Designing for Difference: Conceptualizing and Planning for Variations in Learners’ Needs, Abilities, and Interests

Professional headshot of Dr. Jacquelyn Chini
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Jacquelyn J. Chini, Ph.D., (she/her)
Associate Professor, Physics Department
University of Central Florida
Professional headshot of Dr. Erin Scanlon
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Erin Scanlon, Ph.D., (she/her)
Assistant Professor in Residence, Department of Physics
University of Connecticut - Avery Point
Dr. Christopher Atchison, who wears glasses and a silver tie, stands next to a bookshelf
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Christopher Atchison Ph.D.
Professor of Geoscience Education
University of Cincinnati

Caption: Many instructors used Zoom for instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic which can introduce additional accessibility features including closed captioning and lecture recordings. This highlights the role that instructors play in affecting the accessibility and inclusivity of the courses.

Disability is often an overlooked aspect of diversity in postsecondary STEM. Here, we describe a tool to leverage this moment of disruption to correct the longstanding failure of academia to recognize and plan for the inherent variability in people’s needs, abilities, and interests.

Academia Often Fails to Plan for Differences in Individuals’ Needs, Abilities, and Interests

Everyone has abilities that vary along a multidimensional spectrum. For an individual, these abilities can vary along different dimensions, over time, and across contexts. Some abilities vary from our societal expectations of “typical” in a way that leads to a medical diagnosis of an impairment or disability.

Data from the National Science Foundation1 show that 10 – 20% of undergraduate students in postsecondary science and engineering education identify with a disability; however, academia does not plan for this natural human variation.

As Jay Dolmage writes “academia powerfully mandates able-bodiedness and able-mindedness, as well as other forms of social and communicative hyperability… In fact, few cultural institutions do a better or more comprehensive job of promoting ableism”.2

Ableism is the often unexamined valuing of able-bodiedness and able-mindedness, which leads to only expecting and planning for certain types, shapes, and abilities of bodies, minds, and modes of engagement. Faculty demonstrate academic ableism when they use limited strategies to present course content, have a narrow vision of what it means to participate in a discipline, or have different expectations for success for disabled and nondisabled students. In an interview study we conducted with students who identified with executive functioning disorders enrolled in introductory STEM courses, one participant shared the following interaction with an instructor: “He [the instructor] thinks that ‘Oh, because she’s [the interviewee] strong in the subject, she wouldn’t have a disability. She doesn’t need accommodations.’ So the fact that he found out, he was like ‘I’m so shocked…’ I guess he was being like biased or stereotypical.”3 This quote demonstrates academic ableism due to the instructor’s assumption that “strong” students are able-bodied and able-minded, and thus do not require accommodations. In our research, we have identified other forms of ableism, such as inaccessible curricular materials,4,5 introductory physics courses,6 and physics departmental websites.7

You Can Plan for Variation in Students’ Needs, Abilities, and Interests without Knowing Individual Students’ Diagnoses

Sometimes, as postsecondary educators, we think our role in supporting disabled students is limited to providing the accommodations listed by our institution’s Disability Services Office. However, not all disableda students will seek legally mandated accommodations for a variety of reasons, such as fearing negative evaluation by their instructors and peers (disability stigma),3,8 or lack of access to a professional diagnosis (which intersects with income and race).9,10 For example, students with non-apparent disabilities (e.g., certain mental health, cognitive, and health impairments) can choose whether to disclose their disability.11 Additionally, as postsecondary educators, we sometimes think that we cannot support disabled students because we do not have access to students’ medical diagnoses. In the social model of disability,b the responsibility of providing access is on the people who create social structures (e.g., course policies, physical classrooms, classroom culture) rather than expecting disabled individuals to navigate structures that were designed without consideration of the variations in individuals’ needs, abilities, and interests. This leads us to consider how the instructional environment could create barriers to participation and access for individuals with a wide variety of impairments.

If we know the ways in which humans can vary, we can proactively plan for those variations in our courses.

We developed a tool to support instructors in identifying aspects of their courses that can both privilege and tax certain abilities, shown in Figure 1. The tool is a radar chart with an axis for each dimension of ability, with regions for “low”, “medium”, and “high” load that a particular instructional practice places on a dimension of ability. This tool is not intended to describe the reality of individual impairments (e.g., it does not describe individual people or individual impairments; it does not represent relationships between dimensions of ability; and it does not account for intersections with other aspects of identity); rather, it is useful to critically examine our instructional design. Currently, our tool includes dimensions for: physical/mobility (related to strength, mobility, dexterity, and agility), health (related to regulating bodily systems), cognitive (related to planning, remembering, interpreting, and understanding), visual (related to color vision and visual acuity), hearing (related to hearing the loudness and pitch of sound), and emotional/mental health (related to feelings, emotions, attitudes, and behaviors) ability.12 These dimensions are intentionally broad, and individuals with limitations along a specific dimension will likely have different experiences.

