Research indicates that students with exceptionalities such as visual
impairments are more academically successful when they are included in the
regular classroom setting and have opportunities to engage in active learning
(Ferguson and Asch 1989; Baker, Wang, and Walberg 1994; Rea 1999; Rea, Millican,
and Watson 2000; Wasserman 1992). Therefore, science educators must address
their needs by motivating visually impaired students in science and making
accommodations in the laboratory and science classroom.
Defining visual impairment
Educators often refer to the following educational definition of “visually
impaired”: “1) A student who is totally blind receives no useful information
through the sense of vision and must use tactile and auditory senses for all
learning. 2) A child who is functionally blind has so little vision that she
learns primarily through the auditory and tactile senses; however, she may be
able to use her limited vision to supplement the information received from the
other senses and to assist with certain tasks (e.g., moving about the
classroom). 3) A child with low vision uses vision as a primary means of
learning but may supplement visual information with tactile and auditory input”
(Heward 2003, 405).
Most students who have a visual impairment have IQs that fall within the normal
range. These students generally learn to read and write, which enhances their
ability to participate in the education curriculum (Miller 2002). Children with
visual impairments constitute a very small percentage of the school-age
population—fewer than two children in one thousand (Heward 2003). Still, it is
likely that over the course of a teaching career most science educators will
teach one or more visually impaired students. Some students with a visual
impairment also have other disabilities and are therefore included in additional
disability categories within the public school setting.
The current focus of special education is to integrate schools (Bina 1993).
Visually impaired students are placed in inclusive classrooms in public schools
at even higher rates than students with other disabilities (Heward 2003).
Research shows students learn best when the subject matter is interesting to
them and is structured for active engagement in the learning process (Rea 1999;
Rea, Millican, and Watson 2000; Wasserman 1992). We offer the following
strategies for teaching science to visually impaired students. Many of the
instructional strategies discussed are applicable to all students, regardless of
visual ability, in the promotion of active engagement in the learning process
and safe laboratory practices.
Alterations made in instructional procedures for visually impaired students
should be minimal (Lewis and Doorlag 2003). According to Blankenship and Lilly,
curricular goals should be identical for both typical and visually impaired
students (1981). This is understandable because students with visual impairments
do not differ in their cognitive ability from other students (Kumar, Ramasamy,
and Stefanich 2001). Because typical schooling is primarily visually oriented,
students with visual impairments often experience academic difficulties (Kumar,
Ramasamy, and Stefanich 2001). Therefore, it is crucial that science education
explore alternative means of science learning experiences for the visually
impaired science student (Figure 1).
Science classroom adaptations
According to Trowbridge, Bybee, and Powell, “students with visual impairments
learn through sensory channels other than vision, primarily hearing” (2004,
277). Therefore, visually impaired students should be seated closest to the
sound source. Likewise, visually impaired students should sit in an area of the
classroom with the best lighting. “Positioning a student’s desk so that the
light comes over the shoulder’s non-dominant hand helps reduce glare” (Miller
2002, 119). Unfortunately, the best area for optimal sound may not be well lit
and vice versa. So, it may be necessary to allow the visually impaired student
to move from one location to another depending on what activity is taking place
in the classroom.
The physical arrangement of the classroom should also be considered when making
allowances for visually impaired students. Unnecessary obstacles in the room
should be eliminated and visually impaired students should be informed if the
room arrangement has been altered or if a temporary obstacle has been placed in
the room such as a demonstration table or movie screen (Lewis and Doorlag 2003).
Unobstructed pathways are a must, as well as placing the desk of a visually
impaired student away from any kind of potential danger (Miller 2002).
Furthermore, if possible, desks and tables should be arranged so that ample room
exists for visually impaired students to maneuver with canes or guide dogs. If
the classroom arrangement changes in any way, the visually impaired student
should be given the opportunity to practice moving about in the revised
environment. Often these accommodations are detailed in the students’
Individualized Education Plans (IEP). Lewis and Doorlag also stress the
necessity of keeping classroom doors either fully opened or fully closed to
prevent visually impaired students from accidentally running into them (2003).
This also holds true for objects in the science laboratory including doors to
safety goggle cleaning cabinets and chemical storage rooms.
