Equal Access: Science and Students with Sensory Impairments

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The words "DO-IT" are superimposed over scenes of students in science labs. A young man pours liquid into a funnel. He wears protective goggles while putting liquid in a beaker with a dropper. "Equal Access: Science and Students with Sensory Impairments". A young woman is walking down a sidewalk - tapping a white cane in front of her.
[Teacher] Morning, Lindsay.
[Lindsay] Hey!
[Narrator] Lindsay's a high school sophomore, but she's already thinking about career options.
[Lindsay] Science and math are probably what I would want to go into, as a, you know, a career, when I'm out of college.
[Teacher] Let's go to work.
[Student] Straight ahead, Lindsay.
[Narrator] She likes everything about science.
[Lindsay] I've always liked medical science. I always watch medical shows. And I've always been interested in, like, prenatal development and, like, genetics. And I really like chemistry a lot. And I'm excited to be taking physics next year. And then I'm thinking I might take advanced bio.
[Lindsay] Okay, so, um, mass of copper...
[Narrator] In fact, Lindsay is so good at science that she skipped the basic 9th grade science class completely.
[Lindsay] Which is nice 'cause then I get one more year of other science. You know, one more year to take another science class.
[Teacher] Just kind of rough it up a little bit with the steel wool.
[Lindsay] Okay.
[Narrator] This year, in chemistry, there's quite a bit of lab work. Lindsay's teacher is learning new things, too. It's the first time he's taught a student who is blind.
[Jay] I have to think ahead, like, several days, because I have to have all of my materials converted over to Braille. And then in lab, so much of chemistry labs are visual.
Jay Radmer, science teacher
So I've had to train the kids that she works with to describe everything.
[Lindsay] And what's happening?
[Lab partner] Uh, the nails are just rusting.
[Lindsay] Okay, nail is .....
[Narrator] Lindsay may have a slightly different experience from her classmates, but the knowledge she's gaining is the same.
[Lindsay] The color changes aren't just to see, "Oh, wow, it's turning blue." The point is to see, wait, copper is blue; okay, that's why it's turning blue.
[Professor] Here are the controls for our telescope.
[Narrator] An interest in science or math is a great benefit to 21st century students, leading to exciting career options. And success in those fields does not depend on perfect hearing or vision.
[Richard] There's an amazing number of very successful scientists and researchers that are blind, totally blind.
[Richard] So find the Burke Museum.
[Narrator] Richard Ladner is a computer science and engineering professor at the University of Washington. He's working with a group of graduate students on software which will be helpful to students with visual impairments.
[Sang Yun Hahn] The title of the project is Tactile Graphics Project. And what we are trying to do is develop a software that can convert graphical images into tactile form as automatically as possible.
[Narrator] Tactile drawings, or raised line drawings, are not new. Tim used them when he was a medical student at the University of Wisconsin.
[Tim] I use raised line drawings, which can represent things such as cross sections through the brain, or what another student might see on a microscopic slide. And this helps me understand the same material that the other students might pick up visually.
[Narrator] It can be time consuming to convert images to a tactile format. The ideal is to make that process simple, so that any visuals can be made accessible in a timely way.
[Sang] The transcribers can convert the images much easier than now. Currently, it takes about four or five hours per image. But it is possible to convert and process in just a few minutes or something like that.
A student dissects.
[Narrator] Other accommodations vary, depending on the type of lab work being performed and the needs of individual students. Students with visual impairments may need a variety of options.
[Lab partner] Okay, now push down...
[Narrator] For students with hearing impairments, accommodations focus on one area.
[Richard] The main issue there would be communication and making sure that the person has an interpreter, a sign language interpreter, and things like that so they can communicate with their colleagues.
[Narrator] Other communication tools include captioned videos and lab instructions in writing. And for students who are hearing impaired but not deaf, an FM system allows them to hear the instructor.
[Gretchen] I've got the new digital technology right now, and what it does, it has a little boot that connects onto the hearing aid, so it's wireless. "Wireless". It's really cool. And it's basically a digital connection from the microphone box, which you connect to the speaker, and then it would transmit the information to this little boot.
[Instructor] Gretchen, does this work okay?
[Gretchen] Yeah.
[Alan] What you're going to do is hook the crayon to one end of the string that you've tied. The other end is hooked to the two thumbtacks. And as tight as you can, draw an ellipse.
[Student] Whoa!
[Narrator] Alan Roth taught science at Washington State School for the Blind. His students had a wide range of visual impairments.
[Alan] I think you need to realize that each student's an individual, so I will read and find out about their eye condition. Some eye conditions, there's no central vision, but there's peripheral vision. So I have to read ahead of time and do my homework and make the modifications based on what the student's needs are. You're going to put the crayon-- and you can show Jonathan-- and circle all the way around.
[Student] Oh, I get it.
[Alan] Okay? Cool.
[Student] Whoa, that's neat.
[Narrator] Some of those modifications are homemade. In this class, for example, students are making ellipses with a clipboard, string, and some tacks.
[Alan] What number is this? I use meter sticks that are Brailled. I use graduated cylinders that have flotation devices in them so you can measure liquid level. If we're studying a cell, I'll get something like a glue gun, which I use a lot. I'll use fabric paint, and I will draw it on paper and then I'll raise it up with just the lines from the glue gun or the fabric paint, and then I've got a ready model that's dry in 20 minutes and I can hand to a student. It really is easy to do.
