students sitting at desks in a classroom

Back to School with a Student with Visual Impairments

Back to school! And...

Back to school!  And… there will be a student with a visual impairment in your science classroom!

Don’t panic!  Most science teachers already have a variety of materials in their labs and classrooms that work well for teaching science concepts to all students, including those with a visual impairment.  Let’s look at some of the skills and concepts that we science teachers pass on to our students. These include observation skills, the understanding of scale, patterns, and developing a sense of wonder and inquiry, as well as many others! And so many opportunities to connect with skills from the Common Core! Encourage them to use descriptive language to describe all the changes they observe.

Use ALL of the Senses

As every scientist knows we observe with ALL our senses. Consider this a golden opportunity to improve the observation skills of all your students.  Ask them to notice sound changes that happen during an experiment. Did it fizz? Were there popping noises?  Did the sounds change during the course of the experiment? 

We teach all our students to waft the odors toward their noses, not put their noses to the top of the beaker or Erlenmeyer flask.  The same applies for the student with a visual impairment.  Ask all your students, “How would they describe an odor?” Did the smell change during the experiment?  Are you teaching diffusion of gases? You probably already use the activity where you put perfume in a closed shoe box. Open the box and the molecules travel gradually throughout the room.  Everyone can let you know when the molecules reach their noses.

A student holds up a live turtle.
A student holds up a live turtle.

In teaching classification, encourage making observations with our sense of touch. For example, give each student a pile of varied sea shells using their sense of touch to identify the different shapes and textures. Did you know that one of the most successful evolutionary biologists, Dr. Geerat Vermeij is totally blind?  In chemistry all students can make a version of silly putty. It can be used to illustrate the linking of polymers. But it is so much fun to pull, and stretch and break! Even sophisticated high school students will remember that lesson!

In science lab the general rule is, of course, no tasting of any substances. Consider however asking to use a teaching kitchen and try some experiments using food that can be tasted. Mayonnaise is a great example of an emulsion. Make some lemonade and check its acidity using sensors that talk.  That Vernier Lab Quest that is in many science classrooms is available in a version that speaks.  Students with a visual impairment can work side by side with their sighted peers collecting data in the kitchen and in the lab.


Student examining a tactile model of DNA with his teacher
Student examining a tactile model of DNA with his teacher

Making Visual Information Accessible

Of course, many activities in science require visual observations. First of all there are ALL those pictures in the textbooks and on the websites! Think about all those models you have stored in the storage room. You haven’t used them very much now that everything is digital.  Dig them out or borrow some. All the students will want to touch that 3-D model of the cell. Try out building models of molecules with the kit from Molymod™. It is designed for all chemistry students and it has identifiably tactile features.  Race those cars down a ramp in physics and calculate speed with the help of talking software! 

Most students with a visual impairment have some useful vision. Talk privately with the Vision teacher assigned to your school and to the student to find out about the student’s vision.  The Vision professional can help you to locate and adapt materials ahead of time.  The student who is blind can ask another student to make visual observations and describe them. The student who is blind can make all the other observations and describe them! Science classes encourage collaboration.  As you collaborate with others at your school, your students learn to collaborate and work together like scientists on a research team.

Additional Resources

For further information contact [email protected].

Also check out the following resources:

Science Literacy cover
Science Literacy

 Science Literacy: A Curriculum for ALL Students with Sensory Impairments. Fraser, Kate and Mary Zatta (Editors). Watertown, MA: Perkins School for the Blind, 2016.

This curriculum meets the individual needs of diverse learners. Individuals learn about the world mostly through their senses of vision and hearing. When vision and hearing are reduced, the losses affect communication and concept development, resulting in the need for significant adaptations to how content is taught and learned. This curriculum has been developed with these adaptations in mind.

Making Science Accessible

Making Science Accessible – A Guide for Teaching Introductory Physics to Students Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired. Engelbrecht, Michele and Kate Fraser. Watertown, MA: Perkins School for the Blind, 2010.

For the science teacher in the mainstream science classroom working with a student with visual impairments.

Adapting Science for Students with Visual Impairments: A Handbook for the Classroom Teacher and Teacher of the Visually Impaired.

Adapting Science for Students with Visual Impairments: A Handbook for the Classroom Teacher and Teacher of the Visually Impaired. American Printing House for the Blind, 2006.

This free download from APH has numerous suggestions for making science accessible to students who are blind or who have low vision.

APH Tactile Graphic Image Library
APH Tactile Graphic Image Library

APH Tactile Graphics Image Library is a free online resource offering vector images in PDF format, along with .png and .stl files. Before class starts, have your graphic ready to go by downloading and using it with swell paper, high-resolution graphic embossers, the collage method, or with a 3 D printer (.stl files only).

Azers periodic tableAzer’s Interactive Periodic Table Study Set, Louisville, KY: American Printing House for the Blind, 2008.

Containing information in both large print, bright colors, and Braille, this set includes supplies to build models of atomic structure, as well as tiles for all the elements, yields arrows, parenthesis, etc. Use them to build a periodic table or to construct chemical formulas.

Basic Tactile AnatomyBasic Tactile Anatomy Atlas, Tamburlin, Judith, Ph.D. and Charles Severin, Ph.D; Louisville, KY: American Printing House for the Blind.

The tactile diagrams of many parts of the human anatomy are clearer than in many textbooks that have been transcribed into Braille.  Used together with 3-dimensional models of organs, these graphics help clarify the study of human anatomy


Cover of Earth Science Tactile Graphics
Earth Science Tactile Graphics

Earth Science Tactile Graphics. Louisville, KY: American Printing House for the Blind.

Earth Science Tactile Graphics depict processes, concepts, and structures typically covered in middle and high school Earth Science courses.

Life Sciences Tactile Graphics

Life Science Tactile Graphics: Color/Tactile Diagrams  Louisville KY: American Printing House for the Blind, 2010

Large color pictures with raised tactile features and large print labels and braille. This collection includes many of the most important pictures in life science. And it works for everyone!



Independence Science

Meet Cary Supalo, a chemist who is blind. Learn about talking sensors for the lab

OceanInsight:  Musings of a blind oceanographer

Meet Dr. Amy Bower a physical oceanographer who is blind.


science tips collage

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By Kate Fraser

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