This figure is a radar chart composed of 6 axes each corresponding to a dimension of ability, namely physical/mobility (strength, mobility, dexterity, endurance), health (regulate body systems), cognitive (plan, remember, interpret, understand), visual (acuity, color), hearing (loudness, pitch), and emotional/mental health (feelings, emotions, attitude, behavior). Overlayed on these 6 dimensions are three concentric circles; the outer refers to high load, the middle refers to medium load, and the inner refers to low load. Finally, there are two loops that intersect with each of the 6 dimensions. The loops correspond to different classroom activities that are common in physics courses; in this case, traditional lecture and small group problem-solving.

Figure 1: Radar chart showing the six dimensions of ability applied to a sample postsecondary classroom that utilizes traditional lecture and small group problem-solving.12 The six axes of the chart represent the six dimensions of ability and include examples of ways in which people can vary for each dimension. The location of the nodes for each activity on each dimension is qualitative in nature and represents a typical use of the instructional structure in postsecondary STEM. The low to high loading should be interpreted as a spectrum. NOTE: This tool is intended to describe instructional environments, NOT individuals (see Section IV in reference 12).

To use this tool, an instructor selects an instructional activity and critically examines expectations of the abilities a student would use to engage in the activity, preferably with disabled collaborators.c For example, traditional lecture loads high on the emotional/mental health dimension because students are expected to self-regulate by directing attention to the lecture and not towards other thoughts and emotions. Similarly, small group problem-solving loads high on the emotional/mental health dimension because students are expected to use their social skills to interact with their peers. Therefore, if a course is solely composed of traditional lecture and small group problem-solving, then the course will continually privilege students with expected or “normal” emotional/mental health abilities and tax students with emotional/mental health impairments. This highlights an inequity in the way this sample course was designed and points to where instructors should spend time and effort to make the course more accessible and inclusive. This process of critical examination should be continued for the other dimensions of ability and to include all instructional practices used in a course.

Instructors can use this tool to examine aspects of their course to see what types of abilities their instructional activities are privileging and simultaneously taxing as a first step towards making more inclusive learning environments. As a next step, we recommend consulting frameworks that support proactively designing courses that are more inclusive and accessible, such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) 13 and Universal Design of/for Instruction.14-16 These frameworks share similarities in designing options and supports to provide flexibility for how students engage in the learning environment. A UDL-aligned instructional strategy that could be used to provide options for students with a variety of emotional/mental health abilities is to ask student groups to discuss and agree upon norms of behavior within the group to create group contracts.17,18 For additional examples of applying UDL to introductory physics courses, see: Resources for supporting students with and without disabilities in your physics courses and Using universal design for learning to support students with disabilities in a SCALE-UP physics course.

Applying Dimensions of Ability and Universal Design to Postsecondary STEM

We’ll highlight two tweets from #AcademicAbleismd to show how we could use dimensions of ability to plan for learner variation, without knowing individuals’ medical diagnoses.

@KatPadmore describes unrecorded class lectures as a barrier to their participation; recording class lectures allows students to watch (or rewatch) the lectures at a later time.21 Only providing course content via synchronous lectures taxes several dimensions of ability, such as:

  • health, by assuming students will always be well enough to attend class;
  • physical/mobility and emotional/mental health, by assuming students will always be able to get to class and to sit or stand for the duration of the class;
  • cognitive, by assuming students will be able to remain attentive for the full class period; and
  • hearing, by assuming students will be able to hear and understand everything said by the instructor the first time it is said.
i've been fighting for my lectures to be recorded since september, yet suddenly when able-bodied people can't access the same lectures, everything gets recorded & uploaded. #academicableism means access only being taken seriously when it affects the "normal" students.

A tweet by @KatPadmore describing unrecorded class lectures as a barrier to their participation.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many universities chose to offer classes either fully remotely or in a hybrid in-person/remote model. Many instructors learned to teach remotely, which typically provides easy access to recording. Many university administrators asked instructors to plan to provide options for students who tested positive for COVID-19 to make up missed work; lecture recordings provide this flexibility. So, now we are in the habit of meeting this need. How can we use the dimensions of ability to identify places where further proactive design is needed to support variation in students’ needs, abilities, and interests? Possibilities include: supporting auditory variation by providing transcripts of the lecture recordings; supporting visual variation by providing alternative text and/or verbal descriptions for visual information presented during lecture.

