On the need for blind-accessible textbooks and journals in the life sciences

Matthew Weed weed-matthew at cs.yale.edu
Mon Feb 22 21:15:14 EST 1993

In article <C2uxJ2.Gow at usenet.ucs.indiana.edu> delwiche at sunflower.bio.indiana.edu (Charles Delwiche) writes:
>In article <1m9mocINNfiq at MACAW.ZOO.CS.YALE.EDU> weed-matthew at cs.yale.edu (Matthew Weed) writes:
<some of my original post deleted>
>[useful information about electronic textbooks deleted]
>>As a blind student of the life sciences, I know well how important
>>increased availability of texts is.
>You know, I've been thinking about this since your initial posting.  I
>don't have anything to contribute in terms of text books, but the
>posting got me to thinking about learning the biological sciences as a
>blind person.
>I would appreciate a discussion of what you find useful, and what you
>(a blind student) find frustrating in biological sciences education.
There are many things that you, as biological sciences educators, can do.
Probably the most important is to support the student in his/her goals,
and to understand that unusual circumstances may drive how he/she has come through the process of learning in the area.  
>Certain things are obvious, like not giving a lecture based entirely
>on slides, pointing to each one and saying "This is a thingamajabber,
>and a whatchamacallit looks like this".  And it is clear that some
>disciplines would be much easier than others (I work with microscopic
>organisms, which would create obvious difficulties).  One could get
However, if you take a "mechanistic" way of dealing with the material, understanding that the student is not going to be able to tell you (visually/graphically), where the nucleus is, or where the flagellae(sp), are, you will do much.  Yes, this may mean a somewhat (ahem), restricted goal for the learning of the student, but often the inherent difficulty of learning the material will mean that he/she is just as (or more), challenged by the material as your "regular" non-handicapped students are.
>around many difficulties using models and well designed hands-on
>laboratories.  But there is a lot that is not so obvious.  As a
>sighted person, biology is to me very much a visual discipline, but
>I'm sure I would be just as interested in the subject if I were blind.
You are very right in this, especially since biologists 
view their subject as "visual".  This automatically biases them toward a "visually-oriented" way of teaching.  Much of what needs rto change is related to how life-sciences educators look at how they teach their subjects.
Yes, hands-on labs are good, models are also terribly useful.
However, building a model for colligen(sp), would be very difficult considering the size and complexity of the molecule.
Also, models which could be effectively used to (say), deliniatethe 
glycholytic pathway would be terribly difficult to build, since they would need to be extremely modular, and have a good deal of structural flexibility on top of their modularity.
Not that these couldn't be built, but they would not be cheap, since the demand for them might be low, considering the differences in how various parts of biology are taught from university to university.
Ultimately, the issue comes down to instructor flexibility, and the willingness to help the student find people (either undergraduates or graduate students), who are experienced in the area and who can help him/her deal with the material.
It is both unfair and unreasonable for the blind student to expect that teaching methods will be changed 
in order to make the in-class material totally accessible.  Therefore, people need to be found who can either sit with the student during class, helping him/her with what is not understood, or who can work with him/her after class on the problems which have arisen during lecture.
Often, this will mean very little time, as many classes' concepts are reasonably obvious.
However, with courses such as biochemistry (which was very difficult for me), or 
other molecular biology courses, more resources may be necessary to get the student through the course.
>So the question is, how can I most effectively communicate both the
>information and the fascination to a blind person.
>Given adequate money and time I can imagine high-tech solutions to
>most of the problems, but I suspect that there are simpler and cheaper
>ways around many of them.  In general my feeling is that the best way
>to provide access is to design a curriculum for all students that
>minimizes barriers, although in some cases individual instruction and
>taylor-made projects would be necessary.
Yes, money helps, as I noted above, however, often peoples' time is more 
important, as those with knowledge in the area can often do more to help the student along 
than any amount of technical equipment.
Also, a willingness to be flexible on the curriculum never hurts.
I know this looks like "make things easy for me, so I don't have to do the work".  I *do* not mean this!
What I mean is that in some cases, the "regular" currriculum may contain things which the student is not able to comprehend, either because of the mass of material, or simply because he/she doesn't have the ability to visualize (comprehend), the concepts at hand.
In these cases, entropy will be decreased if the student is allowed to "ignore" the material, and told to focus on things which he/she *is* able to do.  Such evaluation, of course, must come from the professor, but it is important to watch the student (and talk to the tutors (if any)), as they will have an important (and more direct), perspective than you will as the educator.

>Any insights?
Another thing which is very important is the willingness to listen to what other members of the faculty who have had the student have to say.
They can tell you where they had the most trouble, how they solved problems such as testing, laboratories, etc.
Often, the experience of others (particularly in this case),
can be invaluable in the effort to teach a student material which is inherently visual by both nature and method of instruction.
If you have colleagues at other universities who have taught the totally blind,
talk to them, as they will have experience you lack,
and this experience is about seventy percent of making it possible for a handicapped student to have an equal chance at being successful.
As the first (according to our current chairman), blind undergraduate in the biology department here,
I had to "break ground".  Hopefully, if another comes along,
those who taught me, will be able to assist him/her toward as painless (and constructive), a learning process as is possible.
>Charles F. Delwiche       |  'O Oysters, come and walk with us!'

Also, as I have said, if people wish to communicate with me privately on the matter,
I am available, at the following e-mail addresses.
weed-matthew at yale.edu
weed-matthew at suned.zoo.cs.yale.edu
I will be *very* happy to help in any way that I can.

"The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets 
which it must turn over to the next generation, increased and not 
impaired in value." --President Theodore Roosevelt
Matthew Weed	weed-matthew at suned.zoo.cs.yale.edu

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