[Narrator] Commercial products are also available for lab work. Alan uses a number of these with his students. A talking thermometer.
[Thermometer] The indoor temperature is 23 degrees Celsius.
[Narrator] A thermometer with enlarged numbers. And a thermometer with Braille numbers. A triple beam scale with deeply-filed notches and glue dots to mark one-gram increments. A light sensor with audio signals.
[Alan] And it measures the intensity of light,
or how much light is filtering through. Red [beep], orange [beep], yellow [beep]
[Narrator] A graduated cylinder with large print and a notched plunger marked in 5 milliliter increments. Raised-line drawings with Braille labels.
Lindsay in a lab.
[Student] And more and more of the iron nail is flaking off.
[Narrator] Students can take lab notes using portable Braillers or microcomputers with text-to-speech software. For Lindsay's chemistry class, she also uses a larger Perkins Brailler to make scientific notations. She takes her exams in the Student Services office.
[Jay] The last test that we had was on balancing chemical equations.
Radmer's test prints in braille
So I write the test, [sound of Braille printer] they convert the test to Braille,
[Sound of ripping paper] they give her the test in Braille, then she uses the special chemical symbols Brailler.
[Kay] Did you have a chance to look over the lab with him, so you know what's going to happen?
[Lindsay] Yeah.
[Narrator] Kay Adamson, in the Student Services office, offers support and assistance to both students and teachers. Before Lindsay started chemistry class, Kay offered advice to her teacher.
[Kay] Just sort of teaching him a little bit about blindness, like what kinds of things he might need to pay attention to in his class. For example, when he writes something on the white board, to say what he's written. Or to just kind of check with Lindsay. When he's giving a demonstration, we've tried to adapt some of them so that Lindsay can see all the pieces when he does the demonstration. He tries to stand in front of her when he's talking about...when he has a model, for example.
[Jay] Why do you think it's green? It was blue before.
[Student] Because of the...
[Lindsay] The iron?
[Jay] Ah, the iron, that's right.
[Narrator] And, of course, Lindsay herself is a good resource for teachers.
[Jay] She's been doing this a long time. She's been accommodating to school longer than I've been accommodating my classroom to her, so she knows a lot of things that she needs.
[Professor] Yeah, that's what's nice about an eyepiece, there's the focus right here, you can focus it for your eyesight.
[Shaun] Okay.
[Narrator] Shaun, another student who loves science, would agree with that.
Students gather around a telescope.
He's learned how to accommodate his visual impairment during lab work. Microscopes were a particular challenge.
[Shaun] Microscopes are generally pretty small, and then even when you have something smaller underneath it, I can't see details sometimes. So I have to use a television, like a television link with the microscope.
[Narrator] Shaun's done his own frog dissection, but relied on his lab partner for assistance with a fetal pig.
[Shaun] He told me what he was doing cutting-wise. I can, basically, you know, cutting from...cutting the parts open, cutting the cavity open, you know, opening it all up and then tell me what he was pointing to, or how he was doing something, because I couldn't see well enough to do it myself.
[Narrator] Shaun uses beakers with enlarged marks, materials with large print and high contrast, and sometimes enlarged drawings of organs for things he can't see during dissection. And besides working with a partner, he collaborates with his teacher on accommodations.
[Shaun] Best thing I can recommend to anybody is just talk to your teacher and modify your experiments, because a lot of stuff was too dangerous for me to do without a partner, by myself. Just have the teacher help you, either after school or before school, just find a way to do it, because it's really fun when you can do the experiments.
[Marsha] First I'll send around the skull of a man....
[Narrator] Marsha Ogilvie has seen the classroom from both sides. She was in college, taking science classes, when she became blind.
[Marsha] In human genetics class I used pipe cleaners to build strands of DNA, human DNA. And they worked perfectly because it's basically a ladder-like structure, and you could do random mutations and stuff like that by taking rungs out of the ladder, or putting different size rungs back in the ladders that connected the two strands of pipe cleaners. And so it worked real well.
[Narrator] Marsha went on to study biological anthropology in graduate school. She found that studying bones worked well as a tactile experience.
[Marsha] If you know the structure of a bone, then if there's an abnormality there it jumps at you instantly. So that's how you can get at disease processes that have affected bones. For right now, we're going to tell the police, "Well, that doesn't look like it could be hers; it might be someone else."
[Narrator] Marsha's business is analyzing bones to determine whether they're prehistoric or modern. And if modern, she looks for medical or legal significance. She has advice for students who plan careers in science.
[Marsha] They need to take major responsibility. And you just have to, by your example, show people what you're capable of. Because if they haven't tried it, they don't know.
[Alan] Go.
[Narrator] For teachers and professors, the most important element for success may be attitude.
[Alan] Okay.
[Narrator] Expect participation, listen to your student, and be willing to make accommodations.
[Richard] You're going to encounter all kinds of different people in your life and you just can't go along the way you normally do in some situations. And you have to give a little and you will actually get a lot out of it. You know, my advice to faculty members is just adapt a little bit. After all, this blind person has to adapt a lot.
[Narrator] Seek advice from disability services staff at your school and work with the student to determine what, if any, accommodations are necessary. And allow students with sensory impairments to achieve their own success in the classroom.
[Lindsay] There's always ways you can work around the labs, you know; there's always ways you can...for blind people to do science, and as long as you develop good communicative skills, and just being able to develop the skills in order to get it done. It's definitely doable.