An Investigation of Accessibility Issues with the Programs, Labs, and Equipment Utilized in the Interactive Teaching Methods for use by Disabled Students.


Steven Sahyun


Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 97331




While many innovative processes, curricula, and programs are being developed to give students a better intuitive, conceptual, and practical understanding of physics, the technologies employed, and reliance on computer techniques may prohibit some disabled students from taking an active role in the learning process unless some simple considerations are heeded.


This paper will try to elucidate some of the areas, equipment, and programs where disabled students may be at a disadvantage, and to try to suggest some alternative methods to provide equivalent learning experiences.  The items reviewed in this paper will be primarily concerned with items portrayed at the Summer Session of Teaching Introductory Physics Using Interactive Teaching Methods and Computers held at the University of Oregon, June 21-July 3, 1998.


1.         Introduction


Many of the techniques being developed in course curricula, and with computer based laboratories and simulations, are an attempt to provide significant learning experiences to a larger distribution of students than that provided by traditional lecture methods. [1]  In an attempt to provide the widest range of learning,  it is important to address the issue of teaching to students with disabilities.  This is a necessary consideration not only due to regulations from the Americans with Disabilities Act [2], but also from a pedagogical standpoint in that what helps one student access information, may also be beneficial to many others.  In addition, since many of the reforms, changes in methodologies, and software and hardware developments are in the introductory stages, there is a unique chance to incorporate necessary changes with very little difficulty.  Creating programs that are inherently accessible to all students is easier than trying to retrofit an entrenched system.


This article is not intended to be a definitive text on adaptive technologies.  Rather, it is hoped that the reader may glean some insight to the issues that are mentioned, even though the author is not particularly known in either the teaching or disabled access communities.  Some thought should be given as to how instructors, developers, and programmers can modify their procedures, labs, and code, at the outset, to make their items more flexible and adaptable to all students.  It is the intention of this article to bring these issues to the table for discussion.


It is quite obvious that there are many limitations to disabilities, and that there are certain experiences or procedures that are simply not possible to accomplish with current methods and technologies.  However, as many of the course programs utilize partners in labs and problem solving work groups, with care, many of the problems that a disabled student might encounter can be removed.


The items reviewed for accessibility issues follow in three general categories: Course Books and Pedagogies, Computer Methodologies, and Laboratory Equipment.  Neither the items reviewed, nor the treatment given to those items should be considered comprehensive.  Rather, what follows is an attempt at a cursory review, and discussion of accessibility issues relating to, some items seen during the Summer Session of Teaching Introductory Physics Using Interactive Teaching Methods and Computers held at the University of Oregon, June 21-July 3, 1998.


In the review of materials, particular attention is paid towards visual disabilities as that is an area in which the author has the most experience.  However, attempt is also made to consider difficulties that individuals with hearing loss, or limited motion, may experience.  Generally, criteria will focus on clarity, ability of text to be displayed in an electronic format, use of multi-modal (the ability to interact with more than one sense) presentation, and ease of physical manipulation of controls. 


2.         Course Books and Pedagogy


The reviews and commentary in this section have been organized by alphabetical order. 


Collaborative Problem Solving:  In this method, small groups of students (usually groups of  3) act as teams; one person acts as manager, one as recorder, and one or more skeptics.  They respond to a given problem via a white-board upon which the recorder writes the solution that the group works out.  The large surface of the white-board provides an area for spatial representations. It also allow for a common communication surface for individuals with speech/hearing/linguistic difficulties.  The group nature and the flexibility of the environment may produce one of the most accessible situations.  Graphs and diagrams would still need to be prepared separately, but group partners could be used for explanations.  Any text could be given on a floppy disc for reading by a computer with a speech synthesizer.


Interactive Lecture Demonstrations: While these demonstrations are inherently visual, care can be taken to explicitly state what is happening in the graphs being displayed.  Previously taken data can be given to visually disabled students in the form of tactile or auditory graphs.


RealTime Physics and Workshop Physics [3]:  One of the primary advantages of these programs is that the text (and that of Workshop Physics) will be available on CD-ROM from John-Wiley.  The files are in an electronic format which is of a great advantage for disabled students in that they can use computers to either read or to magnify the text of the book.  These courses usually have fairly simple images which can be converted to tactile means.


