I’ll admit it: I did not know who Dónal FitzPatrick was when I decided to attend his session. I had read the title: “I Have a Blind Student in My Maths/Science Class, Should I panic? How to promote inclusion for blind students” and found that interesting enough to attend. So when he said that he wasn’t going to use slides during his talk because that would make us realize how it is for a blind student to attend a lecture, I at first thought that he was just making a point. It took me a couple of minutes to realize why he was the right person to make that point: Dónal himself has been blind all his life.
During his session Dónal talked about a number of problems that blind students face in a Math/Science class. For example: equations that are printed in course material can be turned into audio representations. However, this brings additional cognitive load issues for blind students have. Dónal has researched ways to optimize the audio representations by adding extra pauses, pitch changes etc. to lessen that load.
Diagrams also are a problem. Traditionally the ALT tag is used in online environments for diagrams that are included as images in a VLE. But what if the diagram is more complex? The advise that Dónal gave was to, if possible, give the actual object to the blind person. Make sure they can feel the actual object!
Other options are to use “Swell Paper” so that students can feel the diagram. Again, that is not always an option that always works. While sighted students can see the cube and “see” the actual 3D object that it represents, it is much harder for a blind student to get that from just feeling the lines on the paper.
One other remarkable problem for blind people is that software/hardware that helps them is still very expensive. Screenreader software, braille readers is still very expensive while laptops and tablets have become much cheaper.
Closing comment by Dónal: If my talk can be made available to students that can see, then surely your talks can be made available to blind students.
While that makes sense, and there indeed is no need to panic, it is something that most of us are not used to doing. But we should. There is no reason for a blind person no to be able to go to University.
Some research papers by Dónal detailing some of the things he talked about:
Fitzpatrick, D., et al., Mathematics: How and What to Speak Computers Helping People with Special Needs. 2006, Springer Berlin / Heidelberg. p. 1199-1206. Fitzpatrick, D., et al., Distance Learning of Graphically Intensive Material for Visually Impaired Students Computers Helping People with Special Needs. 2008, Springer Berlin / Heidelberg. p. 219-225.