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Tiffany Wild and Karen Koehler
Talking at a national meeting of science teachers, Geerat J. Vermeij, a renowned blind marine biologist, said, "A conscious effort must be made, all the time and everywhere and by everyone, to acquaint a blind person with those aspects of the environment that cannot be heard, smelled, or easily grasped by hands and fingers. And even those things that can be observed must be pointed out" (2004). Teachers can make the world of science more accessible to students with visual impairments through collaboration and specific adaptations in both the science classroom and laboratory.
Here are some tips on making science learning more accessible to visually impaired students, which can include students who are partially sighted, have low vision, or are legally blind or totally blind. In addition, more tips and information can generally be found at state education agencies and at universities and colleges.
The elementary teacher must collaborate not only with teachers of the visually impaired and other support staff but also with the students themselves. In researching for her book Your Visually Impaired Student: A Guide for Teachers, Eileen Scott (1982) asked a group of students about their experiences in science. All agreed that good communication between the student and the science teacher was key. They believed that teachers and students should work together to plan how the student with a visual impairment will participate in the classroom and laboratory, with each person involved feeling free to offer suggestions. This collaboration is to ensure that students with visual impairments have been provided properly adapted materials, models, and charts for use (Ross and Robinson 2000).
As part of the collaboration, which can occur between many parties, including the regular education teacher and the special education teacher, the content area teacher and the special education teacher, or teachers and paraprofessionals, the teachers should discuss adaptations in textbooks, classroom materials, demonstrations, models, and videotapes, as well as modifications in the laboratory.
Students with visual impairments can be expected to take notes when their sighted peers are expected to do so (Ross and Robinson 2000). This can be accomplished in many ways. Students with low vision may use a felt-tip pen and bold-line paper. A student who uses Braille may use a slate and stylus, a Braille writer, or an electronic device to take notes in a written format. Electronic note-takers will also allow a student who uses Braille to write answers in Braille and print out a copy for the teacher.
It is important to have all worksheets and materials used in the science classroom in an accessible format. Worksheets can be printed in large print or Braille. (Large print is considered a minimum of 14-point type; for classroom worksheets, 18-point type in the Arial font is a good choice.) Teachers will want to prepare these materials in advance to allow time for reproduction. If the students have access to electronic assistive devices, worksheets and handouts can be emailed to students with visual impairments.
When teachers pass out print materials in the science classroom, they should not expect students with visual impairments to ask a classmate or an aide to read the information on the paper to them or write their answers for them.
Science textbooks often use terminology and symbols that may be unfamiliar to young students. To familiarize students with a visual impairment with this terminology and new symbols, teachers may find that large-print copies are helpful. However, teachers should be aware that, due to copier technology, some prints made by large-print vendors may not be as sharp and as clear as the original. To overcome problems of poor printing, teachers may want to look for printers such as the American Printing House for the Blind (www.aph.org) that create a true large-print version of the textbook. There are also a number of large-print books available.
Braille books may not contain all of the diagrams found in the print copy of a book. Teachers may need to verbalize what is shown in a graphic or make a tactile diagram of it. Tactile diagrams are made by raising the lines of the diagram so that a student can see the image with his fingers (see Models and Graphics below).
Demonstrations are a part of the science curriculum that requires adaptation and modifications for students with visual impairments. Adaptations and modifications can include:
Models and graphics are used just as often as demonstrations in science classes.
It can be helpful for the teacher to know the location of a taxidermist in order to provide specimens of animals for students to touch (Willoughby and Duffy 1989). This can be a learning experience for the entire class, too.
When models are not available, it can be helpful to use tactile graphics. The American Printing House for the Blind provides many helpful resources for producing graphics (Ross and Robinson 2000). Teachers can make their own tactile graphics by outlining graphics in puff paint or thick fabric paint, using sheets of heavy metal foil on which lines and symbols can be impressed from the back, using a raised-line drawing board, or making an enlarged graphic.
Not all pictures can be made into a raised-line diagram. Complicated pictures with multiple lines and a variety of colors can be difficult to interpret. A unit of Purdue University's Adaptive Programs publishes a manual about creating tactile diagrams for college courses. There are books of tactile pictures available as well on different scientific subjects.
Videotapes are another supplemental aid used in the teaching of science. Allowing a student with low vision to sit close to the television can be helpful along with having another student narrate the critical action on the tape. Providing a handout in the student's preferred reading format about the subject of the videotape can also be beneficial (West Virginia University 2004).
Many modifications can be made in the laboratory to ensure the success of students with visual impairments. It is important to make these modifications so that the students have laboratory experiences equivalent to those of a sighted student (Ross and Robinson 2000).
Any glassware used in laboratory projects should be placed in clamps or stands to add stability (Dion, Hoffman, and Matter 2000). For low-vision students, placing black paper behind the glassware may be helpful to determine the contents. Glass apparatus can be marked with tape to indicate measurement lines.
Hot plates are a good alternative to using a Bunsen burner if a heat source is needed (West Virginia University 2004).
Power cords should be kept as close as possible to the outlet and secured on the floor or ceiling with tape to insure free movement of all students in the lab (Dion et al. 2000).
Braille yardsticks and rulers are available as well as containers adapted for measuring liquid volume. Also available from supply houses are adapted time-keeping devices and weighing systems with large print, tactile, and voice output.
Students with visual impairments can be paired with sighted students in the laboratory setting (Ross and Robinson 2000). The student with visual impairments could mix and measure materials used during the lab as the partner describes the reactions. Both students should share in the responsibility of recording measurements and reactions properly. The student with visual impairments needs to be an active partner in the laboratory, not just a record keeper. This type of cooperative learning helps not only in the facilitation of the assignment but also in the social interactions of visually impaired students and sighted students.