Setting Up the Science Classroom for Students with Visual Impairments

For teachers and students this is a busy time of year! However there is a group of teachers that is probably even busier than most: the itinerant teacher of the visually impaired.   And if these teachers have a student taking a middle or high school science class, it may be even busier!  Textbooks, graphs, charts, materials and labs all need to be accessible.  In addition, for the science teachers, this may the first time they have even met a blind person!  Most teachers want to do a good job including students with visual impairments in their classes.  Science classrooms can be more accessible than the teachers may originally believe!

Begin with an Inventory of the Science Classroom

dna model

First of all when the teacher of the visually impaired visits the science classroom find a time when the science teacher is not busy and walk around the classroom together.  Notice all the hands-on items already available. In a biology classroom there is usually a full size skeleton. There may also be full or half size models of the human torso.  Frequently the cell models are tactual. Giving all the students an opportunity to touch models enhances learning.
In the chemistry class room the usually are models of atoms that are 3-D and molecular model kits that are tactual. The Earth science classroom may have topographical maps that are great to touch. And in the middle school classroom, there are wonderful models of simple machines that are hands on.  In general, for younger the children, science is more hands on. Studies have shown that hands on science benefits all students at all ages!  

Explore Materials from APH

Next, the teacher of the visually impaired can introduce the science teacher to some of the wonderful science materials produced by the American Printing House for the Blind (APH).  Some of these materials can be used when the TVI does pre-teaching with the student but the science teacher may find some of these materials work well for the whole class!
Interactive Periodic Table Study
For example when learning chemistry, Azer’s Interactive Periodic Table Study Set enables students who read braille and with low vision to create their own periodic table on a large tri-fold board, and to use the tactile and brightly colored element symbols to write chemical formulas and chemical equations including subscripts and superscripts. Here at Perkins we additionally adapted our Azer’s Kit by making long strips of cardboard with Velcro on them. These strips fit nicely on the desk top and work well for writing out reactions.  Most students using braille note takers and computers quickly learn to write this on their devices after practicing with Azer’s kit.
The APH large print and Braille periodic table comes with a resource guide available in both large print and braille.  This guide book would be helpful to every chemistry student! The table itself is laminated and when rolled it fits nicely in a backpack. Also in chemistry the molecular model kits are invaluable!
3D atom modelIn biology, the APH Life Science Tactile Graphics book has textured tactile drawings in bright colors of almost every important illustration needed in a typical biology course.  More and more teachers are using online resources that are accessible for all to read. However, the pictures in the online text so critical in biology are not accessible to many students who are visually impaired. 3-D models or tactile graphics greatly improve comprehension, as well as making science more interesting to the students, many teachers and students report.
In addition, APH produces tactile Punnett squares both for one factor and two factor crosses, although for beginning students we frequently make very large Punnett squares using a tracing wheel and braille paper. Having more space is useful when first learning to write out the genetic combinations.  Also for biology but produced by Cell Zone is a 3-D cell model, which makes it possible to recreate what is actually being seen under the microscope for the student unable to see images through a microscope or on a screen.

Identify Materials and Equipment That Are Not AccessibleLanguage of Science

Finally the TVI needs to identify materials and equipment that are not accessible to the student and begin to collect these well in advance of the first day of school!  Many larger school systems have science supplies on hand but smaller systems may not. Some supplies may need to be ordered or borrowed! Some basic equipment such as tactile or large print rulers probably have already been used in math class as well as a talking regular or scientific calculator. There may already be a talking thermometer in the school.  Other adaptations may be readily available since “math is the language of science” are tactile versions of bar, line and pie graphs. However, the TVI may need to create many of these containing specific data, if they are not in a braille textbook for the subject being taught.

Data Collection

Since data collection is such an important part of science working closely with the adaptive technology or computer teacher, if that is not the TVI’s specialty, can be helpful to the student. Technology for data collection is used in many science classrooms today, as data is collected for temperature, pH, and salinity and so much more. Many companies produce data collection software, but Vernier has worked together for many years with Dr. Cary Supalo to produce talking data collection instruments. These are distributed through Dr. Supalo’s company Independence Science.    

Share Your Ideas and Questions!

We hope that this summary of ideas will be helpful to both science teachers and teachers of the visually impaired. If you have specific questions about how to adapt science instruction for a student with a visual impairment please get in touch with us here at Accessible Science or at If you are a scientist or science student with a visual impairment who has an activity or adaptation that would be helpful to others, please share your ideas with us!  We look forward to hearing from you!


Collage of setting up the science classroom