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Visual Impairments

Students with visual impairments include those with low vision and those who are blind. Students who are blind may use Braille to read. Students with low vision tend to read print, may use optical devices, or may also read Braille like their peers who are blind. Both students who are blind and have low vision may require specialized equipment and materials. The extent of a student's visual impairment depends on the eye condition. Vision also may fluctuate or may be influenced by factors such as inappropriate lighting, light glare, or fatigue. Hence, there is no "typical" vision-impaired student. The major challenge facing students who are visually impaired in the science educational environment is the overwhelming mass of visual material to which they are continually exposed, such as textbooks, class outlines, class schedules, chalkboards, writing, models, images and other graphic materials, etc. In addition, the increase in the use of films, videos, computers, and television programs adds to the volume of visual material to which they have only limited access. To assist in teaching a student with a visual impairment, unique and individual strategies based on that student's particular visual impairment and his/her communication media is required. (e.g., Braille, speed listening, etc.).

Geerat Vermeij
Geerat Vermeij is a Dutch paleontologist and one of the world's foremost authorities on mollusk evolution. He has been blind since the age of three.

Students with any type of vision impairment will have a method of accessing the learning material. It may be a laptop with zoom text, an enlarger that sits on the desk, a program such as which allows them to see what is on the teacher's laptop on their laptop, enlarged text, or something else that makes the material accessible to them. If you have a student with an impairment severe enough to need this type of assistance, the case manager should be in touch with you before school starts to let you know what will be needed in the classroom. Tactile models are often very useful. You can run a thin bead of glue over all drawings so the student can also feel what they are seeing. If there is a narrow field of vision this allows the student to know that the diagram continues outside of their field of vision. You should be aware that many students with visual impairment get eye fatigue and find it much harder to read material by the end of the day. This may influence the order of the classes if that is a change that can be made. Also remember that this student will very often be unaware of visual cues that you are using and probably use routinely without being aware of it.

  1. Speak to the class upon entering and leaving the room or site.
  2. Call the student with a visual impairment by name if you want his/her attention.
  3. Work with a student's intervention specialist for specific educational needs such as change in lighting, classroom seating, and print medium (also known as a teacher of students with visual impairments).
  4. Use descriptive words such as straight, forward, left, etc. in relation to the student's body orientation. Be specific in directions and avoid the use of vague terms with unusable information, such as "over there", "here", "this", etc.
  5. Describe, in detail, pertinent visual occurrences of the learning activities.
  6. Describe and tactually familiarize the student to the classroom, laboratory, equipment, supplies, materials, field sites, etc.
  7. Give verbal notice of room changes, special meetings, or assignments.
  8. Offer to read written information for a person with a visual impairment, when appropriate.
  9. Order the appropriate text books for the students in their preferred medium. Be sure to use the state NIMAS center for help in ordering textbooks.
  10. Identify yourself by name, don't assume that the student who is visually impaired will recognize you by your voice even though you have met before. Be sure to identify others in the room as well.
  11. If you are asked to guide a student with a visual impairment, identify yourself, offer your services and, if accepted, offer your arm to the student's hand. Tell them if they have to step up or step down, let them know if the door is to their left or right, and warn them of possible hazards.
  12. Orally, let the student know if you need to move or leave or need to end a conversation.
  13. If a student with a visual impairment is in class, routinely check the instructional environment to be sure it is adequate and ready for use.
  14. Do not pet or touch a guide dog. Guide dogs are working animals. It can be hazardous for the visually impaired person if the dog is distracted.
  15. Use an auditory or tactile signal where a visual signal is normally used.
  16. It is not necessary to speak loudly to people with visual impairments.

General Strategies

The degree of impairment and the student's background and training (like the degree of proficiency in Braille) will affect the usefulness of the various strategies and suggestions. The various strategies given below are only suggestions. Work with a student's intervention specialist for specific modifications that are needed. Description will be necessary for pictures, graphics, displays, or field sites, etc.; the student's identification queries; and differentiation of items where touch will not discriminate; and in orientation and mobility aspects in unfamiliar situations.

  1. Bring to the student's attention science role models with visual impairments to the student. Point out that this individual achieved by a combination of effort and by asking for help when needed.
  2. A wide selection of optical devices are available that can be used by visually impaired students to assist in reading or working with objects that need to be observed.
  3. A screen reader, closed-circuit television, or a similar system can be used to read a computer screens.
  4. A screen magnifier may be used to enlarge print on a computer screen.

