Facilitating STEM Learning That Empowers Blind Students


Shaheen (2020) identified five principles (Word) for facilitating STEM learning that empowers blind students to participate fully.  

  • Principle 1 explains that educators must first embrace nonvisual ways of knowing—introspective work that involves a great deal of reflection and examination of the implicit biases one has about nonvisual ways of learning.  
  • Principle 2 asserts that the environment must be intentionally constructed to empower blind students to participate fully. An empowering environment is one where blind students feel safe and free to learn and where an environment resists the pervasive ableist narrative that the only way to learn STEM is through visual perception. 
  • Principle 3 points out that educators must teach blind students nonvisual STEM process skills. To engage fully in STEM, one must develop STEM process skills, but the STEM process skills STEM educators are accustomed to teaching are visual and, therefore, exclude nonvisual ways of knowing. 
  • Principle 4 addresses the importance of using nonvisually accessible equipment. Most lab equipment has been designed under the assumption that everyone in the lab is sighted. 
  • Principle 5 emphasizes that instructional materials must be available in nonvisually accessible formats (e.g., Braille, tactile graphics, accessible digital files) at the same time and in the same place as visual formats.  

Enacting the 5 Principles 

This curriculum provides many of the resources and supports that you will need to create a STEM learning environment that empowers blind students. For example, the curriculum provides:

Here, we want to draw your attention to the work principles 1 and 2 require, as these foundational components of empowering blind students are rarely evident in STEM learning environments constructed by sighted people, due to implicit bias and systemic ableism. 

Principles 1 and 2 demand that educators engage in introspective work and push back on dominant ideas, in STEM and education more broadly, about how learning happens (Principle 1) and how learning environments should be constructed (Principle 2). This work takes time and might feel uncomfortable. We invite you to lean into any feelings of discomfort that may arise. 

Principle 1 

Nonvisual ways of learning are methods that do not engage visual perception. For example, Braille is a nonvisual way of reading; Braille is designed to be read by touch not visually. Blind people employ all of their senses, save vision, when learning nonvisually. The reflection questions and brief activity below were designed to support you in doing the introspective work that Principle 1 requires. 

Reflection Questions 

  • Do you think and talk about STEM subjects as “visual”?  
  • Who benefits when society at large talks about STEM subjects as visual? Who is harmed? 
  • Consider the STEM labs, STEM classrooms, and science museums you have experienced, in what ways did those environments communicate that STEM subjects are “visual”? 
  • How does the way you teach STEM communicate, explicitly or tacitly, that STEM is “visual”? 
  • What do you think might be the biggest barrier blind people face in learning and working in STEM? What implicit biases are evident in your response? 

Brief Activity 

Make a list of all of the STEM concepts and skills that you believe can only be understood or accomplished with the aid of visual perception.  

Now, watch Chelsea Cook’s TEDx talk entitled Creating Interfaces, Creating Experiences, which is embedded below. 

When taking multivariable calculous, Chelsea developed an understanding of key concepts, such as a saddle point, by tactually exploring 3D models and tactile graphics instead of the visual figures her sighted peers used.  

Which of the STEM concepts and skills on your list traditionally require the use of visual figures (e.g., graphs)? If those figures were available in a format that permitted tactile exploration (e.g., tactile graphic, 3D model), do you think vision would still be necessary to learn the concept or skill?  

Chelsea points out that sighted astronomers choose to represent the binary data (0s and 1s) they collect in visual formats because that is what is most familiar to them. But there is nothing inherently visual about binary data. The data could just as easily be sonified and explored auditorily or 3D printed and explored tactually.  

What do you think? Are STEM subjects inherently visual or is the predominantly visual nature of STEM education and practice the result of choices sighted STEM professionals and educators have made over centuries? If the latter, what might it be like to consciously make different choices about how STEM is conducted and taught? 

Principle 2 

Designing environments that are empowering to blind students requires intention, particularly when the people designing the environment are all sighted. As you perhaps discovered through the Principle 1 reflection activities above, the default conventions for setting up classrooms and STEM labs presuppose that everyone is sighted and communicate explicitly and tacitly that learning and STEM are “visual.” Such environments disempower and disable blind students as they create artificial barriers to blind students’ learning. 

Constructing empowering environments requires attending to both the built environment (e.g., signage) and the social norms (e.g., seeking the floor). The most critical built environments characteristics to attend to are articulated in the ADA standards and include considerations such as protruding objects, which are common in classrooms and STEM labs. Documentation that outlines how to examine and reconstruct social norms to empower blind students is harder to come by. Spaces created by blind people exemplify empowering social norms and, therefore, can serve as a model for educators. 

In blind-created spaces, such as National Federation of the Blind events, blind people experience access intimacy, which Mia Mingus defines as “an automatic understanding of access needs” (2011, para. 5). Blind attendees need not explain their access needs (e.g., Braille, accessible digital files) to event organizers or fellow attendees as everyone automatically understands and is prepared to meet those needs. Access intimacy is fundamental to empowering environments and, therefore, is the goal of examining and reconstructing social norms. 

The reflection questions and brief activity below were designed to support you in examining and reconstructing the social norms in your classroom to ensure the environment is empowering to blind students. 

Reflection Questions 

  • In your classroom, are blind teachers and students expected to communicate in visual formats for the benefit of sighted teachers and students? Why or why not? 
  • In your classroom, are sighted teachers and students expected to communicate in nonvisual formats (e.g., Braille, accessible digital documents) for the benefit of blind teachers and students? Why or why not? 
  • In your classroom, how do people seek the floor or indicate they want to contribute to the conversation? Does that method provide only visual information (e.g., a raised hand)?  
  • Why might a student not tell the teacher something is inaccessible to them?  
  • When a blind student doesn’t tell a teacher something is inaccessible who is at fault? What, if any, implicit biases are evident in your response? 
  • In lab groups, what type of work are blind students expected to do? Are the expectations for sighted students different? Why or why not? 

Brief Activity 

In the video below, blind STEM professionals offer some useful advice. As you watch the video, take note of the wisdom these blind professionals share about:

  • creating STEM labs that empower blind people,  
  • cultivating access intimacy,  
  • barriers that disempower blind people, and 
  • how sighted people can be allies to blind people in STEM environments. 

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