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General Tips for Teaching Science to Students with Visual Impairments

General guidelines for making science accessible to students who are blind or visually impaired.

Where to Begin?

Perhaps you are a general education teacher and you have just gotten your first student with a visual impairment.  Or perhaps you are a new teacher of the blind or visually impaired (TVI) looking for ways to adapt science lessons for students on your caseload.  Maybe you are a parent looking for ideas to try at home.  Whoever you are, we hope that you will find the resources and activities on this site to be useful in making science accessible to all students!  Use our activities as a jumping off point to create your own strategies.  Let us know about new resources in the field.  This site encourages active participation from all members of the community.

How Do Blindness or Visual Impairment Affect Learning About Science?

Students who are blind or visually impaired need repeated hands-on experience to learn many concepts.  While children with sight are able to observe the natural world around them, those who have a visual impairment do not have access to the same type of incidental learning.  For example, looking up at constellations or seeing the vastness of the ocean provides an immediate understanding what is meant by “stars” or the size of the ocean.  Students who are blind will need to learn about these concepts using tactile representations and verbal explanations.

Collaboration Is Essential!

None of us is an expert in everything, and working closely with other members of the team is the first step.  Find out from the TVI what the student is able to see and what learning medium is preferred.  Find out from the science teacher what the key concepts are for each lesson.   Communicate clearly with the paraeducator about adapting materials for each lesson.  Be sure to include the parents and student in the discussion too!

Considerations When Adapting Activities and Materials

Many of the activities and experiments on this site can be found in books or other websites, but they have been adapted for students who are blind or visually impaired.  Just because something in a book or on the internet doesn’t say “for the visually impaired” doesn’t mean it won’t work with your students.

In planning science activities for students are who visually impaired there are a number of factors to consider.

  1. How much useful vision does the student have?  Work with other members of the team to find out about how much functional vision the student has.  Discuss with the student’s TVI (Teacher of the Visually Impaired) what environmental modifications are most useful, including lighting, contrast, magnification, placement of materials.  Eliminate glare and provide preferential seating, as needed.
  2. How are the student’s gross and fine motor skills?  Consult with the OT and PT regarding hand skills, such as pouring, cutting, measuring, and movement and balance issues.
  3. What are the student’s orientation and mobility skills like?  Spatial awareness and travel skills are important in classroom experiments.
  4. Is the student aware of laboratory safety?
  5. What klind of general science background knowledge does the student have?
  6. What is the student’s preferred medium for learning?  All materials should be presented in the student’s preferred format or formats, including large print, braille, auditory, tactile or some combination. 

Many of these factors are similar to those that teachers of the visually impaired evaluate in planning any learning activity for their students. For example, a teacher might ask themselves if the student’s vision will be of use to him or her during an activity.   Almost all activities can be easily modified so students can participate.  The APH publication Adapting Science for Students with Visual Impairments has some excellent suggestions on adaptations.

What Are Tactile Graphics?

Tactile graphics are a way to convey non-textual information to people who are blind or visually impaired, and may include tactile representations of pictures, maps, graphs, diagrams, and other images.  A person with a visual impairment can feel these raised lines and surfaces in order to obtain the same information that people who are sighted get through looking at pictures or other visual images.  Click here to learn more about Tactile Graphics.

General Teaching Tips

  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.

Where Can I Get Adapted Materials?

Many materials can be adapted using simple household items and a little creativity!  In addition, specialized materials are available through American Printing House for the Blind (APH) using Federal Quota Funds.  To learn more see Science and Health Materials from APH.  In cases where materials are available through a particular vendor, a link to that product or site is included.  Perkins does not endorse specific products or vendors.

More Ideas for Getting Started!

Accessible Science collage