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Accessible Online Learning: Personalized Access to NSDL, Teachers’ Domain and Access for All standards
Resources for Teaching and Adapting Science Lessons for Students with Visual Impairments

Sighted children learn many things through observation of the world around them and by watching the actions of other people. Students with visual impairments do not benefit from this incidental learning and require more direct instruction and hands-on experiences to develop a complete picture of objects and concepts. For example, sighted children see hundreds of images of pumpkins and jack-o-lanterns throughout the year. However, a blind child may only touch a pumpkin or jack-o-lantern once a year. Consequently, the link between pumpkins and jack-o-lanterns is not reinforced after an annual pumpkin carving and can be quickly forgotten.

With support from the Grousbeck Foundation, the WGBH National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) and Perkins School for the Blind collaborated on a project to explore the use of Teachers Domain lesson plans and described videos with students with visual impairments. The resulting lesson plans identify teaching approaches and materials designed to maximize the impact of Teachers’ Domain videos and activities.

Special thanks to the teachers and administrators at the Perkins School for The Blind who contributed their time and expertise to this effort: Robert Hair, Becky Hoffman, Betsey Sennott, Carolyn Hannon, Jessica Erlich, Mary McCarthy, and Missy Boucher. Below are their general recommendations on teaching and adapting lessons for students with visual impairments.

  1. Preview concepts taught within a lesson before discussion or class presentation.
  2. Allow extra time (2-3 times as long) for exploration of materials. Multiple exposures to the same material is desirable.
  3. Provide students with all materials (lesson plans, activities, notes, definitions, handouts, etc.) in accessible formats such as Braille, large print, digital, tactile, or audio.
  4. Describe the object or concept using consistent vocabulary and make comparisons in terms of size, texture and behaviors to objects and things the student is already familiar with, e.g., a person’s heart is about the size of a fist or a butterfly’s wing is thin like tissue.
  5. Provide clear, simple tactile graphics with each lesson.
  6. Provide hands-on materials whenever possible. Multi-sensory lessons provide both auditory and graphic learners a chance for greater understanding. Note that that a visually impaired learner may have different learning modalities; for example, some visually impaired students may learn better with magnified images than with tactile images.
  7. Always present hands-on materials for a lesson in a tray to keep the materials within the reach of the student.
  8. Encourage students to use their available senses (smell, hearing, touch, taste when appropriate) to explore their environments and materials.
  9. Provide as many opportunities for experiential learning as possible such as trips to museums with simple machines and hands-on exhibits. A trip to the frozen food aisle in a grocery store to experience shivering from frosty air, a visit to a farm to walk through a corn maze or pick strawberries, or a trip to a garage to deflate and fill a tire with air and feel the growing pressure can all broaden a student’s understanding of the world.
  10. Explain and label objects and materials in a systematic parts-to-whole sequence. Provide opportunities to explore and identify all of the parts and help students develop a mental model of how the parts can combine to create a whole. For example, a student’s tactile experience with a chair may be limited to the seat and the back. They may never have explored the legs of a chair or may not have understood that there are a range of designs for how chair legs support the seat and back.

Perkins and the other schools and organizations listed below offer additional teaching strategies, science-focused activities, and materials for teachers working with students with visual impairments. The resource links will prove helpful in finding lesson plans, assistive technologies, adaptive equipment, tactile models as well as tools such as talking scales, talking thermometers, Braille labelers, and Braille rulers to use in adapting classroom experiences and experiments. Many general school supply companies offer a wide range of models from plastic toys representing the life cycle of plants, frogs, ants and other insects to sophisticated anatomical models and tactile representations of the solar system or molecular models. Another valuable teaching tool is the Talking Tactile Tablet (TTT), which can be used by a wide range of students. The touchpad can be used with Braille and/or tactile overlays that a teacher can create. When used in conjunction with a computer, the touchpad triggers content on the computer. Both the overlays and the computer-based content are completely within the teachers control i.e., a teacher can create a tactile, map it on the touchpad, and link it to specific content on the computer, such as a sound file that identifies what the student is touching and provides levels of additional information.

The WGBH National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) offers guidelines for describing STEM concepts and images to learners who are blind or have low vision and helped shape general guidelines for description of educational media through a collaborative project conducted by the American Foundation for the Blind.

The Perkins School for the Blind was the first school for the blind in the United States and has a wealth of expertise to offer teachers working with visually impaired students including teaching tips, Webcasts, a searchable database and a research library. The Perkins Accessible Science site offers a video tutorial specifically on how to make science content and labs accessible and meaningful to students with visual impairment. Clips from Perkins classrooms illustrate recommended practices in action. Perkins also offers a number of additional science lessons to use with students with visual impairment.

The National Federation of the Blind operates the National Center for Blind Youth in Science which serves as a clearinghouse for information about how blind youth can best learn and understand scientific and mathematical concepts. Programs include summer sessions, research projects, mentoring programs, and technical support. The site also offers teachers a library of instructional video clips which highlight proper tips and techniques for empowering blind students in the classroom as well as a Resources section, which is organized according to the STEM areas with links to everything from Braille periodic tables and tactile maps to talking thermometers and graphing calculators.

The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) maintains a list of recommended resources and products for teachers and programs serving students with visual impairment. APH’s "Adapting Science for Students with Visual Impairments – A Handbook for the Classroom Teacher and Teacher of the Visually Impaired” is an excellent resource. APH also offers the Sense of Science kits with light box overlays mentioned in the adapted Teachers’ Domain lesson plans as well as numerous other educational materials for Braille and large print users. The overlays are both tactile and in color so sighted and blind students can work together. APH also maintains the Tactile Graphic Image Library, which offers hundred of downloadable images to run through image enhancers, add other materials, or modify in programs such as Adobe Illustrator or CorelDraw. Guidance on creating tactile images using swell paper and other technologies is available from the Tactile Graphics website.

Inclusion in Science Education for Students with Disabilities offers guidance on recommended teacher and classroom behaviors, teaching strategies and resources for meeting the needs of students with visual impairment including methods and tools for inclusive field trips and laboratory research.

The Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired maintains a comprehensive list of resources for teachers and parents with links to technology and math resources and to each state’s instructional resource center. Finally, AccessSTEM, the Alliance for Students with Disabilities in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, offers accommodation strategies, promising practices, case studies and resources to help teachers more fully include students with disabilities in classroom experiences and STEM learning opportunities.

Links to Lesson Plans