In my middle school, high school, and college science classes, I would often complete science labs that were designed to help students understand the topic. Because I had low vision, I'd see things differently, or sometimes not at all, and find that I needed to find ways to make my science labs more accessible. Here are some of my tips for making science labs accessible for students with low vision that can benefit teachers, students, special education staff, and teachers of the visually impaired.
Have a partner
My science classes often had us do labs with partners, and this helped me tremendously. My lab partners were often one of my friends, so I didn't have to worry about explaining my low vision or limitations to them. We also would have our own trade-offs for segments of the assignments. For example, they would weigh items and give me the numbers, and I would document them and help perform calculations. They also would measure items for me and keep me from spilling things everywhere. We were not completely safe from mess-ups though- just ask my science teacher who watched as my friend and I misinterpreted some instructions and had a marshmallow shoot through the ceiling. However, having a lab partner is a great way to help prevent things like this from happening more often.
Why lab partners are important
I didn't realize how great having a lab partner was until I had a teacher who wouldn't let me have one, even though the rest of the class had partners. Their reasoning for this is that it was unfair to the other students that they have to work with a student who has a disability. As a result, I often had lower grades on assignments and it took me longer to complete them, if I completed them at all, because I had great difficulty with seeing the lines on lab equipment, and was nervous around chemicals and fire due to my low vision. I also had a fear that I would accidentally blow up the classroom or set off the fire alarm. I recognize that the teacher had limited resources due to our large class size and did not have access to low vision or assistive technology information, so there are several factors that led to this happening. I share this experience to show how important having a lab partner can be.
Utilize a paraprofessional, co-teacher, or TVI
Students with low vision may benefit from having a different type of lab partner. Instead of a fellow student, a paraprofessional, co-teacher, or teacher of the visually impaired (also known as a TVI) can assist with completing a lab. I remember I once completed a lab with my science tutor who worked at the school and found that it worked out really well- read more about why you should have a tutor from your school here. Working with staff members on labs allows the assignments to be adapted more easily and embraces the use of technology, especially assistive technology.
Adapt science assignments
In my chemistry class, my teacher encouraged me to learn as much as I could about making materials accessible, both print and digital ones. They did not know much about the topic, so I took it upon myself to learn how to do this, and I ended up sharing my research as a science project-more about colored backgrounds and the readability of text here, and more about science fairs and projects here. Whether it's adding color, enlarging text, or attaching high-quality images (read more about high quality images and how to find them here), learning how to make assignments accessible is a very important skill. Learn how to make documents accessible in Microsoft Word here.
Use video magnifiers instead of microscopes
In a college geology class, the lab instructor had us look through a microscope to see the details in rocks. For me, I used a video magnifier that projected onto a larger screen so that way I could see images clearly and easily. There are video microscopes available for zooming in further, but for the purposes of this assignment, a standard video magnifier did the trick. Learn more about video magnifiers with my posts on the E-Bot Pro here and the Eschenbach SmartLux here.
Embrace the use of apps
I am a huge fan of using educational and assistive technology whenever possible, and embrace the use of apps in the science classroom. I use Microsoft OneNote to take notes in class and collect sources for assignments- read more about Microsoft OneNote here. I also use Notability to complete all of my assignments, especially labs that require moving around or drawing symbols- read more about Notability here. Finally, I have some apps that are used just for science classes- read more about five apps that help students with low vision in the science classroom here.
Request safety glasses without magnification
Some safety glasses and goggles have magnification built into them. Because of the prescription of my glasses and the additional prism, I often found the additional magnification to be disorienting and had even more trouble seeing than usual. Because of this, I would request safety glasses without magnification built in. These are not difficult to find and can often be found in another classroom or science closet.
Also, this should be a given, but never remove prescription glasses or sunglasses to work with safety glasses. I had a teacher who insisted I should remove my glasses and then acted surprised when I set my paper on fire because I couldn't see anything around me. If something like this happens, report it to your case manager or TVI immediately.
Know your limits
Often times, there would be some component of a science lab that would be very difficult or impossible to accomplish with the combination of my low vision and the technology present, or there would be a safety concern. As a result, I would often work with teachers to adapt assignments as needed. For me, this included watching someone use a bunsen burner instead of working with it myself, using smaller amounts of chemicals, or watching videos of labs online and answering questions. I was the one to request these things, so I never felt like I was being told I couldn't do something because of my low vision. Again, I didn't want to blow up the classroom or set off the fire alarm if I could avoid it. This is an important part of self advocacy- read more about that here.
Take additional safety precautions
By knowing limits, additional safety precautions can be taken to ensure lab safety. I would always wear safety goggles if I was working with anything that could potentially hurt my eyes, even if the rest of the class wasn't wearing goggles. I also would work on a mat or other surface to avoid spilling things and ruining the desk. My teachers would come up with additional safety precautions as needed to help make the lab as safe and accessible as possible.
If you think you need help, ask
I had a teacher who told us that it was better for us to ask them a silly question than it was for us to think that we knew everything and then get ourselves into trouble. I remember at one point that I thought I could fill up cups of water without worrying about them overflowing, and I ended up flooding the sink, getting water on the floor, and completely drenching my clothes- the teacher thought I had taken a shower or fallen into a pool fully clothed. I wish I had asked for assistance, but at least everybody got a laugh out of it.
Don't shy away from science
Don't be afraid to embrace science and see all that it has to offer, and don't listen to anyone who says that people with disabilities don't belong in the science community or science classroom. Always remember that you belong, and if you need that reminder, read this You Belong post. I hope that these tips help you to make science labs more accessible and instill a love of science and the world around us.