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Tips to make biology labs accessible

Wondering how to make a college-level introductory biology course accessible to a student with visual impairments? Check out these ideas!

Accessible Science was recently contacted by the ADA Coordinator from a college with a question about making an introductory biology course accessible to a student with visual impairments.  The coordinator is responsible for ensuring that students with disabilities have access to course content, as dictated by the Americans with Disabilities Act.  She was seeking advice on how they can accommodate a student who is totally blind in this biology course.  The student uses VoiceOver and knows some braille.  Educators and Scientists from around the country have pooled their suggestions and they are shared here.

General suggestions

Kate Meredith from GLAS Education offered the following: The first thing to understand is how will this person learn the content in the first place.  That is the basis of the exam.  If they are using models and tactile graphics to learn the content, that should be provided for the exam.  Sighted students are being asked to recognize the anatomy of a dissected pig, not by being given random descriptions but by interpreting the image or real thing for themselves.  No less should be provided to the blind student.  The learning goals should not be watered down.  The career goals for this student can also help to determine where the performance outcomes can be modified.

How can a histology lab exam be made accessible?

Histology refers to the study of tissues and cells under a microscope.  In this part of the course, students have a histology lab exam, where they look at pictures of microscopic images and answer multiple choice questions based on the pictures.

Caroline Karbowski, who is a Research Assistant in the Department of Biological Chemistry and Pharmacology at The Ohio State University, offers the following suggestion:

How can a gross anatomy lab exam be made accessible?

Gross anatomy is the study of anatomical structures that can be seen by the naked eye, such as the external and internal bodily organs. In this part of the course, students look at images of a dissected pig and answer multiple choice questions. There are some models and some structures, but the structures are painted without any tactile marking.

Caroline Karbowski suggests instead of using photos of a dissected pig, have a real pig dissected for the student to touch. You could use braille labeled pins to point out the organs mentioned in the questions.

Dr. Hannah Ainsworth, who is a Professor of Biostatistics and Data Science at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, suggests using clay to quickly make what is under the microscope to touch in real time, especially if the image is temporary.

How can images be made accessible?

If there is any Alt Text for the images, there is concern that the Alt Text would give away the answer to the question.

Matthew Guberman-Pfeffer (who is himself legally blind) from Baylor University offered the following suggestion: This article on 3D-printed lithophanes may be helpful: (A lithophane is a thin plaque of translucent material, normally porcelain, which has been molded to varying thickness, such that when lit from behind the different thicknesses show as different shades, forming an image.)

How 3D printing could help blind researchers ‘see’ data

Fingers exploring tactile image

Virtually any image can be made universally accessible to blind and sighted at the same time. Prof. Bryan Shaw at Baylor University has developed this approach, and used it to show, for example, electron micrographs of a butterfly chitin scale to blind high schoolers.

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