Visualising disciplinary access

Dr Ben Jennings, Postdoctoral Research Assistant in Archaeological and Forensic Sciences, tells how pasta and PVA glue came to his aid as he reflects on recent experiences supporting a visually impaired student.

Each new academic year brings a new suite of challenges, perspectives and ideas. In my case, the new academic cohort presented a material challenge which I had not experienced before – preparing materials for a visually impaired student. Some of the adjustments suggested by the Disability Service were relatively easy to adjust to: making pure and editable text versions of handout materials available for use with screen reader software, etc. These were relatively simple procedures to follow, and while not without time investment, do not take very long to prepare. Preparing such materials did, however, make me reconsider some of the slides and sequence of Learning & Teaching sessions, moving towards more text on screen and slightly less open/undirected discussion in the session.

The main challenge for me came in the realisation that my discipline – in practice – is an extremely visual topic. Some of the practical sessions related to the lectures include, for example, the study of aerial photographs for indicators of activity on the landscape, the illustration of artefacts, and the construction and interpretation of temporal sequence diagrams. These issues required a greater level of involvement and ‘problem’ (note the quotation marks!) solving.

Some solutions came easier than others: the construction and interpretation of temporal sequences was achieved through the creation of a tactile stratigraphic sequence using PVA glue and spaghetti pasta, enabling the student to touch a version of the illustration which other students could see.

Tactile stratigraphic sequence using PVA glue and spaghetti pasta.

Tactile stratigraphic sequence using PVA glue and spaghetti pasta.

Temporal depiction created in a braille format with PVA glue and punched lines to connect sections of the diagram.

Temporal depiction created in a braille format with PVA glue and punched lines to connect sections of the diagram.

The temporal depiction was created, during the practical sessions and verbal discussion between students, in a braille format (again with PVA glue) with punched lines to connect sections of the diagram. From these documents it was agreed with the student that they could submit for assessment a verbal narrated temporal sequence as an alternative to an illustrated sequence. Fortunately, the excellent introductions to Pebble+ run by colleagues from the Centre for Education Development over the summer had already inspired me to adopt an e-portfolio assessment in to the module this year, which enabled the submission of varied media formats.

The illustration of artefacts was solved in a similar manner, with discussion highlighting that the student would be able to take photographs of artefacts with the aid of a helper. The student would guide the helper where to position the camera based on tactile examination of the artefact, examine the pictures under enlargement, and reposition and illuminate as necessary. Again, an appropriate skill, and an output which can be handled through Pebble+.

The temporal sequence activity in particular has brought to my attention some developments which would be of benefit to all students. One method attempted during the course was the use of lego bricks to produce small examples of development sequences; the only problem with this is that lego bricks are reliant upon colour differentiation rather than textural. Thus, I am hoping to develop a 3d printable model, for the annual cohort, which can be printed for use as a teaching aid, enabling students to assemble disassemble a development sequence based upon colour and texture differentiation. Of course, this requires financial costs in printing and development time, which are not so much of an issue with the PVA and spaghetti models.

The final issue which I still have yet to find a satisfactory resolution to is the use of aerial photographs, and in a wider perspective, maps. Transferring such a high level of detail to a tactile medium is not only time consuming, but will also create a very busy model, with far too much information to be easily discernible. One approach which may offer potential, highlighted through a discussion with the student about extra-curricular hobbies & activities, is the use of very large screens and three dimensional digital models/terrains. Following the Regent’s University London ‘The 12 Apps of Christmas 2016’ for academic staff also brought to my attention the concept of Google Cardboard – something which I am now exploring as a teaching aid to put students in a three dimensional digital environment.

So far, working with a visually impaired student has really made me realise how visually based much of my discipline is, and how inaccessible much of it must seem. Through attempts at modifying the Learning and Teaching environment in the first year of a degree programme, on modules which provide much of the background information and skills to be taken forward, I hope to encourage this student to progress forwards, to broaden access to the discipline as a whole (in terms of academic study and wider public access), and benefit the student cohort as a whole through improvements in the immersion of the subject.

Ben Jennings

For links to resources that support inclusive learning and teaching, visit the Inclusive Curriculum section of the University’s Curriculum Framework.