A day with the Visual Impairments program

For those enrolled in the M.A. in Special Education with a concentration in Visual Impairments, this Lab Weekend was full of engaging hands-on learning and experiences. From using 3D printers to create classroom media, to experimenting with software for accessible data literacy, the SF State teacher candidates were taught the importance of adapting curriculum for blind and low vision accessibility.

Classes in the Visual Impairments (VI) program take place on Zoom, but meet in person once a semester to participate in face-to-face lab days. After interacting for months online, students travel from across California for this learning-filled weekend. This semester, guest speakers included Jason Merrill, a Desmos software developer, Vanessa Herndon, a teacher at the California School for the Blind (CSB), Jessica McDowell and Leslie Edmonds, teachers of visually impaired students (TVIs). They shared their experiences and knowledge of the field with the program so that our scholars would be able to take what they’ve learned back to their schools and students.

Dr. Yue-Ting Siu, TVI and assistant professor in the VI program, began the session by stressing the importance of adapting curriculum for students with non-visual and low vision needs to maintain the same standard of learning that their peers receive. She encouraged the master’s and credential students to engage in the community as a way to stay connected and learn from other colleagues. Siu explained that each visually impaired student will have different needs and preferences and it is important to take the time to understand how each individual interacts with schoolwork and technology.

On that note, Jason Merrill, a software developer for the free online graphing calculator, Desmos, demonstrated several accessibility features of the site’s calculators. The company has recently focused on the importance of creating tools that can be used by everyone and help users develop their digital math skills. Merrill assisted the Instructional Methods class with the web-based product, and helped the students use practice problems to get more familiar with the tools. Desmos supports both UEB and Nemeth braille that can also be used with a refreshable braille display. Creating a mainstreamed tool that can be used by anyone is helpful because it will allow more teachers to be able to support students with visual impairments and general technology support staff will have more knowledge on how to use or support the program. Often blind people are limited to certain devices, but with the development of universally accessible tools, both sighted and visually impaired people can have similar experiences with technology.

Vanessa Herndon, an alumnus of the VI program and teacher at the California School for the Blind, also stresses the importance of inclusion when it comes to technology. She tells the class that inclusion is possible with the help of resources and effort. Herndon teaches coding by using accessible software and coding languages like Swift- explaining that teaching students with visual impairments to code is important to help them understand technology, expose them to a new field, provide job knowledge, and include them in the classroom setting. Herndon states that there is a need for blind and low vision accessibility in the field by telling us that "those who need access are the best designers of access".

To end the day, TVIs Jessica McDowell and Leslie Edmonds presented their lecture, "Adapting Curriculum". This included a visit to the San Francisco State University Library for a 3D printing demonstration of creating classroom tools and exploring the methods and supplies they use to teach their students. Once again, the idea of working alongside other professionals to develop new ideas and materials for teaching was stressed. McDowell and Edmonds urge students to find and build those communities where teachers can discuss and learn from each other.