Data & Research RESEARCH
Thomas E. Scruggs, George Mason University
Science for Students with Disabilities
Archived Information


Science for Students with Disabilities:
Good for Students, Good for Science!1
Thomas E. Scruggs
George Mason University

Address: Graduate School of Education, MSN 1D5, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA 22020-4444.

1Paper presented at the U.S. Department of Education Summit on Science, March 16, 2004, Washington, DC.

Science for Students with Disabilities:

Good for Students, Good for Science!1

Science for students with disabilities, always an important issue, has become increasingly significant in recent years. Presently, over 6 million students (or 13% of all students) are receiving special education services under federal law, a 30 percent increase in the last decade. Over three-fourths of these students spend at least 40% of their day in general education classes, and all students are guaranteed access to the general education curriculum, including science (USDOE, 2001).

Good for Students

Science has a special and fundamental role in the education of students with disabilities, in that science has always encouraged us to advance beyond the sensory and physical barriers that affect and challenge us all, to develop our thinking and our imaginations, and to probe for rational and logical explanations for the observed universe. Science education promotes learning for those who learn best by doing (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 1992; Mastropieri, Scruggs, & Magnusen, 1999; Scruggs, Mastropieri, & Boon, 1998; Scruggs, Mastropieri, & Wolfe, 1995). Further, science is a favorite content area (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 1992; Chung, 1998) and can be effectively employed in inclusive classrooms (Scruggs & Mastropieri, 1994b).

Accommodating students with disabilities can also help benefit all students. In an elementary school in Illinois, we found that adapting a microscope unit not only proved helpful for the blind girl in the class, it helped focus teachers and students on the most important elements of the unit, to identify the most important learning outcomes, and to place less of a priority on how this learning was acquired (Scruggs & Mastropieri, 1994a).

Science also can be particularly relevant for students with disabilities. In a school in Arizona, we found it difficult to understate the relevance of lessons on the life cycle to students with terminal illness.

In my own research, conducted with Margo Mastropieri, we have found that students with disabilities typically benefit greatly from appropriately adapted hands-on science learning (Scruggs, Mastropieri, Bakken, & Brigham, 1993). In one instance, we found that performance of elementary students with a variety of disabilities benefited greatly from a hands-on science unit on ecosystems, greatly outperforming normally achieving students in textbook-based classes studying the same content, and even performing well within the average range of their classmates in the hands-on condition (Mastropieri et al., 1998). In a more recent investigation, we found that all students benefited in inclusive high school science classes in interactive peer tutoring of chemistry concepts (Scruggs & Mastropieri, in press; 2003). Our present work with Linda Chin and the Fairfax County Public Schools is revealing the same conclusions: that carefully planned science instruction for students with disabilities benefits all students.

Established, new and emerging assistive technologies are proving to be of great benefit. Many students benefit from such devices as communication boards, speech recognition technology, close captioning, text readers, web readers and a variety of electronic switching devices for engaging PCs. Some technologies of particular relevance to science include accessible lab furniture, microscope cameras, tactile graphics, talking calculators, liquid level indicators, Braille thermometers, light sensors, and a variety of 3-dimensional interactive models. Such devices help provide important accommodations for students learning science.

Good for Science

Over 13% of school children (20% of all adults) are identified with disabilities; but only 6% will become scientists or engineers, even though some of these are among our most celebrated professionals (National Science Foundation, 2002). Promotion of science learning and achievement of students with disabilities can increase career opportunities for students with disabilities and can help increase the total pool of American scientists and engineers.

Additionally, the population of science teachers with disabilities is presently underrepresented (Anderson, Keller, & Karp, 2002). In addition to helping to address the present shortage of science teachers, increasing the number of scientists and science teachers with disabilities can create more visible role models for students with and without disabilities, and can lead to increasing numbers of students with disabilities choosing science as a career path (Jackson, 2002).

As Abraham Nemeth, author of the Nemeth Braille Code for Mathematics and Sciences, concluded:

…a blind person who is adequately trained in his field and who has mastered the skills of blindness can function as competently and as productively as anyone else as a mathematics teacher, and that his blindness need not be an obstacle in choosing that career (Nemeth, 1996, p. 6).


