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Creating Physically Accessible Lab Spaces

By Kathryn Eckartt

Are scientific research spaces designed for everyone?

In the United States there are 61 million adults living with a disability. This means that there are three times as many people with disabilities as those with red hair (1)! Scientists with hearing or vision impairments accounted for only 4% of PhDs awarded in 2020, and those with limited mobility accounted for just 1% (3). There are many ways in which academic ableism, the discriminatory system of devaluing disabled people within academia, makes science inaccessible to disabled people. Inadequate accommodations, the double-edged sword of disclosure, and being physically unable to work in lab spaces are just a few of those barriers (3, 4). 

An infographic titled “Disability Impacts ALL of US'' in white and tan fonts on a blue background. Three white circular icons with 4 cartoon people, a heart, and a staff with one snake wrapped around are to the right of the title. These are labeled “Communities,” “Health,” and “Access,” respectively. Following a white band with blue text reading “61 million adults in the United States live with a disability” there is an outline of the United States with cartoon figures filling the image. One in four figures are blue, with the rest in dark tan- to the left of the outline is a key, with blue figures labeled “People living with a disability” and dark tan figures labeled “People living with no disability.” Underneath a blue dashed line, in blue font, is written “26 percent (one in 4) of adults in the United States have some type of disability.” To the right of that text is an outline of the South of the United States and the text “The percentage of people living with disabilities is highest in the South.” The bottom of the image shows a dark gray banner with the text “National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. View infographic and references at:, Contact us:, Twitter: @cdc_ncbddd.” (1)

While there are accessibility requirements set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), many lab spaces, and higher education campuses in general, do not meet these standards (5). For example, automatic doors are often nonfunctional, ramps may be blocked by machinery, and lab spaces are frequently too cluttered for wheelchair users to navigate.

 A series of four cartoons arranged with two on top of a black zig-zag line and two below. The top left cartoon shows a purple stick figure in a wheelchair ascending a ramp. The top right cartoon shows a navy blue book with white writing reading “Law.” The bottom left image shows a cluttered pink desk with books above and below, and papers flying up from the desk. The final image shows a light blue barrier with slanted white stripes.

While we may be reliant on administrative offices to repair faulty automatic doors, there are many simple ways that we can make lab spaces physically accessible to disabled and chronically ill people. Below are just a few actions we can take in our own lab spaces to make them accessible to all.

Quick Tips for Improving Accessibility in Your Lab Space

4 slightly overlapping, highly transparent circles with cartoon images inside. The top circle is light blue and shows a cartoon of a green micropipette, white beaker with blue liquid, and black beaker with a hand holding the handle on a blue sticky mat. The right circle is light grey with a cartoon of black braille and a hand. The bottom circle is navy blue with a grey circle with blue counter-clockwise arrows inside. The left circle is pink with 2 grey beakers, one with purple liquid and one with pink liquid, and black odor lines.

  1. Add sticky mats on bench tops and purchase beakers with handles- these tools enhance stability while pouring and measuring liquids, especially for those with mobility or grip challenges (6).
  2. Place a Lazy Susan in cabinets and storage spaces- including these features not only create an organized lab, they allow scientists with low mobility or who use wheelchairs to access lab equipment and reagents (7).
  3. Create large print signs or use a Braille labeler- clear, legible, and Braille signage allows those with low vision to navigate the lab safely (6).
  4. Encourage lab mates to measure malodorous chemicals in a ventilated hood- safe, but malodorous chemicals can aggravate chronic illnesses and contribute to sensory overload (8).
  5. Have non-slip boards available- scientists using mobility aids such as wheelchairs or scooters can use these tools while transporting samples for additional safety and steadiness (5).

While retrofitting labs with accommodations does aid in campus accessibility, a more effective and long-lasting solution is to incorporate principles of universal design and universal design for learning into the framework of buildings and curricula. More information about these principles, and how to incorporate them into your lab, can be found in these resources.


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Disability Impacts All of Us. 
  2. Kendall Powell. “Academia’s ableist mindset needs to change.” Nature. October 2021.
  3. Krys Méndez Ramírez. “Academic Ableism: Fighting for Accommodations and Access in Higher Education.” Disability Visibility. 2019
  4. @HannahntheWolf (Hannah Facknitz) et al. “[A] short thread thinking through disability services after Harvard revelations.” Twitter. February 2, 2022.
  5. LaWanda H. Cook. “Accommodating Persons with Physical Disability in the Lab” ACS. 2018.
  6. Mary Bethé Neel. “Using Technology and Other Assistive Strategies To Aid Students with Disabilities in Performing Chemistry Lab Tasks” J. Chem. Educ. 2007.
  7. Ontario’s Universities Accessible Campus. “Checklist for Making Science Labs Accessible for Students with Disabilities” Council of Ontario Universities.
  8. Joanna Boval and Sheila Kennedy. “Laboratory Safety for All: Accommodating Students with Disabilities in Chemistry Teaching Laboratories” Accessibility in the Laboratory. Chapter 8 pp 99-115. 2018
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