@bdzombak/@sisterSTEM describe the move to remote field experiences in geology during the COVID-19 pandemic. Providing research experiences only in person taxes several dimensions of ability, such as:

  • health, by assuming students do not need access to medical equipment that would be difficult to transport;
  • physical/mobility, by assuming students will always be able to physically travel to a research site; and
  • emotional/mental health, by assuming students can safely leave their typical community supports.
Becca Dzombak @bdzombak I wrote about why #covid cancellations of #geology field camps should prompt geoscience programs to offer remote and accessible options every year, not only when a pandemic demands it. #inclusiveSTEM #accessibleSTEM #phdchat #AcademicAbleism #AcademicTwitter "Geoscience has become an incredibly interdisciplinary field, and there are so many sub-disciplines where an intense, weeks-long field experience simply isn’t necessary training." @bdzombak #DisabilityPrideMonth #InvisibleIllness

Tweets by @bdzombak and @sisterSTEM describing how remote and accessible options for field experiences in geoscience, which were utilized during the COVID-19 pandemic, should be offered every year.

As @bdzombak/@sisterSTEM points out, scientists found strategies to provide remote research experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. This highlights the fact that not every researcher needs to physically participate in every aspect of an experiment in exactly the same way to be meaningfully engaged. Wanda Diaz-Merced22,23 describes losing her sight as an astronomer and initially losing “the opportunity to do my physics.” Working with collaborators, Diaz-Merced transformed the table of numbers that is typically displayed as a visual plot into sound. She explains, “I achieved access to the data, and today I’m able to do physics at the level of the best astronomer, using sound. And what people have been able to do, mainly visually, for hundreds of years, now I do it using sound.”  The process of sonification can be used to provide meaningful access to many STEM activities.24-27

These tweets share a common thread: supports, options, and opportunities for engagement that were not previously available have nearly become the “norm” in our pandemic-impacted world. We argue that postsecondary STEM practitioners should leverage this moment of disruption to reconsider how we conceptualize learner variation and how we provide access to individuals with a range of needs, abilities, and interests.

Creating an Accessible and Inclusive STEM Community Requires Engagement at Many Levels

While faculty have agency to shape the learning environment, they cannot create and sustain the needed change on their own.

Higher education administrators need to support faculty in implementing accessible and inclusive practices in their teaching by providing the time and resources required to design and implement such practices while creating policies to sustain inclusive practices. In this process, it is essential to recognize that disability is not a monolith and thus practices do not uniformly support all disabled students and inclusive design will not replace all need for individual accommodations.

We also encourage STEM education researchers to include disability/accessibility in their research agendas and create accessible curricular materials that plan for learner variation.  In line with other national calls (e.g., Indicators for Monitoring Undergraduate Education),28 STEM education researchers as well as larger organizations such as funding and governmental agencies should collect and disseminate data related to the representation of disabled people in postsecondary education and in the STEM workforce. These steps may require a shift in the expectations of and resources provided by funding agencies. We look forward to a future where curriculum developers examine the impact of their materials across dimensions of ability and all funded materials are “born accessible”. Check the resources section below to get started.

Let’s leverage this moment of disruption to correct the longstanding failure of academia to recognize and plan for the inherent variability in people’s needs, abilities, and interests.


We’ve compiled resources for those who want to learn more about how to support disabled students and researchers in STEM. The resources are disaggregated by intended audience.

For Instructors
For Research Mentors
For STEM Education Researchers
General Research about Disability


Language related to disability variesa

Some people prefer person-first language (e.g., “students with disabilities,” “person with visual impairment,” or “scientists with a disability”) because it emphasizes the person over the ability. However, others feel impairment-first language can highlight the social aspect of disability (e.g., inaccessible curricula create disabled students) and that the difference is an integrated part of the person’s identity (e.g., Autistic person or Deaf person, just as we would typically say “tall person” rather than “person with tallness”). While there are trends in specific communities, there is not a single, universally accepted language related to disability. When you are talking with an individual, it is best practice to ask them about their preferred language.45-48 

The social model of disabilityb

In the social model of disability, an individual becomes “disabled” when social structures are not designed to provide access to individuals with impairments.49,50 This contrasts with the “medical model” of disability, where disability is conceptualized as a flaw in the individual, and the individual is considered responsible for overcoming/treating their disability or accepting their lack of access to certain experiences. Check out the additional resources sidebar for a more detailed description of models of disability.

Both our broader society41 and academia2 are ableistc

Thus, nondisabled people have limited knowledge to draw on to describe the experiences of disabled people. For example, research in geosciences51 and physics52 has indicated that abled experts in these fields typically lack knowledge about disability. Additionally, disabled activists call for agency for disabled people in prioritizing challenges and designing solutions.53 When disabled people’s expertise is not prioritized, solutions may introduce more challenges. For example, instructional supports designed by a sighted instructor were overwhelming to a blind student in an introductory chemistry course.54


#AcademicAbleism which was originally created by @zaranosaur on March 20, 2014 in response to press about graduate students’ mental health “survival strategies”, promoted the stance that individuals must change themselves to succeed in academia.


Thank you to Camille Coffie, Daniel Oleynik, and Amanda Lannan for their helpful feedback on earlier drafts of the blogpost. This work is supported by NSF DUE 1612009 and NSF HRD 1750515.