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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 July 2011 Issue  Volume 12  Number 7

Access to Academics

Seeing the Possibilities: An Analysis of STEM Resources Available for People with Vision Loss

I was pleased to hear AccessWorld was once again publishing a back-to-school issue, due to the fact that I have wanted to contribute information about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) for quite some time. STEM has been a hot topic, with the media regularly featuring articles and broadcasts proclaiming that more Americans should become interested in these fields. Yet what about people with vision loss? Many think that STEM subjects are so visual they should not be taught extensively in elementary, high school, or college to this group. Many also think it would be impossible for a person with vision loss to be employed in these areas.

Well, I can personally testify that these assumptions are false. I hold a bachelor's degree in Biology with a minor in Chemistry, and have gained competitive employment in two STEM jobs, one at my University's Chemistry Department and another with an internship in the genomics laboratory at the University of Rochester Medical Center. My situation is not unique; there are a large number of people with vision loss employed in STEM fields, and you can learn more about them by visiting AFB CareerConnect, where many are either listed in the database of mentors, or are the subjects of success stories.

My purpose in writing this article is to cite factual information to prove people with vision loss are capable of successfully studying STEM subjects in school, and that without a doubt, this same population can be employed as scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.

Biology

Every time I mention my major, I get asked about microscope work. There are several ways to adapt this area in order to come to a complete understanding of the visual content at hand.

All of you are familiar with using a sighted lab assistant who describes verbally what is seen under the lens. The assistant can pair this with a tactile representation of what is being studied for better understanding—either making a raised 2-D image or 3-D model. Other adaptations exist, ones that I believe very few know about. For instance, I was surprised to discover that some toy companies offer scientifically accurate models of specimens at an extremely reasonable price, available on sites like Amazon and eBay, or directly from the manufacturer.

Tedco Toys offers a large number of 3-D models that can assist in teaching the core concepts of Biology. One of particular interest is the animal cell, as all students must learn its structure. Tedco's version is about six inches in diameter, costs around $25, and has 24 removable parts. I purchased one to learn more about it, and it was absolutely worth the money—the model was durable and I could feel the Golgi apparatus, nucleus, mitochondria, lysosomes, etc. This "toy" was far superior to a 2-D tactile version or homemade 3-D model, since all the structures were created in vivid detail. All students, sighted and blind, can learn from this model. Other models of microscopic items sold by Tedco Toys are the plant cell, red blood cell, white blood cell, virus, and bacteria.

Another resource for tactile 3-D microscopic organisms is Microbe Models, which offers items made of polyurethane plastic. These are fairly expensive options, but highly specific, with 90 varieties of algae, viruses, and bacteria on offer. Using these models it's possible to actually "feel" what whooping cough looks like under the microscope.

For low-vision users, remember that a standard microscope can be connected to a video magnifier (CCTV) so the image can be projected in a much larger size. A newer product is a microscope that connects to a computer, which allows you to use screen magnification to display the image in various contrast schemes and magnification levels.

Tactile versions are not just needed for microscopic objects—people with vision loss also find raised images useful for learning about biological structures that can be seen by the naked eye, such as the structures of the human body.

I'm sure that most of you know about companies that specialize in creating diagrams for the visually impaired, but you may not realize that there are mainstream companies that offer similar aids. One with relatively low-cost diagrams is the Anatomical Chart Company, with its offerings of 3-D raised-relief charts 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, to name just a few. These charts provide a very tactile, extremely convex, 2-D representation that rises high above the paper. All diagrams are very detailed, and appropriate for high school and college studies. The charts are fairly large in size, on average about 18 by 25 inches, and cost in the range of $15 to $ 25.

Chemistry

Anyone studying chemistry should contact the Chemists with Disabilities division of the American Chemical Society, which offers a myriad of helpful resources.

For adapting chemistry classroom work for students who are blind or visually impaired, a common question is how to convert the huge amount of graphical content, especially for organic chemistry, into an accessible format.