Orientation and mobility training for students with sensory disabilities is also
important. “Orientation is knowing where you are, where you are going, and how
to get there by interpreting information from the environment. Mobility involves
moving safely and efficiently from one point to another” (Heward 2003, 420).
According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997,
orientation and mobility instruction is considered a related service (Heward
2003). Visually impaired students must know and be able to move about their
environment with ease. Students with a visual impairment must become familiar
with the school environment to ensure safety as well as a good learning
Lab safety issues
Issues of safety are often first-priority concerns for teachers of visually
impaired science students. Because the science laboratory can be a hazardous
environment for all occupants, laboratory safety should be the first topic
discussed in all science classes. Particular precautions should be in place in
laboratories in which visually impaired students are working. We suggest that
science teachers arrange a time for visually impaired students to “tour” the
science laboratory. Ideally, this would be during the teacher’s planning period
or before or after school, when the lab is vacant and the teacher has the
students’ undivided attention. These students need to become familiar with the
science lab environment so that they can move about the room with ease and
locate necessary equipment and materials such as emergency showers, fire
extinguishers, eye wash stations, and first aid kits (Kumar, Ramasamy, and
Non–visually impaired students should also be prepared for the presence of a
visually challenged student in the science laboratory. Establishing a rule that
visually impaired students always have the right-of-way when they are moving
about the class is recommended as well as cautioning students to keep aisles as
barrier-free as possible. Students should also be warned about moving desks and
other classroom furniture and materials from their regular placements without
first warning visually impaired students. Non–visually impaired students should
also be briefed about the function of guide dogs and cautioned against treating
them as pets. The teacher should ask the class for volunteers to work as a lab
partner with the visually impaired student. This will prevent the assigning of a
lab partner who may be unwilling or uncomfortable working with a visually
As with all students, during the course of a laboratory lesson, especially when
working with chemicals, visually impaired students should wear rubber gloves, an
apron, and goggles (Kucera 1993). When applicable, plastic measuring devices and
containers should be substituted for glassware and rubber mats should be used
for stabilizing glassware, especially when liquids are being transferred.
Hotplates are also suggested as a substitution for Bunsen burners, if possible.
Figure 1 offers a metric lesson modified for visually impaired students.
Figure 1. A metric measurement lesson modified for visually impaired (V.I.)
Metric ruler (premarked tactile for V.I. students)
Meterstick (premarked tactile for V.I. students)
Graduated cylinder (premarked tactile for V.I. students) or liquid measuring
spoons (for V.I. students)
Triple beam balance (premarked with tactile markings for V.I. students or
Thermometer (talking, premarked tactile, large display, or colored alcohol for
Three different sized containers (e.g., beakers, food jars, film canisters)
Water (colored water for moderately V.I. students)
1. Use a metric ruler to measure lines A, B, C, and D on this page (these lines
will need to be painted over with puff paint for V.I. students). Write the
length of each line (in mm) on that line.
2. Use a meterstick to measure the length and width of your classroom. Be sure
area is clear of obstructions for the V.I. students. Write these measurements
(in cm) in Table 1 (an enlarged version of the table can be made with puff paint
for the V.I. students).
3. Use a graduated cylinder to measure the liquid volume of three different
containers (liquid measuring spoons may be used by the V.I. students: 1 tsp = 5
mL, 1 tbsp = 15mL, 1 c = 240 mL OR colored water may suffice for the moderately
V.I. students OR a science partner may have to aid a completely blind student by
placing their finger on the marking corresponding to the water level in the
graduated cylinder). In Table 1, record the type of containers and their volume
4. Use a triple beam balance to measure the mass of the wooden block, and any
two other objects (e.g., jewelry, pens, books, pencils, calculators, and
eyeglasses). Also, determine the mass of an empty balloon and an inflated
balloon. In Table 1, record the names of the objects and their masses (in g).
5. Use a thermometer to measure the temperature (in °C) of tap water.
information in Table 1.
Line A: ___________ Line B: ____________ Line C:__________ Line D:__________
1. What instrument is used to measure liquid volume?
2. What instrument is used to measure mass?
3. Name a metric unit of length:
For moderately V.I. students, instructions and tables could be enlarged.
completely V.I. students, these instructions could be provided in Braille.
