I have identified 5 principles for empowering blind learners in STEM. These principles are born of over a decade of facilitating STEM learning for blind youth with the National Federation of the Blind and collaborating with blind STEM professionals and educators.
Below I describe the 5 principles beginning with the foundation, Principle 1, and building up to Principle 5.
Principle 1: Embrace Nonvisual Ways of Knowing
Acknowledge that nonvisual ways of knowing are equivalent to visual ways of knowing and actively reject the notion that the ways blind people learn and develop knowledge are objectively inferior to normative sighted methods.
- Talk about STEM as spatial rather than visual.
- Assume that if a blind person cannot perform a task or does not know something in STEM, the cause is a lack of learning opportunity or access—not blindness.
- Frame nonvisual ways of knowing as something blind people GET to do rather than something they HAVE to do.
- Rather than rushing in to offer unsolicited help, sit back and patiently observe blind people who are exploring and learning nonvisually in the lab.
Principle 2: Create an Environment that Empowers Blind People to Participate Fully in All of the Learning
An environment intentionally constructed to: 1) make space for blind people, so that they feel safe and free to learn; 2) lift up and acknowledge blind people’s genius; and 3) disrupt the compulsory sightedness of STEM and formal learning. A place where the teacher does not just give the blind person permission; rather, the teacher actively encourages blind students to fully participate in all forms of learning from class discussions to conducting experiments and engineering solutions—especially when that learning requires the use of “dangerous” tools or materials (e.g., hand saws, bunsen burners, soldering irons, acids).
- Blind students do all the work of a lab; they are not relegated to note taking.
- Blind students are both the givers and receivers of access intimacy, which Mia Mingus (2011) defines as “an automatic understanding of access needs.” It is not just the blind person who is expected to communicate in visual formats for the benefit of their sighted peers and teachers. Sighted teachers and peers are expected to communicate in nonvisual formats for the benefit of their blind peers and teachers. A simple example of this is people seeking the floor by raising their hand AND saying their name, providing both a visual and nonvisual indication of their desire to participate.
- The onus for creating that access intimacy is on the educators. Rather than chiding students who cannot or choose not to share their access needs, the educators ask themselves why the student did not feel comfortable sharing their access needs and they look for ways to increase access intimacy in the environment.
Principle 3: Provide Opportunities for Blind People to Learn Nonvisual STEM Process Skills
To learn and work in each STEM field, one must have content knowledge and the requisite skills to do the work of that field (e.g., to conduct an experiment, to engineer a solution, to develop an algorithm). The term “process skills” has been used in some fields to describe those skills (Padilla, 1990). For example, Padilla (1990) categorized science process skills into basic (e.g., observing, measuring, communicating) and integrated skills (e.g., interpreting data, experimenting, formulating models). The way that blind and sighted people engage in STEM process skills is different as a result of their different ways of knowing and being in the world. The differences in how blind and sighted people engage in these skills is most pronounced for embodied skills, those skills that require physical engagement. For example, sighted scientists and engineers take raw data and render it as visual imagery in order to interpret its meaning. Blind scientists and engineers take raw data and render it into nonvisual formats such as tactile graphics, 3D prints, or sonification. Both blind and sighted scientists are able to interpret the meaning of data; the blind scientists touches and listens, and the sighted scientist looks. In order to engage fully in STEM learning, blind students must have the opportunity to learn nonvisual STEM process skills. Due to the compulsory sightedness of STEM and formal education, the STEM process skills that are taught in school are the visual ones. STEM learning environments that empower blind students intentionally disrupt the status quo and teach nonvisual STEM process skills.
- Observing: In a titration, using an aluminum pie plate, blind people can auditorily observe the rate of flow from a burette. In an experiment where one is trying to ascertain how surface area impacts the rate at which an Alka-Seltzer tablet dissolves, blind people can listen at the mouth of the graduated cylinder and gather all of the information they need. In many instances, where something is too small or too dangerous to touch directly, blind people can use an appropriate material (small enough, heat resistant, non-conductive) like a cane to observe tactually.