There is much to be gained from an energetic consideration of science for students with disabilities. The risks are inconsiderable, and the possible advantages are powerful, in enhancing student learning, in enhancing science instruction, and in enhancing science.


Anderson, R., Keller, C.E., & Karp, J.M. (Eds.)(2002). Enhancing diversity: Educators with disabilities. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Chung, S. (1998). Inclusion and science education: The compatibility of reform efforts. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN.

Jackson, E.M. Virginia educators with disabilities: Survey results. Richmond, VA: Virginia Department of Education.

Mastropieri, M.A., & Scruggs, T.E. (1992). Science for students with disabilities. Review of Educational Research, 62, 377-411.

Mastropieri, M.A., Scruggs, T.E., & Magnusen, M. (1999). Activities-oriented science instruction for students with disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 22, 240-249.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (2000). Principles and standards for school mathematics. Reston, VA: Author.

National Science Foundation (2002). Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering: 2002. Washington, DC: Author. Accessed February 25, 2004 at

Nemeth, A. (1996, January). Teaching mathematics as a blind person. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Mathematical Association of America, Orlando, FL. Retrieved March 8, 2004, from

Scruggs, T.E., & Mastropieri, M.A. (in press). Recent research applications in secondary content areas for students with learning and behavioral disabilities. In T.E. Scruggs & M.A. Mastropieri (Eds.), Identification and assessment of learning disorders: Advances in learning and behavioral disabilities (Vol. 16, pp. 223-230). Oxford, UK: Elsevier Science/JAI Press.

Scruggs, T.E., & Mastropieri, M.A. (2003). Science and social studies. In H.L. Swanson, K.Harris, & S. Graham (Eds.), Handbook of learning disabilities (pp. 364-379). New York: Guilford.

Scruggs, T.E., & Mastropieri, M.A. (1995). Science and mental retardation: An analysis of curriculum features and learner characteristics. Science Education, 79, 251-271.

Scruggs, T.E., & Mastropieri, M.A. (1994a). Refocusing microscope activities for special students. Science Scope, 17, 74-78.

Scruggs, T.E., & Mastropieri, M.A. (1994b). Successful mainstreaming in elementary science classes: A qualitative investigation of three reputational cases. American Educational Research Journal, 31, 785-811.

Scruggs, T.E., Mastropieri, M.A., Bakken, J.P., & Brigham, F.J. (1993). Reading vs. doing: The relative effectiveness of textbook-based and inquiry-oriented approaches to science education. Journal of Special Education, 27, 1-15.

Scruggs, T.E., Mastropieri, M.A., & Boon, R. (1998). Science for students with disabilities: A review of recent research. Studies in Science Education, 32, 21-44.

Scruggs, T.E., Mastropieri, M.A., & Wolfe, S. (1995). Scientific reasoning of students with mental retardation: Investigating preconceptions and conceptual change. Exceptionality, 5, 223-244.

U.S. Department of Education (2001). Twenty-third annual report to congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Washington, DC: Author.

Biography: Thomas E. Scruggs, Ph.D. Tom Scruggs is Professor and Director of the Ph.D. in Education Program, Graduate School of Education, George Mason University. He previously served on the faculties of Utah State University and Purdue University. His interest in teaching science to students with disabilities began in the 1970s, when he taught basic science units to elementary grade students with learning and emotional disabilities. He is the co-author or co-editor of over 20 books, and author or co-author of over 30 chapters, and over 150 journal articles in special education, many of which are directed toward the teaching of science. His research has investigated science curriculum and learner characteristics, the effectiveness of hands-on science instruction, the science learning characteristics of students with learning disabilities and mental retardation, and characteristics of effective inclusive science classrooms. He co-authored A Practical Guide to Teaching Science to Students with Disabilities in Inclusive Classes (Pro-Ed), and served as Advisor to the National Science Resource Center’s curriculum project, Science and Technology for Children (STC).

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Last Modified: 03/16/2005