Lab equipment accommodations
Increasingly more attention is being paid to the development and modification of
laboratory materials for visually impaired students. Braille label makers are
available for those students who read via the Braille system. Science teachers
may use these label makers in a variety of different ways in the science
laboratory. For example, labels could be applied to chemical and reagent
containers, glassware, and other laboratory equipment. The first laboratory
activity high school science students engage in each fall should be one that
requires them to become familiar with the laboratory equipment they will be
using throughout the year. Each piece of equipment can be placed on the lab
tables along with a numbered index card with the name of the item in print for
students with normal vision and with a Braille label attached for the visually
impaired. The teacher can then describe the function of each item while handing
it to the visually impaired student. Finally, students can rotate around the lab
and those with normal vision can draw pictures of the item while the visually
impaired student explores the equipment tactilely and records descriptions in
Visually impaired students can use common laboratory measuring devices with
little or no modifications. For example, tactile markings may be added to
graduated cylinders, beakers, and flasks at the measurement required for a
specific experiment. The use of puff paint can be used for tactile markings.
Other paint products are available that have been designed specifically for
tactile usage by the visually impaired. Alternatively, premarked tactile rulers,
metersticks, and other devices are available from the American Printing House
for the Blind. Stapling markings on metersticks for tactile measurements can be
helpful. Other possibilities for modifications include punching holes in plastic
beakers and other measuring devices to mark certain measurements. Students fill
the containers with the desired liquid (noncaustic only) and the excess will
drain out of the holes. Furthermore, students who have moderately impaired
vision may be able to see the meniscus of a graduated cylinder if it is placed
against a contrasting background.
Visually impaired students may also determine the mass of an object by using a
triple beam balance if the weights are marked with tactile markings. Digital
balances may suffice for those with reduced vision. For measuring temperature in
the science laboratory setting, tactile and talking thermometers are available
commercially. Likewise, tactile timers, Braille timers, and timers with
extra-large displays are also easily obtained from companies such as Maxi-Aids.
For physical science students, Braille compasses and toned light probes are
For science teachers who do not have labs, Science Activities for the Visually
Impaired (SAVI) are complete modules that address topics ranging from scientific
reasoning to environmental energy to mixtures and solutions. These modules can
be obtained from the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California at
Berkeley (Chiapetta and Koballa 1994).
Some students with visual impairments can successfully use a microscope with the
help of a micro projector. Videos or microscopic material are also available
commercially that can be projected onto a larger screen for easier viewing
(Chiapetta and Koballa 1994).
Educational software presents challenges for students with disabilities. For
example, if students are using an interactive simulation to learn a biology
lesson, the student with low vision may be sitting to one side listening to
classmates as they describe the activity steps. Chances are, the sighted
students will leave out some details and the visually impaired student will miss
important information. The lack of accessibility can stigmatize visually
impaired students by preventing them from using the same materials as their
peers, which can actually limit their educational opportunities (Heward 2003).
Students may receive electronic versions of textbooks, with moving pictures and
links to information not contained in the primary source book. Similarly,
textbooks often go hand-in-hand with many types of tactile, kinesthetic
modifications a teacher can provide for the visually impaired student.
Students who are blind often make use of multimedia presentations, but access
the information through verbal descriptions as often as any specific piece of
technology (Corn and Wall 2002). If a teacher presents simulated frog
dissections whereby students use their computer mouse to perform directed tasks,
the student who is visually impaired is not able to obtain a similar experience
without planning, resources, and professionals devoted to preparing the task
(Corn and Wall 2002).
However, Corn and Wall also found that teachers of visually impaired students
felt more comfortable with general technology than with technology designed
specifically for students with a visual impairment (2002). This could be due to
the additional training required in the area of assistive technology. Therefore,
one barrier to the use of multimedia presentations for visually impaired
students is that teachers need to develop their multimedia skills further (Corn
and Wall 2002). The need for universal design is imperative in all subject areas
for students with a visual impairment.