- Measuring: Pipettes, repipets, and notched syringes are great tools for measuring small amounts of liquid nonvisually. Similarly, Braille calipers, click rules, and talking tape measures are useful tools for measuring distances or lengths.
- Communicating: Using Braille, blind people can communicate in words and numbers and using tactile drawing tools (e.g., Sensational Blackboard, InTACT Sketch Pad) blind people can communicate graphical information.
Principle 4: Use Equipment that is Nonvisually Accessible
The vast majority of the instruments, technologies, and tools that are used in STEM labs are designed exclusively for sighted people. Consequently, the equipment is inaccessible to blind people and prevents full participation. However, today accessible equipment is often available and with minor modifications other inaccessible equipment can be made more accessible. STEM learning environments that empower blind students intentionally use equipment that is either inherently nonvisually accessible or modify existing equipment to be nonvisually accessible.
- Sci-Voice TM Talking LabQuest
- Adding tactile markings or overlays to instruments with touch screens
- Accessible STEM Simulations
Principle 5: All Instructional Materials are Available in Nonvisually Accessible formats at the Same Time and in the Same Place as Visual Formats
A wide variety of instructional materials are used in STEM classes: textbooks and other readings, slide decks, handouts, lab manuals, figures, and so on. Those materials, however, are often only available in visual formats (e.g., print books, visual figures, hardcopy print handouts). To empower blind students to engage fully in STEM learning, all of those materials must be available in nonvisually accessible formats (e.g., Braille, accessible digital files, tactile figures). Moreover, the nonvisually accessible instructional materials must be available at the same time and in the same place as visual materials. Forcing blind learners to wait hours, days, or weeks for accessible versions of materials disempowers them and prevents learning.
All 5 Principles are Essential
When most people think about access for blind people in learning environments, STEM or otherwise, they think of principle 5. The very tip of the triangle. Some people, who have dug a little deeper into making STEM learning accessible to blind people, engage in principle 4. Their practice encompasses the top two fiths of the triangle. Focusing solely on the tip of the triangle results in superficial access. Blind learners only have access to the “book learning” part of STEM. Most of the learning—the most important learning—that happens in STEM doesn’t happen in textbooks or lectures, it happens in the lab where students are actively engage in the doing of STEM. Empowering blind learners to engage fully in STEM learning requires dismantling the compulsory sightedness of STEM education—work the National Federation of the Blind has been doing for 16 years. And, dismantling the compulsory sightedness of STEM education necessitates all five principles. That work must start from a strong foundation—embracing nonvisual ways of knowing. Only after principle 1 has been solidified does it make sense to move on to principle 2 and so on.
The first step to dismantling the compulsory sightedness in STEM and formal education is to embrace nonvisual ways of knowing. That work is predominantly ideological. Start that work by asking yourself questions such as:
- Do I think it is better to read print than to read Braille? If yes, where does my implicit bias for print come from?
- When a blind person does not know something or cannot perform some task do I assume the cause is blindness or lack of opportunity? Why?
- Do I view subjects like math and science as visual, requiring sight, or do I acknowledge that such subjects are spatial and thus sense agnostic?
- Do I frame nonvisual ways of knowing, like reading Braille, as something blind people have to do or something they get to do?
- Do I rush in to offer unsolicited help to blind people who are learning nonvisually or do I sit back and patiently observe? If the former, what do my actions say about my implicit biases?
Whether you work in education, rehabilitation, or another field and whether you identify as blind, low-vision, or sighted, I encourage you to take time to examine what you believe about nonvisual ways of knowing and the implicit biases that you have about what it means to know. When you turn in and examine your ideas you might be surprised at what you find.
MIngus, M. (2011). Access Intimacy: The Missing Link. Leaving Evidence. https://leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2011/05/05/access-intimacy-the-missing-link/
Padilla, M. J. (1990). The science process skills. Research Matters-to the science Teacher, 9004.