General Information Access for Persons with a Visual Impairment

  1. Visual material needs to be accompanied by a verbal description. If you are demonstrating how to use a piece of equipment, be sure to describe the equipment and what you are doing to operate it. Read overheads aloud and describe the content of slides (see note below about large print). In a conference presentation setting, you will probably want to provide all descriptions yourself. If you are showing a video, describe the action. If you distribute videos as handouts, any action or an explanatory text that is crucial to understanding the presentation should be narrated.
  2. If there are multiple speakers (such as a panel), have each speaker introduce himself or herself to the audience so that the speakers' voices are keyed for the audience as to their identity.
  3. Handouts should be available in large print, audio, digital, and/or Braille formats. If this is not possible prior to your presentation, note the various individuals' preferred formats and then make your materials available to them within a short time after your presentation.
  4. Large Print—People who have low vision may be able to see print if it is large enough. Prepare print information on white paper with sharp, black ink. Standard print is generally 10–12 point type. Large print is 16–18 point and up, generally an enlargement setting of 160–175% on a copy machine. Try darker settings on the copy machine to increase contrast without producing streaks. Many computer programs offer a variety of font types and sizes. Verdana or Arial is preferred. (On most newer versions of browsers, you can select Text Zoom from View Menu of the browser for larger view.)

Teacher Presentation

  1. By verbally spelling out a new or technical word, you will be helping the student with a visual impairment, as well as other students.
  2. Whiteboards can be used to enlarge pictures for students with low vision
  3. All colored objects used for identification related to a lesson, experiment, or other directions should be labeled with a Braille label maker or otherwise tactually coded for most students with vision impairments.
  4. Describe, in detail, visual occurrences, visual media, and directions including all pertinent aspects that involve sight.
  5. Use a sighted narrator or descriptive video (preferably the latter) to describe aspects of videos or laser disks.
  6. Describe, in detail, all pertinent visual occurrences or chalkboard/whiteboard writing.
  7. Have lesson directions and class handouts available in Braille or in large print as needed by the student at the same time his peers are working.
  8. Have tactile 3D models, raised-line drawings, or thermoforms (see this web page) available to supplement drawings or graphics in a tactile format when needed. Describe the tactile diagram to the student and teach him the features of the diagram.
  9. Whenever possible, use actual objects for three dimensional representations.
  10. Modify instructions for auditory/tactile presentation.
  11. Use raised-line drawings for temporary tactile presentations.
  12. Use a chalkboard/whiteboard, graphs, or slides as you would normally, but provide more detailed oral descriptions, possibly supplemented with tactile diagrams and written descriptions when appropriate.
  13. Allow student to use a recording device, if needed, for recording classroom presentations or the text to use to study for future examinations.
  14. Make all handouts and assignments available in an appropriate form: e.g., regular print, large print, Braille, or recorded, depending on the student's optimal mode of communication.
  15. Use a monocular or assistive devices for long range observations of chalk board or demonstration table presentations.


