Over the last decade or so, makerspaces have been on the rise. Ranging from smaller rooms in schools or libraries with a few machines to entire buildings housing every piece of technology imaginable, a Makerspace is, at its core, a place for people to be creative and bring their ideas to life.
As makerspaces are becoming more and more common, it’s important to make sure that they are always accessible and inclusive for everybody. Right now, a lot of makerspaces aren’t designed in the most disability-friendly way. This means that many people with great ideas can’t express those ideas because the space isn’t designed for their needs, whether they’re visually impaired, in a wheelchair, or whatever it may be.
In my opinion, the simplest but most helpful thing that can be done to make a makerspace accessible is to put Braille and large print labels and signs everywhere. Any text in the makerspace - bathroom signs, labels for different sections of the makerspace, safety instructions or user manuals, etc - should be large and high contrast, and should also be written in Braille. Doing this ensures that people with low vision get the same information as everyone else.
Similarly, another way to make the makerspace accessible for people with low vision is to give every machine a description, saying what it does and where the necessary buttons are. As a visually impaired person, I can’t always identify a machine or piece of technology just by looking at it, and I definitely wouldn’t know what it did.
Labeling every machine and identifying all the buttons would make it easier for everyone, not just blind people, to know exactly what they need to use and how to use it.
At the makerspace on campus at Kansas State School for the Blind, accessibility is at the forefront of everything they do. According to Lydia Knopp, the makerspace coordinator at KSSB, although not every device is accessible from start to finish, the materials are adapted to fit every student’s needs.
“There are braille and large-print instructions for most machines,” says Knopp, “We have tactile markers on controls for easier operation, and 3D printing slicer software that can be operated with a screen reader. Every computer has NVDA, and there are several tablets and assistive reading devices to allow students to dream, design, and create! Even some of our tools, like handles or saws, were intentionally chosen to make it possible for students with different abilities to partake in the creative process. Some machines like our hot presses require little to no technology to use, and have auditory signals and timers to indicate when a project is done.”
One big reason that makerspaces aren’t accessible is their layout. A lot of makerspaces are poorly designed, with cords out in the open, creating tripping hazards, or machines packed together without a lot of walking room. A well-laid-out makerspace should have lots of open space to walk and anything dangerous hidden away. This benefits people with visual impairments as well as those in wheelchairs.
Continuing with the theme of safety, any sharp objects should have protection or padding. A lot of the machines found in a makerspace have sharp parts to them. This is dangerous for blind people who use their sense of touch to “see” the world around them. There should be a guard over these sharp pieces so a person doesn’t end up cutting themselves.
Another way to improve the general design of a makerspace is to keep everything in a fixed location. While having tables and machines on wheels might be nice for flexibility, it’s detrimental for those who can’t see. A lot of blind and visually impaired people learn the layout of a place once, then keep a mental map in their heads.
For example, they would know that the 3D printers are always in the back corner, or the woodcutters are always against the left wall. If everything is always moving and never in a fixed position, that mental map is useless and people with low vision could easily get lost.
As well as making the hands-on equipment accessible, the computers and computer programs used alongside the equipment should be accessible. Anything that needs to be done on a computer should support screen readers and magnification software. A lot of computer-aided-design (CAD) programs are entirely visual and therefore impossible for a blind person to use.
Knopp says she has been to many makerspaces and recognizes how visually-driven they are. “Some of the industry-standard laser cutters and CNC Routers are connected to programs that are all visual by nature in their designs.”
KSSB’s makerspace was originally started by staff member Robert Taylor, and Knopp took over after he retired. In its development, it was a challenge to find equipment that would work with computers and accessible software. Taylor shares that over time, students discovered that some projects required at least a little bit of vision, causing them to adapt and search for accessible solutions.
To combat the inaccessibility of some CAD programs, one solution is to have tactile methods of creating designs, like peg boards and rubber bands or moldable clay. If someone can’t create their ideas on a computer, they could design it by hand for someone to copy onto the CAD software.
So far in this article, I’ve talked mostly about the needs of those who are blind or visually impaired, but there are simple solutions for other disabilities as well. For wheelchair users, some ways to make the place accessible are to make sure all the tools/machines can be accessed from a sitting position, height-adjustable tables, and elevators and wheelchair ramps to different levels of the building.
For people with autism or other sensory disorders, makerspaces could include soundproof quiet rooms for them to think and work away from the loud noise of machinery and overlapping voices.
When makerspaces become accessible, the world of STEM is opened up to a whole new audience, to a group that wouldn’t otherwise have been able to participate.
“I believe it's important for people who are blind or visually impaired to have access to meaningful STEM activities because it opens up a new world of possibilities,” says Knopp, “Most students by nature use math and technology in their daily life. Learning through STEM allows all students to understand and interpret their world.”
While Knopp, who comes from a background of art and marketing, didn’t always see herself involved in STEM, she describes her experience with KSSB as “an inspiring and wild ride.” She originally got involved with the school back in 2017 when she did some video work for them. She stayed involved in smaller ways, then applied for the position of Makerspace Coordinator when it became available.
“I was looking for my next professional challenge, and now I feel like a student again, trying to soak up as much of STEM as possible, while also letting the student's interests guide where we go.”
At the competition held at KSSB last December, Knopp helped in many ways, including being the lead tool tech for the equipment that was already in place in the makerspace. I asked her about her experience.
“My favorite part about the Make48 competition at KSSB was by far the final pitches by the 6 competing teams. Don't get me wrong, I do love the creative ideation process, trips to the hardware store, late night build sessions, and working alongside the incredible Tool Techs from across the US, but listening to these young people articulate their ideas was food for the soul.”
Knopp is excited for a new round of blind and visually impaired students to “jump in and get their hands dirty” at the KSSB competition coming up this June.