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Lucy Greco

  Accessibility in Education


Accessibility of Science Instructional Material and Courses for Students with Disabilities

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Previously, Lucy Greco detailed how students with disabilities found it difficult, if not nearly impossible, to access Mathematics modules in schools and colleges owing to a lack of accessible content and assistive technology software that cater specifically to making math textbooks accessible. In this article, the author focuses on the state of accessibility of science courses in the United States higher education field.

Image: Testubes filled with chemicals Image: Two girls in a physics lab working on an experiment

Images above: (left) Chemistry lab paraphernalia; (right) two students in a Physics laboratory

Many of the problems in accessing science relate directly to mathematics. However, one of the other significant problems is that science is a very visual field. A biologist needs to know what a cell looks like. Chemists need to be able to understand from a diagram the physical bonds between molecules to understand how those molecules are formed and work together. Computer scientists need to be able to follow the flow of their code and understand how the throughput works by following flowcharts. This is all done through visual diagrams and images.

How many times in a class were you shown the picture of a human heart or brain? How were you able to understand the different sections of that heart without seeing the individual chambers? How would you be able to understand the simple biological principle of a heart without those pictures? A blind person is not able to see the picture and needs to have other ways of interacting with this very important information. Benetech Literacy Solution is working on a diagram-description project called Diagram, which will include verbal descriptions of diagrams and pictures found in textbooks.

Several years earlier, ViewPlus Technologies created a special braille embosser that creates amazing tactile graphics. The Tiger Braille Embosser can create a braille graphic that contains multiple colors. For the first time, we could create images other than black and white. These images are still restricted by resolution, but now we can create simple tactile images that contain more information than ever before. An instructor can create a diagram and indicate important information by using different colors.

ViewPlus has done a wonderful job to improve teaching visual concepts to students who are blind and visually impaired with its family of braille embossers. Tactile graphics also help students with learning disabilities because sometimes feeling an image makes more sense than seeing it. This is still such a new area that there isn’t enough research coming out, but early signs show that tactile graphics can do amazing things to help teach previously inaccessible content.

One of the biggest drawbacks of tactile images is the inability to add metadata to them. Remember that a braille character is almost a full centimeter (about 0.4 inch) in size. So each character you place in the diagram crowds the image and limits the detail you can present. There are a few different techniques that have been found to be extremely effective in adding the relevant information to images. These techniques create richer educational tools for all instructors. Touch Graphics has created a system that allows a student to explore a diagram and receive as much information as the author of the diagram is able to provide.

The Talking Tactile Tablet is a simple touch screen that lets the user feel the tactile image and when they press slightly harder on the image, an attached computer will speak whatever information the author wanted the student to know about that point in the diagram. Through a research grant in connection with Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, Touch Graphics, Inc. has made this rich learning method more portable. By using the same idea of relating data to a point on the page, a student can use a live scribe pen to get the same metadata for the diagram without having to lug the tablet or computer to class. This allows the student to sit in the classroom with their fellow students and learn at the same time.

So what now? How do we encourage the use of these tools so that the technology can improve for the future? Everyone in the educational system needs to be more informed about what is happening with technology today. Too many administrators and educators are so bogged down with the details of accommodating people with disabilities that they forget that the research component is even more critical than addressing current individual student’s needs.

Years ago I remember speaking to my boss about the fact that to serve my students, I needed to test new products and be as involved as possible in research, only to be told that my priority was not research but to serve the students first. I understood his point of view but I felt that this was very shortsighted. By making sure that new technologies work as effectively as possible and working with creators of these technologies to help them fix them, I think I am serving a greater number of students than by providing one student at a time with a braille book.

We do need to be sure our current students are receiving accommodations, but we also need to find ways to free students from the need for those accommodations in the future. And we need to prioritize that above all else. Technologists need to work collaboratively at the systemic level and to support creators of technology to ensure that new technologies are accessible to all students and persons with varying levels and forms of disabilities.


Related Resource

Related Blog: Electronic Text and Law: Making Math Accessible for Students with Disabilities | Read blog by Lucy Greco.

Related News: Proposed ASL Signs Could Change how Deaf People Discuss Science | Read article on

Related Publication: Special Needs Education and Inclusion | Download free PDF.

Related Event: Assistive Technology Across the Lifespan Conference | December 6-7, 2012 at Wisconsin, USA