  1. Describe and tactually/spatially familiarize the student with the lab and all equipment to be used.
  2. Consider alternate activities/exercises that can be utilized with less difficulty for the student, but has the same or similar learning objectives.
  3. Use an enlarged activity script, directions, or readings for a low-vision student (or taped script for a student who is blind) for use with tactile 3D models.
  4. Make all handouts and assignments available in the appropriate form for the student: e.g., regular print, large print, Braille, or tape depending on the students optimal mode of communication.
  5. Assistance may be needed for converting certain laboratory materials from a visual to a tactile format.
  6. Familiarize the student with a visual impairment on the lab equipment to be used, if needed, before the activity.
  7. Allow more time for the laboratory activities, if needed.
  8. Always try to keep materials, supplies, and equipment in the same places.
  9. Use a videomicroscope or similar device to help the student with a visual impairment examine images from a microscope.
  10. Be sure that all solid and liquid chemicals are in proper containers with braille and large print labels placed in a specific location in the room.
  11. When using a Bunsen burner be sure to place the burner on a slide resistive surface or use a slide resistant mat/liner. This will prevent the burner from moving while conducting experiments.
  12. Use Descriptive Video for videos or DVDs. If Descriptive Video is not available, use a sighted narrator to describe movies, videos, or slides.
  13. Provide means for the acquisition and/or recording of data in an appropriate medium for the student.
  14. Always use a test tube holder when heating up a tube on the Bunsen Burner.
  15. Plastic lab wear is a safer option for students with visual impairments to use when possible.
  16. Make equipment available that the student with a visual impairment can access in interpreting and understanding the results of laboratory exercises (e.g., audible readout voltmeters, calculators, talking thermometers, magnifiers, etc.).
  17. Use a hot plate for heating instead of Bunsen burner when possible.
  18. Label material, supplies, and equipment with regular print, large print, and/or Braille, as appropriate for the student with a visual impairment.
  19. Pair the student with a visual impairment with a sighted student. Then have the sighted peer describe the activities and outcomes as they are observed. Caution: be sure the student with a visual impairment is working in the lab and is not just acting as a scribe.
  20. A closed circuit television can be used to magnify images.
  21. Use assistive technology devices to provide auditory scanning of laboratory materials, written directions, or symbols.
  22. When working on circuits, be sure to allow the student with a visual impairment to use a buzzer instead of a light to complete the circuit.
  23. Prior to the enrollment of a student with a visual impairment in class, obtain laboratory equipment that has the ability to produce adaptive outputs such as: a large screen, print materials, or various audio output devices.
  24. In order to determine Ph, magnification devices can be used along with talking color detectors.
  25. When heating water or any other solution, the use of heatproof gloves is recommended.
  26. When using pipets, the use of a colored index card or paper behind the tube as background can enhance the contrast for a student with low vision.
  27. Use fixed and adjustable pipets to help with measuring liquids for experimentation.
  28. Be sure that all electrical cords are taped down to the floor to avoid tripping and falling or getting caught by canes.
  29. Use of a dissecting microscope and closed circuit television can help model during dissections. Be sure to familiarize the student with a visual impairment regarding the use of cutting instruments. (Videos are available online to instruct teachers about dissection with students who are visually impaired.)

Group Interaction and Discussion

  1. Describe and tactually/spatially familiarize the student to the classroom.
  2. Allow recording of the materials being discussed if necessary.
  3. Be sure that all students state their name prior to speaking to ensure that the student with a visual impairment knows who is speaking.
  4. Be sure to provide a note taker or other assistive technology device so the student with a visual impairment can take notes in the appropriate medium as necessary.

Text Reading Systems

  1. Paid or volunteer readers or writers can assist a student with a visual impairment with texts, materials, and library readings .
  2. Offer to read, or arrange to have read, written information for a person with a visual impairment, when appropriate; but preferably have material available in proper medium for the student.
  3. Arrange, ahead of time, for audio book acquisition of the text or other reading materials through the Talking Book Service, Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic, text reading systems, or audio output devices (check out Book Share). Be sure to use your local Instructional Materials Accessibility Center.
  4. Various Braille devices and assistive technology devices can be used to assists vision impaired students when reading.

Field Experiences

  1. Make all handouts, safety information, and assignments available in an appropriate form (e.g., regular print, large print, tactile Braille, or cassette).
  2. Consider alternate activities/exercises that can be utilized with less difficulty for the student, but has the same or similar learning objectives.
  3. Have an orientation and mobility instructor accompany you on field trips. As a last resort, sighted guides can be used.
  4. Do detailed description and narration of objects seen in science centers, museums, and/or field activities.
  5. The use of a laser cane or mowat sensor can be useful in assisting the student in unfamiliar surroundings.
  6. Make arrangements for tactile examinations, if touch is not normally permitted (say, in a museum) then contact the curator for tactile access to a museum display items or say, in a zoo for access to a plant/animal species and/or collection).


  1. Review and discuss with the student the steps involved in a research activity. Think about which step(s) may be difficult for the specific functional limitations of the student and jointly devise accommodations for that student.
  2. Use appropriate lab and field strategies according to the nature of the research. (see above)
  3. Various Braille Devices and assistive technology can be used to assist students with visual impairments when reading.
  4. Suggest that the student use a recording device to record the various activities. If necessary, have a sighted peer describe the actions/reactions of the test subjects or materials.
  5. Provide access to proper recording devices in the preferred medium for the student to take field notes and report out findings
  6. Allow student to create tactile graphs and diagrams to report data


  1. Present examinations in a form that will be unbiased to visually impaired students. Ask the student for the approach he/she finds to be most accessible.
  2. Make tests available in the appropriate form for the student: e.g., regular print, large print, Braille, or tape depending on the student's optimal mode of communication.
  3. Allow more time if needed.
  4. Allow the student to record answers using assistive technology when needed.
  5. Make use of visual magnification (magnifier or closed circuit television), assistive technology, or dark line paper answer sheets for written responses.
  6. Be sure to understand the accessibility requirements and recommendations of your state before mandated tests are given.


