Back to #SciComm

Tools and Techniques to Assist Visitors with Vision Impairment in STEM

By: Inas Essa

It is doubtless that Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) are highly visual subjects, which means that their teaching requires the use of visual techniques. This is the first barrier that hinders people with a visual impairment from pursuing their careers in these fields, regardless of their capabilities.

Fields like biology with its microscope work, chemistry with its educational graphical content, and more, require customized tools and techniques for these learners, to help those STEM current learners and future employees and explorers overcome barriers presented in a traditionally designed learning environment.




The Roots of the Problem

Looking at the foundation of this problem, one study shows that 70% of blind children are at least a grade level behind where they should be in math, and of that 70%, 20% were at least five grade levels behind. This highlights the difficulties and calls for immediate action from different institutions, informal ones included, to take action.

To overcome this handicap, tutors and educators should at a basic level provide verbal explanations of visual representations and built models using everyday materials. Since mental images are partially constructed from different sources of sensory information, including sound and touch, which interact with the brain's network of spatial subsystems and visual areas, hereunder are some customized tools and techniques for science-related domains that should be implemented to make them suitable for visitors with vision impairment.


Saturated with microscope work, this field could be very challenging for visually impaired people.

  • For low-vision users, it would be helpful to use a standard microscope connected to a video magnifier that displays the projected image much larger in size.
  • Besides tactile versions for microscopic objects, raised images are also useful for learning about biological structures that can be seen by the naked eye, like the structures of the human body. Also, there are available toys that embody scientifically accurate models of specimens.
  • 3-D raised-relief charts and models of the human body, including the skeletal system, muscular system, and nervous system, and the anatomy of the skin, brain, ear, digestive system, and teeth, can assist in teaching the core concepts of Biology.





Some chemistry branches, like organic chemistry, include a huge amount of graphical content. As such, converting it into an accessible format for people with vision impairment is a challenge as it is also difficult to feel braille when wearing gloves.

  • The first solution is creating a stockpile of tactile versions of the atoms, arrows, etc.
  • Using an electronic barcode reader for lab work is helpful, as the important information can be encoded and communicated this way.


Engineering and Math

  • By using a virtual pencil, there would be no need for an educator of the visually impaired to translate print into braille.
  • Using an Accessible Graphing Calculator (AGC), which contains self-voicing software that uses tones of a varying pitch to represent the shape of a graph, would be helpful and practical.
  • Other AGC features are the various magnification settings available for low-vision users, the ability to print graphs on a standard printer, and the capacity to make a tactile version of the graphs.


Accessible Measuring Devices

Besides measuring devices with large print and high contrast markings that are accessible to students with low vision, there are everyday items that can be useful:

  • Foldable ruler and tape measure with large, high contrast markings;
  • Cloth tape measure;
  • Measuring cup and spoons with large, high contrast markings;
  • Equipment labeled with tactile Braille;
  • Braille rulers and protractors.



Talking Equipment

Equipment with voice output can benefit students with visual impairments, as well as those with some types of learning disabilities. They are mixed between visual methods (e.g., large print) and nonvisual methods (e.g., braille displays and screen readers).

Special items with large print, high contrast displays that can be used by students who have a variety of disabilities, including blind and low-vision, include:

  • Tape measure that announces the length when a button is pressed;
  • Scale that states the weight of an item placed on a platform or in a container;
  • A digital thermometer that provides a voice reading when the tip of the probe is applied to the substance to be measured;
  • Scientific calculator that features a large display, high contrast keys, voice output, and a headphone option;
  • Talking dictionary that pronounces words and definitions, with options that include phonetic spelling correction and personal dictionary;
  • Reading pen that can be used to scan, define, and pronounce words from printed material;
  • Liquid level indicator to avoid over-filling a container by making a loud sound when the liquid reaches the tip of its two prongs;
  • Talking color identifier which recognizes all the common colors and uses qualifiers, such as light, dark, pale, and vivid.


Incorporating Different Concepts and Adaptations

Added to the above, there are other beneficial models and adaptations to enhance the learning process for those learners. They can be summed in:

  • Incorporating concepts for better understanding, such as (small, medium, large) for size, (many, few) for quantity, (hard/soft, rough/smooth) for texture, etc. Also, using positional concepts such as in/out, on top of, underneath.
  • Providing a variety of materials to examine, such as rough, smooth, hard, soft, scratchy, bumpy, crispy, hot, cold, warm, cool, and tepid. Also, using rocks, shells, leaves, plants, stones would generate better results in understanding materials.
  • 3-D Models are beneficial for all science learners, and people with visual impairment in particular as they should be provided with models that they can touch, explore and examine.
  • DNA Twist model that demonstrates the structure of the DNA molecule in a way that is accessible to students who are visually impaired would help introduce learners with visual impairment to biology by conveying its concepts more easily.

With simple discipline-specific adjustments, the way could be paved for visually impaired learners who have been long struggling with inequity in STEM.