Many do not realize that chemical structures are used over and over again in this work, such as carbon atoms, arrows in chemical reactions, and numerical superscripts. To make things easier, one can create a stockpile of tactile versions, which can be used starting in high school, and continued through college and on to the job site. One resource for these types of materials is MDW Educational Services, which sells a Tactile Adaptations Kit with materials of varying textures that can be used to depict any visual item. This company also provides consultations for adapting all areas of STEM.

Another resource related to interpreting graphics is a research project called MOLinsight, which uses speech output to review complex molecular structures. NavMol is a program that allows users to navigate the molecule atom by atom. It analyzes each specific atom, showing various bond types, and describing various chemical groups. Another program this same group is working on, BrailChem, is an electronic version of the periodic table of elements.

The Laboratory

Now, to cover a topic many are curious about: Is it possible for a blind person to independently perform lab work? For an overview of many products and techniques, visit the Independent Laboratory Access for the Blind website, created with help from the National Science Foundation, Indiana School for the Blind, Penn State, and Truman State University, among others. The site features extensive descriptions of adaptations.

AccessWorld has reviewed several standalone color identifier units in past issues. Also, the iPhone has its own Color Identifier app, which appears to surpass all others when it comes to the number of shades it can identify. The app gives the shades names like Atomic Orange, Cosmic, Hippie Green, Opium, and Black-White. Think about the applications: with this technology students can tell if litmus paper is red for acid or blue for base, or observe color changes occurring during a chemical reaction.

Instead of using braille or large-print labels on chemicals, many visually impaired chemists find it more practical to use an electronic bar code reader, due to the fact that more vital information can be encoded and communicated this way, such as chemical hazards. It is also difficult to feel braille when wearing gloves; bar coding solves this problem.

One can consider using talking kitchen scales and thermometers, but be aware that lab work usually deals with data spanning a wide measurement range, so make sure to check that these products are suitable for a given task. For example, a lot of the kitchen scales measure in 1 gram increments—great for weighing pond water for an ecology experiment, but not suitable when doing organic chemistry.

Keep in mind that many devices, like a pipette or autoclave, just require that you memorize the number of button presses or turns of a knob required to perform a given function. I've used a pipette when doing polymerase chain reactions, where DNA must be distributed into mini test tubes. Robots now perform much of this type of work, due to the fact that even sighted people have trouble manipulating such small volumes of substances.

The last product is still in the development phase but is available for sale. Vernier Labs initially designed the LabQuest device for sighted students, as a single unit that could perform over 500 standard lab operations. The LabQuest consists of a central handheld electronic unit that works in conjunction with separate probes, each with a unique purpose (e.g., pH reading, temperature, pressure, voltage, etc.). Cary Supalo, founder of the company Independence Science, saw the assistive possibilities in the LabQuest, and helped with the creation of built-in software to provides speech output, and a PC interface that graphs data for statistical analysis

Engineering and Math

I thought it would be wise to combine these two areas into one category, since they use similar adaptive materials. These first two resources will help anyone doing anything related to math and visual impairment, from elementary school through college.

The Hadley School for the Blind offers a distance education program with courses in many subject areas. The program is free to people with vision loss. The Nemeth Braille Code course covers all of the symbols for arithmetic, geometry, and algebra. If you are currently in high school and are having difficulty with your teacher adapting math classes, take Hadley's pre-algebra —they may count towards a high school diploma.

Everyone must take math in school—there's no getting around it. I strongly recommend the Math section of the website for the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. There, teacher Susan Osterhaus shares her extensive knowledge, including guidelines for creating tactile graphics, suggestions for calculators for blind and low vision students, and ideas on converting print to braille using Duxbury and Scientific Notebook software.

A common problem many face is a lack of time to adapt the curriculum—converting print to alternate formats takes time. Many school systems are limited on funds; some may not have a teacher of the visually impaired, and those that do have such a teacher often require that he or she serve many students, once again making time an issue. One product that is under-utilized in the high school classroom is the Virtual Pencil software sold by Henter Math. The product runs on Windows and is sold in two versions. The arithmetic version handles addition, subtraction, multiplication, long division, fractions and decimals. The algebra version deals with quantities, radicals, exponents, subscripts, Greek letters, absolute values, matrices, fractions, and many other features. The student uses a screen reader and computer keyboard to perform all of these operations and I was astonished at the complexity of the program. Also, be aware that future versions are expected to do higher levels of math, like trigonometry, differential equations, and calculus.