American Foundation for the Blind

The Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired is a teacher organization that provides professional development for educators. They often have presentations on STEM related topics.

The Council for Exceptional Children – Division on Visual Impairments is a practitioner-driven organization that provides professional development for educators. They too have presentations on STEM related topics.

STEM-VI Research Laboratory at UAH 

Focusing on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education for Students with Visual Impairments

This Resource Guide for the Physically Blind is an annotated list of resources including organizations providing support, tips, and further information about blindness for those who are blind or visually impaired.

Assistive Software for Visual Impairment

Access Adobe
A resource designed to help people with visual disabilities work more effectively with Adobe Acrobat Software.

Access Unlimited
Various links to web sites for low vision and other disabilities.

AER Online
Association for the Education and Rehabilitation of the Visually Impaired Programs, services, and products for people who are visually impaired.

American Printing House for the Blind
APH is the largest not-for-profit company that creates educational, workplace, and lifestyle products and services for people with visual impairments.

About Braille
Information about Braille Systems used in the United States.

Blindness Resource Center
Eye diseases, the history of Braille, latest research.

Helen Keller National Center For Deaf-Blind Youth and Adults
This center operates an extensive system of field services nationwide for people who are deaf-blind within their local communities and their families, as well as public and private service providers and professionals.

L&H Kurzweil 3000
Developer of reading technology for people who are blind and for people with reading difficulties.

Louis Database: Accessible Materials and APH File Repository (Vision)
The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) currently houses a database called the Louis Database of Accessible Materials for People who are Blind or Visually Impaired. Louis contains information about tens of thousands of titles of accessible materials, including braille, large print, sound recordings, and computer files from over 170 agencies throughout the United States.

National Association of Blind Students
The National Association of Blind Students (NABS) is a division of the National Federation of the Blind. Established in 1967, NABS is an organization comprised of blind high school and college students and is dedicated to changing the negative attitudes and stereotypes that exist about blindness in order to secure equality, and opportunity for all blind students.

National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
The Library Service provides, free-of-charge, recorded and Braille reading materials to persons with documented visual or physical impairments.

National Organization of Parents of Blind Children
NOPBC provides magainzes for parents and teachers of blind/VI children and a national network of people to turn to for ideas and advice. NOPBC is a division of the National Federation of the Blind.

The Rehabilitation Research Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision
Has individuals interested in research and training programs that focus on the need to identify, assess, and augment services intended to facilitate the employment and career development of persons who are blind or severely visually impaired.

Books and Videos

Hoffman, R., & Kitchel, E. (2006). Adapting Science for Students with Visual
Impairments: A Handbook for the Classroom Teacher and Teacher of the Visually Impaired. The American Printing House for the Blind.

Hadary, D., & Cohen, S. (1978). Laboratory science and art for blind, deaf, and
emotionally disturbed children. Baltimore: University Park Press.

Kumar, D., Ramassamy, R., & Stefanich, G. (2001). Science for students with visual
impairments: teaching suggestions and policy implication for secondary learners.[Electronic version]. Electronic Journal of Science Education, 5, 1-9.

Koenig, A., & Holbrook, M. (Eds.). (2000). Foundations of education second edition
volume II: instructional strategies for teaching children and youths with visual impairments. New York: AFB Press

Wild, T. & Koehler, K. (2008). Teaching science to students with visual impairments.
Penguins and Polar Bears [electronic journal].

YouTube Videos

Accessible Science: Making life sciences accessible to students with visual impairments
Series of videos that not only provide instruction for educators, but shows students completing various science tasks.

NFB Youth Slam
Student-produced video of a camp for students' with visual impairments that focuses on STEM. Students are interviewed and shown doing a variety of projects. There are several Youth Slam Videos from multiple years with different STEM projects profiled.

NFB Blind Driver Challenge
Talks about the technology used to develop a car for blind individuals. Multiple videos are available on this topic.

Youth Slam - Biology
Shows a video of a student who is blind dissecting a shark.

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