There will be difficulty with visually disabled students drawing graphs for many of the pre-lab preparations.  However, arrangements could be made with a tutor to either transcribe the graph or with the instructor, so that the student could participate.  During the lab sections, partners could help with the transcription, as long as the student is directing what to have written.


A more substantial problem is that the labs utilize software to graph data.  Some ideas on accessibility solutions to the data will be mentioned later.  For the present, assume that the student has partners who are able to adequately describe and assist in graphing predictions and results, and in operating any graphical user interfaces on the computers.  The student would be able to assist in performing the motion for the graphs, partners providing directions about movement.


Students with hearing loss should have little difficulty with the lab situation as these labs tend not to rely solely on auditory cues.  Also, the computer can provide a useful venue for communication as lab partners can type their ideas on the screen if they are unfamiliar with sign language.


Students with motion difficulties should still be able to participate as many of the motion examples involve carts or masses on springs.  These students can still participate in the experimental set-up through direction of activities and in the collection of data, via adaptive cursor control items, or a single key-press.  In addition, motion sensors are sensitive enough to allow for good data from even limited motions, be it from a cart or from a person¹s motions.


One of the difficulties of RealTime physics with respect to blind students, is that the pedagogical avenue of receiving information about the experimental system as the experiment is progressing is essentially unavailable.  In several studies [4], it has been  shown that students who see graphs as the data is being acquired show significantly better conceptual understanding about the data the graphs represent than compared to students who were given graphs delayed by as little as 30 seconds.  Thus, to provide a similar instructional experience, it is not simply enough to give blind students the data after the fact, whether it is by raised image production or by sonification (turning a data set into a representation displayed through sound.)  Instead, real time displays, whether by moveable cursors, or auditory displays are necessary to provide equivalent access to instruction.


Tutorials in Introductory Physics: [5] These texts (tutorial and homework) are particularly nice for visually disabled students as the primary focus is on the conceptual ideas rather than the visualization.  The images are cleanly drawn and should be fairly easy to adapt to tactile pictures.  The structure of the course allows for group interaction, thus providing for student partners to interact as interpreters (and allowing less reliance on a tutor).   There is a fair reliance on visual aspects (figures, ray diagrams) but they are approached in a manner that allows for easy interpretations as a blind student could use the lab partners as ³light detectors².


3.         Computer Methodologies


As more and more courses and materials become available on the World Wide Web, access of material to disabled students is generally greatly improved.  Students who have limited motion no longer have to make arduous treks to libraries, deaf students are able to read text summaries of lectures and not have to rely on interpreters.  This is valid only as long as sounds and movies are properly annotated.  Sounds generally can not stand on their own as cues or information as not only deaf students, but anyone without proper sound systems are unable to become informed.  Blind students have access to text in electronic format through the use of voice synthesizers and screen reading programs, however, web sites heavily laden with pictures, image maps, frames, and many applets, are outside their reach.  Web pages should be constructed with these limitations in mind.


Often, pages can be easily adapted for coherent use by blind students.   While pictures themselves are not accessible, images can be properly annotated with comments.  This is easily performed as in the following HTML example for including a picture:

<img src=²picture.gif²  alt=²text explanation of picture goes here² >

Web page design programs have a field for the text entry (usually referred to as an alt tag) so it is not necessary to edit raw HTML code.  Proper annotation of pictures is not only useful to blind students reading the pages, but also to anyone who is using a text based browser such as LYNX on UNIX machines, or  for those who do not automatically download images into their browsers.


Additionally, if a page includes an image map (a picture containing different links depending on what is selected) it is best to also include these items as list text links at the end of the page.  In some cases, especially if there is a liberal use of frames within a page, a separate, non-frame text page may be desired.  A link to the text page should appear at the top of the page, and in the first frame.