This program has enormous time-saving applications. Using Virtual Pencil, the regular classroom teacher can create accessible homework and tests in electronic format. No need for a teacher of the visually impaired to translate print into braille, or to convert the student's braille answers back into print.

Another time-saver is to have the visually impaired student learn the math symbols with a sighted person, using a raised line drawing board, Wikki Stix, or magnetic numbers to teach shape and size. I'm disappointed that this type of learning and teaching is not stressed as a vital skill—I know it would make for enhanced communication between sighted and visually impaired students and teachers. Think about it: a teacher decides to give a pop quiz in class, so there's no time to convert anything to braille. Having the student use a tactile version of the material would be a perfect solution for this scenario. You can create your own number set using all types of materials and raised line writing boards, or purchase Math Window from Wolf Products, which uses magnetized tiles available in braille or large-print formats.

This tactile method can be used from elementary school all the way through college Calculus. Many of you know that Dr. Nemeth, even though totally blind from birth, was able to write examples on the blackboard for his sighted students, so I know this skill will help with one's success in STEM fields.

Calculators

I will not go into all of the calculator options for blind and low vision students, since I think most readers are familiar with what is sold by mainstream companies and by vendors of adaptive products. I will point out that ViewPlus Technologies, the vendor of the Tiger embosser, sells the Accessible Graphing Calculator (AGC), one of the first commercial adaptive products to perform advanced graphing calculations. The software is self-voicing, using tones of varying pitch to represent the shape of a graph. 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 using the Tiger embosser.

You shouldn't forget that you can use Microsoft Excel with a screen reader or screen magnification, as I did in college and various employment settings, to perform basic to advanced mathematical and statistical operations. One positive aspect of this method is that sighted users understand how the program works, so if there are problems you have a large amount of technical support available. Also, it's easy to cut and paste formulas into a document to submit as homework assignments or tests. You can use Excel to create all kinds of graphs and tables, but it does not provide analysis as the AGC does.

For those with low vision, consider using Texas Instrument's TI Interactive! software, which allows manipulation via screen magnification, contrast, and font sizes. This is a better option than using a CCTV with your calculator, since more magnification is possible, and you don't have to interchange the calculator and textbook under the video magnifier camera. The software has a simple-to-use interface; you can use the mouse to click on the on-screen keypad, or use keyboard shortcuts.

Conclusion

I hope that those interested in becoming a scientist, engineer, or mathematician will feel more confident in their career choice after reading this article—it's absolutely possible for someone with vision loss or blindness to fully participate in STEM fields!

Please pass along this information to as many people as possible. Contact me if you have questions or comments, or to let me know if there are products or technologies you think I should know about.

Additional Resources

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

AAAS publishes the journal Science, as well as other publications. They have a huge number of programs designed to bring science literacy to all, and they offer resources for businesses, scientists, teachers, and students.

Access2Science

Articles about making the science curriculum accessible to people with print disabilities.

DO-IT AccessSTEM

Contains content geared toward all disabilities, providing suggestions for adapting both the laboratory and classroom areas, including video demonstrations.

National Federation of the Blind Science Site

Success stories of people working in various STEM fields, information about science camps, and suggestions for adapting various subjects.

Perkins School for the Blind—Accessible Science

A variety of resources for helping visually impaired students in STEM.

American Printing House for the Blind

Features the Louis Database where you can search for an accessible STEM textbook and find out where to purchase a variety of products.

SciTrain Accessible classrooms

A number of online training courses that train educators on methods to help people with disabilities in biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, etc.

WGBH Center for Accessible Media

A great resource for anyone who is having difficulty providing verbal descriptions of graphical STEM items, like math equations, bar graphs, scatter plots, pie charts, flow charts, and other complex material. While it's geared toward people narrating talking books, many others will benefit.

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Copyright © 2011 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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