about making a change and some willing faculty to help her get there.”
For Dickerson, the department’s efforts resulted in more than a lesson in chemistry.
“I feel more included and more like there are options in the natural sciences for people with all kinds of different disabilities or struggles that they face,” Dickerson said. “It has completely changed my attitude.
“Just because you haven’t seen something done before doesn’t mean you can’t do it,” she said. “All you need to do it try.”
Catherine Kilcommons, of CU’s Disability Services, said about 1,200 students registered with the office are studying in various departments across the campus.
She said the biology department has also been working to improve accessibility for students through encouraging its textbook publisher to improve its online interface.