The problem with many JAVA application programs seen within a web page (referred to as applets) is due to the development of the language itself.  Java 1.2, should it ever leave beta testing, will have full support for control and  selection via keyboard and screen readers in that controlling items will all be accessible and have labels.  However, this does mean that previously compiled applets may need to be recompiled (or modified) to take advantage of the newer capabilities.  Currently, only sighted students can access applets.  Since many students will typically access the applets, it may be advantageous to keep as much text and explanation of what is seen in the applet embedded in the web page and not as commentary within the applet itself; thus even if the applet doesn¹t work on their system or they can not see the program, students will have some idea as to the information contained in the applet.


ActiveX components offer another access route for programming and inclusion in web pages.  However, care must still be used when designing applications so that controls are labeled and grouped in a coherent manner.


On-line assignment programs such as WWWAssign ( or the Web Assignment System at Dickinson appear to be quite flexible and should be generally accessible.  The only difficulty that non-sighted students would have is in accessing images given on homework or tests.  However, proper labeling and with braille images should allow general access to these materials.  Since the tests are generally given as text with data entry fields, there is little difficulty for screen readers to access the text.


In the area of developing software, even seemingly impossible to adapt software still holds some hope of conveying information to blind students.  For example, take the Visualizer program by Tufts University Center for Math and Science Teaching: it¹s highly dependent on sight, there¹s nothing that can, or should, be changed about that.  But it becomes partially accessible when images of the vectors are printed out to Flexi-Paper [6] which is a paper that expands when printed portions are exposed to heat.  For students with movement difficulties, or anyone that has poor mouse control, this program could be improved by having a larger ³grab² area for the vectors (better still to have a variable active grab region that the user could adjust).  Currently, one can only move the vectors if one carefully clicks on the very tip of the vector arrow.  One of the very useful features to color-blind students, is the ability for the user to change colors of the vectors.


4.         Laboratory Equipment and Data Acquisition Software


The Pasco [7] equipment is generally very well made.  It appears that they have taken a lot of effort to construct devices that are clearly labeled with symbols to their function.  Also, the data probes, even those with the same general package design (for example: sound, heart rate, and current sensors), have enough unique features to allow for identification by their shape alone (the only exception is that there is virtually no distinction between the light sensor and the high sensitivity light sensors).  The computer interface boxes are also clearly labeled, and it is quite easy to tell the position of probe to be attached by feel.  If necessary, one could attach braille labels to the top of the connector box for further identification.  While the photo-gate ³picket fence² fits fairly easily on top of the motion carts, the pattern on these plates could stand to have a slightly greater tactile distinction between the clear and opaque segments.  The only other item that could be difficult for students to manipulate is an easily replaceable thumb screw used to fix the photo-gate to a stand.


The operating software for the Pasco interface,  both in Windows 3.1 and Windows95 versions, is more difficult to operate however.  Some necessary functions for acquiring data are not available via keyboard controls.  Most notably, assigning a data probe to a data port, and deleting acquired data sets.  Other functions such as acquiring data, opening a table, and exporting data as a text file are possible via the keyboard.  Keyboard control is particularly necessary for all students if no mouse is available because all of the com ports on a computer are connected to other devices.


Similarly, Vernier¹s [8] data acquisition program, LoggerPro,  also lacks the ability to have keyboard control of assigning a data probe to a data port.  Generally, this program was slightly easier to navigate and assign characteristics by keyboard than Pasco¹s program.


The Macintosh versions of LoggerPro and MacMotion [9] have starting, and stopping, of data acquisition with a single key-press of the ³return¹ key.  Thus, if students are working in a group, any student can easily participate in the acquisition of data.


One of the important pedagogical aspects of these data acquisition programs is their ability to instantly display data.  Unfortunately, there is no direct way for visually disabled individuals to participate in this learning process.  A simple tone plot, with the y axis represented by pitch, would allow for some immediate feedback for not only these individuals, but for anyone who is unable to see the monitor while data acquisition is in process.  The sound display aspect of a graphing program could be easily incorporated in all software so developers do not have to produce and ship a special edition that educators may be unaware of.


5.         Conclusion


A main point to keep in mind when considering students with disabilities, is to portray information in more than one context. For example, if important information is only displayed as a sound, there needs to be consideration for the students who (either by physical or technical limitations) can not hear that sound. 


