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Biology for the blind

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Last year, Mesa Community College professor Brad Jacobson was tasked with something most thought impossible: converting Biology 100, biology for non-majors, into a course his visually impaired students could complete.

Likewise, many educators are struggling to cope with the new realities of teaching their classrooms during COVID-19. Legislators and leading medical professionals agree going back to traditional school is not going to be feasible for some time. Parents and private tutors are home-schooling younger students, and higher grades are studying online.

In these unsteady times, the story of Brad Jacobson could be inspiration for educators to keep pushing forward.

Courtesy of Brad Jacobson


“I had a lead instructor already for the class, and she had already started to make the materials visually impaired accessible,” Jacobson explained. “… She had started to look ahead and say, ‘It might be possible we will have a blind student in the future…’ So we scrambled at the beginning of the semester to start modifying the labs.” 

The challenge was in conceptualizing written instructions verbally. Jacobson wasn’t able to simply hand over assignments for the students to read and complete; he had to provide them with a way of learning the material. He had to spend hours of personal time designing new experiments and reworking old ones to satisfy the course requirements. 

“It was more the labs for the visually impaired because they are so hands on. Biology is all microscopes and dissections,” Jacobson said.

The Disability Resources and Services department on campus helped in creating course materials like braille assignments and testing materials. The goal of everyone involved was always to create something both accessible and legitimately beneficial to the two students who simply wanted to learn biology. 

“We looked at the objectives for the labs… and we leaned heavily on those when we were trying to figure out which activities we could modify for the blind students,” Jacobson said. “…At the same time, because I’m one instructor in a lab of 24 students, and only two of them are blind… I had to make sure my labs were able to be accessible to do independently for my other students that are not visually impaired.”

Often Jacobson would use common objects like strings or clothespins taped to clipboards to represent similarly shaped objects in biology. These new lab experiments were designed around the student’s individual personality and heavily emphasized aural learning and visualization. 

“If they were using the light microscopes to look at a dissection or to look at a sample, we would have the visually impaired students listen to a video on how a light microscope works and then have them answer questions about what’s happening to the image. So in some ways, they were still learning about the equipment that was being used without using the equipment,” Jacobson explained.

The conversion of the class wasn’t met without challenge, but Jacobson took opportunities to work around obstacles. One of his biggest challenges was ordering course materials, some of which no one had ever used before, and making sure they were helpful to his students. 

Another obstacle was the fact his two visually impaired students had different abilities. If he could offer any advice to the institution, it would be to separate the special needs students out individually to avoid overloading the teacher. 

“Every impairment is going to require its own unique set of modifications, right? So I haven’t yet started thinking about the deaf or mute. I have no idea what other impairments we might have to help… I feel like the visually impaired was probably the hardest to translate, and so now that that’s done everything else would probably be pretty easy moving forward,” Jacobson said. 

Now, as the pandemic alters education as we know it, he speaks a message to any educator who feels they are faced with an impossible task:

“Don’t procrastinate on the production of materials… Make that your first priority. Be flexible in the execution of your plan. There were times when I would think I had a brilliant plan, and I would go in, and they were trying to do it, and it was a disaster.”

 Brad Jacobson was honored as Adjunct Faculty of the Year at graduation for his hard work and dedication to making education accessible to all students, regardless of physical ability. 

About Author

Brock Blasdell is an American student journalist from Mesa, Arizona. He was hired onto the Mesa Legend in late 2018 as an Opinions Editor, and soon became the publication’s News Editor in 2019. He is now an Alumnus Correspondent for the paper. His writings emphasize college history, civil involvement, and personal reflection on modern American issues, while also analyzing and critiquing the role of modern media in national politics. Twitter @Brockblasdell

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