Models and manipulatives
A wide variety of commercially produced three-dimensional models and
manipulatives are available for science students, whether the students are
visually impaired or not. Elaborate and intricate models of plant and animal
cells, internal structures of worms and frogs, steps of mitosis and meiosis,
types of bacteria, and cross sections of trees, for example, can be purchased
from biological supply companies (but often at expensive prices). If models are
to be used by blind students, care should be taken that the components are
represented three-dimensionally rather than through color codes.
Although the process can be time consuming, it is more economically feasible to
create models. Once again we suggest the use of puff paint and common household
materials to create various models. Students can even benefit by constructing
their own models. For extra credit, biology students could create a
three-dimensional tactile cell, complete with organelles. “The Incredible
Touchable Cell” contest can result in the most amazing creations to represent a
cell and all of its components. Cells made of shoeboxes or modeling clay with
embedded objects like marbles, rubber bands, pipe cleaners, and small rubber
balls used to represent organelles, are examples of tactile cells created by
students. Visually impaired students often create some of the most unusual
cells; through this process, these students can successfully learn the different
organelles found in cells.
Demonstrations are an integral component of science instruction, but often must
be modified for visually impaired students. The teacher should place more
emphasis on oral descriptions of scientific processes rather than textual
representations of the demonstration so that visually impaired students might
gain a mental picture of what is taking place (Ratliff 1997). For example, if
the demonstration involves the chemical reaction of two elements, the teacher
should fully describe—or have other students describe—the physical appearance of
the individual elements and their separate chemical properties followed by a
vivid depiction of the reaction process and its product(s). Having normally
sighted students accurately describe the demonstration will help these students
develop the skills of careful observation and effective communication. The
teacher should also pass around physical objects related to the demonstration as
it takes place (Ratliff 1997).
A compilation of advice for teaching visually impaired students (provided by
Kumar 2001; Trowbridge, Bybee, and Powell 2004; and Weigerber 1993).
Allow the audio taping of lectures;
Provide large-print copies of textual materials;
Provide for the translation of textual materials into Braille and adaptive
Assign a typical student to describe in detail visual representations such as
videos, slides, and overhead transparencies to the visually impaired student;
Supply tactile representations of diagrams and graphs;
Allow extra time for reading and viewing;
Use the student’s name when addressing him or her;
Provide numerous laboratory science experiences; and
Allow students to manipulate relevant scientific objects, models, and other
materials when possible.
Student involvement in demonstrations is also an excellent instructional
strategy for the visually impaired. For example, when introducing volume, a
bucket can be filled with water to the brim and placed inside a cake pan. The
visually impaired student can then be asked to form a fist with his or her hand
and insert it into the water up to the wrist. The overflow is then caught in the
cake pan. The student can then pour the water from the cake pan into a large
graduated cylinder whereupon a measurement of the volume of water (equal to the
volume of the fist) can be measured by tactilely feeling the raised gradations
on the side of the cylinder.
Modifications in testing procedures are necessary for many visually impaired
students. Whenever possible, teachers should use a practical form of assessment
rather than a written assessment. For example, when assessing knowledge of an
animal cell’s structure, a visually impaired student can feel the different
organelles on a three-dimensional model and verbally identify them.
Alternatively, textual examinations may be translated into Braille for those who
read with Braille and may otherwise be modified for those who do not. For
example, Friend and Bursuck suggest that wider line spacing, spacing between
words and margins, and larger fonts be used in test construction (1999). They
also suggest the use of taped responses to essay questions on examinations.
Visually impaired students may also benefit from a reader reading the test
information to them. Students who have Braille note takers may respond to test
questions as they are read to them by typing answers.
Visually impaired students are just as cognitively capable as other students in
science and should be provided ample opportunities to engage in science-related
activities. Our hope is that the suggestions provided in this article will help
teachers develop ways to enhance scientific learning for visually impaired
students. With encouragement and motivation, these students may not only succeed
in the classroom but also someday choose to pursue science-related careers.
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Sandy White Watson (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) is an assistant professor
and Linda Johnston (e-mail: email@example.com) is an assistant professor and
director, both at the Teacher Preparation Academy, University of Tennessee at
Chattanooga, Department 4154, 615 McCallie Avenue, Chattanooga, TN 37403.