The wide use of computers in the classroom, in the laboratories, and in preparation of materials, offers an exciting chance for disabled students to participate to a greater extent than ever before.  Web based programs, text, and applications have advantages in that they can be transmitted across phone lines, thus freeing students who live at a distance or have difficulty traveling to a single location that may not have equipment that meets their adaptive needs.  Care must be taken however, to insure that limitations in the ability to display the information, do not interfere with the ability of students to learn.  Examples of this are proper notation of graphic images, especially in web pages or allowing for control of computer actions other than by a mouse. 


In programming systems, all necessary functions of the program should have keyboard equivalent actions,  which is useful to not only blind students, but also to those who have difficulty manipulating a mouse (or if the mouse is unavailable!)  Also, if color coding is important, there should be some method letting students adjust the color to provide greater contrast.


Advantages of utilizing electronic text (as opposed to printed text, or text displayed as an image of the text) is that it easily allows for adjustable text size for reading by students with low vision, or synthesized reading for students with no vision or for those have difficulty understanding written text.


One of the major difficulties with electronic text is formatting and display of mathematical equations.  If they are presented in a graphical manner, then blind students will be unable to read them. 


Resources to help in making text, pictures, and equations accessible can often be found on the Web.  For example the Science Access Project at Oregon State University [10], has developed a number of items to this effect.  The TRIANGLE program that has been created, is a workspace designed for visually disabled students and scientists.  This program includes a text editor that allows for complex linear math notation and characters, a table viewer, a graphing calculator, and a figure viewer.  This program is specifically designed to be friendly to screen readers and braille displays. If spatial display of equations is desired, DotsPlus, which is perhaps the only method, allows for unique representation of characters, numbers, and tactile images to create coherent text and equations.  DotsPlus can then be printed out via a high resolution graphic embosser called the Tiger printer being developed by the Science Access Project, or onto Flexi-Paper.   


In addition, many universities have some type Student Disability Service, that can provide other resources to instructors, or information to community members. 


As mentioned in the introduction, the underlying issues involved in making physics accessible to all students is a daunting task.  The ideas and items mentioned in this article display but a tiny fraction of the problems encountered and possible solutions.  Many other solutions can be found when one gives some careful thought as to how students use a product, and what happens if someone needs to access material in a non-standard manner.  It is also important to keep in mind that not all students will see or hear the material under ideal conditions, and some redundancy should be included so that no student is left without the benefit of recent developments in the teaching of physics.



[1] Enough research has be produced in this field to fill volumes.  Examples of this type of research can be found in many articles.  Two of which are L. C. McDermott, ³Millikan lecture 1990: What we teach and what is learned — closing the gap² Am. J. Phys. 59, 301-315 (1991) and R. K. Thronton & D. R. Sokoloff ³Assessing student learning of Newton¹s laws: The Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation and the Evaluation of Active Learning Laboratory and Lecture Curricula² Am. J. Phys. 66, 338-352 (1998).


[2] Information about the ADA can be obtained from  The ADA covers effective communication with people with disabilities, and requires reasonable modifications of policies and practices that may be discriminatory.


[3]  RealTime Physics, Active Learning Laboratories.  Sokoloff, Thornton, and Laws. John Wiley, NY. 1999; Workshop Physics Activity Guide, Priscilla Laws, John Wiley, 1997


[4] M. C. Linn et al. ³Cognitive Consequences of Microcomputer-Based Laboratories: Graphing Skills Development.² Contemporary Educational Psycohology 12, 244-253 (1987)


[5] Tutorials in Introductory Physics. McDermott et al. Prentice Hall. 1998.


[6] Flexi-Paper is produced by Repro-Tronics Inc. More information can be found at:


[7] Pasco Scientific, 10101 Foothills Boulevard, Roseville, CA 95678.


[8] Vernier Software, 2920 S.W. 89th St., Portland, OR 97725


[9] MacMotion is produced by Tufts University, Center for Science and Mathematics Teaching , Medford, MA


[10] Information about the Science Access Project, including programs and current research projects can be found on the web at  Some items of interest include TRIANGLE, MathPlus Toolbox, the Tiger printer, and DotsPlus.


[11] Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 are trademarks of Microsoft Corp.; Macintosh is a trademark of Apple Computer.