National Science Foundation
Research in Disabilities Education (RDE) Program: Supporting Projects that Make STEM Education Accessible to Visually Impaired and Blind Individuals
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Featured above is the iLearn Reader tabletop version.  This innovative device captures hardcopy educational material and converts it into an electronic file that can be read in a text-to-speech and/or refreshable Braille display for individuals with visual impairments.

Credit: Sethuraman Panchanathan, Arizona State University
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The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Research in Disabilities Education (RDE) program is currently supporting successful projects that assist visually impaired and blind individuals with understanding and accessing STEM materials. Students, professionals and scientists who have visual impairments or blindness may have difficulty with effectively understanding non-text science content, such as science-focused images, charts, graphs, diagrams, illustrations, equations and other graphics. With the support of the RDE program, Geoff Freed and researchers with the WGBH Educational Foundation are researching and documenting effective practices for providing meaningful descriptions within Digital Talking Books (DTBs). In the DTBs, full access to scientific diagrams is provided through audio descriptions of the images. The work is undertaken by leading organizations that have pioneered description for visually impaired users and are currently shaping national policy and practices for provision of accessible materials in electronic formats. Scientists and professionals with visual impairments are also contributing strategies for DTBs, such as individual preferences that they ask assistants and readers to follow when describing images. These and other effective techniques and accessible tools supported by RDE have broadened the participation of individuals with disabilities in STEM.

In another RDE project, Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan and researchers from the computer science & engineering department at Arizona State University (ASU) have developed and tested innovative devices to assist visually impaired students with accessing STEM and other educational materials. One notable device created by the lab is the iLearn-Reader. This reader is aimed at allowing students who are blind to efficiently capture, store and read hardcopy educational materials (including books and handouts) that are not available to them in electronic form. The reader integrates a high-resolution digital camera, a computer, and optical character recognition software to convert hardcopy text into an electronic file that can be read with a text-to-speech and/or a refreshable Braille display. Impressively, the reader is also available in both tabletop and portable versions for students. Student attitudes reflected favorably on the reader, and a majority felt that the features were superior to those associated with the traditional method of flatbed scanning. Notably, the device proved to be successful among blind and visually impaired students.

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In Digital Talking Books (DTBs), scientific visuals or diagrams, like the one shown above, are accompanied with audio descriptions in order to make non-text science content accessible and understandable for visually impaired or blind individuals.

Credit: Geoff Freed, WGBH Educational Foundation
Permission Granted

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