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Science labs and low vision

How to make classroom science labs accessible for students with low vision.

As part of the requirements for high school graduation and my major in data science, I had to take several different introductory lab science classes covering topics such as geology, biology, chemistry, environmental science, and computational science. While my computational science labs were completed using a computer, my other lab classes required me to engage in real-life experiments and work with a variety of different materials to learn various concepts. While these tips are not for any specific type of lab science, here are some of my general tips for making science labs easier to complete for people with low vision.

Have a partner

My science classes often had us do labs with partners, and this helped me tremendously. My lab partners were often one of my friends, so I didn’t have to worry about explaining my low vision or limitations to them. We also would have our own trade-offs for segments of the assignments. For example, they would weigh items and give me the numbers, and I would document them and help perform calculations. They also would measure items for me and keep me from spilling things everywhere. We were not completely safe from mess-ups though- just ask my science teacher who watched as my friend and I misinterpreted some instructions and had a marshmallow shoot through the ceiling. However, having a lab partner is a great way to help prevent things like this from happening more often.

Why lab partners are important

I didn’t realize how great having a lab partner was until I had a teacher who wouldn’t let me have one. Their reasoning for this is that it was unfair to the other students to work with a disabled student. As a result, I often had lower grades on assignments and it took me longer to complete them, if I completed them at all. I had great difficulty with seeing the lines on lab equipment, and was nervous around chemicals and fire due to my low vision. There was also a fear that I would accidentally blow up the classroom or set off the fire alarm. I recognize that the teacher had limited resources due to our large class size and did not have access to low vision or assistive technology information, but I definitely preferred to work with others when possible.

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Utilize a paraprofessional, co-teacher or TVI

Students with low vision may benefit from having a different type of lab partner. Instead of a fellow student, a paraprofessional, co-teacher, or teacher of the visually impaired can assist with completing a lab, as they often have more experience with developing lab assignments with low vision in mind, or can take extra time to provide visual descriptions.

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Adapt assignment formats to accommodate large print

A lot of the standard lab sheets required students to write information in a small text box or draw graphs in a fixed area. Due to the scaling settings for the large print assignments, these often would get cut off or be too small for me to write everything clearly. Instead of cramming words into a smaller section, I worked with the teacher to modify the template for my lab so that text boxes and answer areas took up the full width of the page, instead of having several vertical text boxes next to each other. Having digital assignments also meant I could request high resolution graphics that were easier to zoom in on.

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Use video magnifiers instead of microscopes

In a college geology class, the lab instructor had us look through a microscope to see the details in rocks. Since the microscope did not provide a wide enough viewing angle, I used a video magnifier that projected onto a larger screen, and was able to use this image to fill out the lab assignment. There are specialty video microscopes that provide higher magnification powers, but for this lab, a standard video magnifier did the trick.

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High-tech applications for the science lab

Some of my favorite applications that I use on my iPad in science lab classes (and other classes in general) include:

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Don’t forget about low-tech assistive technology

While it’s no secret I love high-tech devices, low-tech or no-tech assistive technology tools are just as helpful in the science classroom. Some examples of low-tech assistive technology tools include:

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Request safety classes without magnification

Some safety goggles have built-in magnification power, which can be disorienting for students that rely on prescription glasses to see. When possible, request safety goggles or glasses that do not have built-in magnification, and never remove prescription glasses if it is unsafe to do so.

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Ask for alternative activities, if needed

If I am in a situation where not seeing something correctly could pose a risk of injury for myself or others, I will not participate. This is a personal preference, not a commentary on people with vision loss as a whole- I do not feel comfortable working with lighters/fire, putting my face close to containers that are being filled with chemicals, dissecting anything, or carrying heavy objects, and there is no amount of adaptations or modifications that can change that. Thankfully, my teachers are very understanding of this and have allowed me to complete other activities such as watching videos of science experiments and taking notes, or observing a partner as they completed these tasks. The Described and Captioned Media Program offers several free science videos complete with audio description for grades K-12.

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Other tips for completing science labs with low vision

By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes, www.veroniiiica.com

Updated August 2023; original post published January 2018

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