Accessible Science Environment for Students with Disabilities

STEM researchers need to complete an extremely diverse range of tasks. For instance, conducting a bio-based experiment involves a variety of steps such as taking a test reagent off a shelf and peering at it under a microscope, then using special devices to siphon up the solution multiple times, and measuring micro amounts of chemicals with an electric scale. For people with illnesses and disabilities that restrict their movements and people who have sight and hearing impairments, it isn’t easy to pursue research in the experiment-based STEM fields.

According to a survey conducted in the United States, STEM students with disabilities account for 11% of all students in these fields at the undergraduate level. This ratio falls drastically at the graduate level, and drops even further to around 1% at the doctorate level. No similar survey has been done in Japan, but considering those small figures in the Unitied States, where support for the physically disabled is quite advanced, there are probably even fewer such students in Japan.

The United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006, and Japan ratified the Convention in 2014, and in 2016 the Act for Eliminating Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities was enforced. Accordingly, the number of students with disabilities entering universities has quadrupled in the past 10 years, and the Disability Services Office at the University of Tokyo has been working to improve the environment and provide reasonable accommodations to ensure equal opportunities for students with disabilities.

In this project, the University of Tokyo will develop an inclusive scientific environment that supports the students and researchers with disabilities in science and engineering fields. For this purpose, we will implement the following four projects. It aims not only to create ideal research environments for all researchers, but also apply the developed technology to the aging society, thus contributing to the creation of an inclusive society.

Guidelines

The first is preparing guidelines to support students with disabilities. The reality is that in Japan, assistance for students and researchers with disabilities to conduct experiments is either lagging or non-existent to begin with.

Accommodation database

The second is putting together a collection of case studies. This involves interviewing people with disabilities who work in STEM fields, and researching their experiences during university and at work, as well as gathering information on overseas case studies through literature and other sources. Building a database of such information will make it easier to clarify ways to provide specific support. These case studies will also be useful to youth with disabilities, when they choose their future career path.

Operational Analysis

The third research theme is analyzing the movements required to conduct an experiment. Applying the “operational analysis” method used in occupational therapy to scientific experiments as well will enable a detailed understanding of the physical abilities required for certain movements, and can provide clues as to the type of support needed.

Accessible Science Laboratory

The fourth theme is actually building a laboratory. So that means using the guidelines we’ve prepared to build and use a laboratory that meets barrier-free standards. At the same time, we will also implement and trial a variety of technologies not included in the guidelines. First, we will use one of our members as an example, and try out various settings that allow people with restricted leg movements to conduct experiments. We’d like to keep on incorporating whatever we can to make the laboratory environment more barrier free, such as setting specifications for standing-style wheelchairs, developing height-adjustable experiment stands, and using robots. Our plan from here on is to expand our research to include environments for people with sight impairments and other disabilities.

mission and tasks of the project
Figure. Project organization.