Dal student and team test solutions for visually impaired students and their instructors

- September 21, 2023

Student Gabrielle Close, left, and instructor Dr. Jennifer Stamp perform an activity for SuperNOVA summer camp participants over the summer. (Photo provided by SuperNOVA)
Student Gabrielle Close, left, and instructor Dr. Jennifer Stamp perform an activity for SuperNOVA summer camp participants over the summer. (Photo provided by SuperNOVA)

While she has only just started the third year of an undergraduate degree in psychology, Gabrielle Close knows the human brain inside and out.

“Gabrielle is an absolute wizard with her hands,” says Dr. Jennifer Stamp, a university teaching fellow in the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience. “She can assemble and disassemble brain models faster than anyone else, including me, and I have a PhD and a postdoc in neuroanatomy.”

There’s something else that sets Gabrielle apart: she is blind. She learned neuroanatomy using special, 3D anatomical models of the brain. While the use of brain models can be incorporated into the anatomy curriculum for all learners, they are of particular importance to visually impaired students like Gabrielle, who cannot rely on images.

Getting comfortable at Dal

Gabrielle took orientation and mobility lessons before coming to Dal that prepared her to navigate to her classes without assistance. “I like to be as self-sufficient as possible,” she says, noting that she tries to space out her class schedule to ensure that she has plenty of time to get around.

Gabrielle’s early days on campus took some getting used to. “There were a lot of accommodations that needed to be put in place on the fly that I never encountered before,” she says. “I was learning along the way, just like my professors, but once we got into a rhythm with my classes and what was needed, things really started to pick up.”

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Gabrielle has been working with a group of students, instructors and teaching assistants (TAs) known as Team Visual Assist, whose work Dr. Stamp describes as “a grassroots attempt to get the supports in place for instructors when faced with the sudden appearance of a visually impaired student in their class.”

This summer, Gabrielle and the team reviewed the effectiveness of tactile resources put in place in five courses taken during her first two years at Dal.

“I provided feedback on our tactile books, models, and teaching assistant services to determine what worked, what didn’t work, and what would work better in the future,” Gabrielle says. “We started developing new methods and ideas to improve accessibility moving forward.”

Developing an inclusive curriculum

Following Gabrielle’s decision to major in psychology after her first year, Dr. Stamp coordinated with Dal’s accommodations team to develop specialized resources in time for her second year. Already working with a group of TAs and student volunteers, Dr. Stamp formed Team Visual Assist to gather feedback on what they tried.

The most effective accommodations are a mix of tools and practices, some of which are relatively simple and cheap — such as Braille signage in learning spaces and open-book, online exams, which allows for the use of assistive technology. Other accommodations require additional costs and expertise from the teaching team.

The 3D brain models Gabrielle used to learn neuroanatomy are expensive and require one-on-one sessions with an instructor or TA to cover key concepts. The production of tactile “touchy” texts — with raised line images and Braille descriptions — can be expensive and time-intensive, especially if outsourced, so the team would like to produce these in-house.

Support for Team Visual Assist’s summer work came from the Faculty of Science and a retired faculty member. That provided salaries for three students, while two others joined as volunteers. In Gabrielle’s first year, graduate student Filip Kosel volunteered his time to design a 3D receptor model, printed in-house at Dal for low cost.

“A lot of this work has been funded by student enthusiasm,” says Dr. Stamp.

Incorporating elements of Universal Design for Learning into the curriculum helps reduce the number of accommodations required. “The concept of universal design comes from architecture,” Dr. Stamp says. “If you have the choice to build stairs or a ramp, always choose the ramp. For example, the 3D receptor models were perfect for Gabrielle, but they are also great for sighted students, especially those that might have reading challenges.”

Showcasing science

This summer, Gabrielle joined Dr. Stamp’s outreach team for SuperNOVA camps, helping demonstrate concepts in psychology and neuroscience, including a “mind control” activity where campers controlled the arms of volunteers using electrodes connected to the ulnar nerve. Another activity used Braille clues as part of a scavenger hunt.

“I was happy we put that in place because it highlights that people with disabilities like me can participate in science,” Gabrielle says, noting that the 3D brain models were also popular among campers.

While Gabrielle still faces challenges as a blind student, her contributions to Team Visual Assist will ideally make things easier for future visually impaired students and their instructors. “It’s a wonderful, collaborative project and everyone involved is contributing,” she says.

Team Visual Assist is:

·      Dr. Jennifer Stamp, psychology and neuroscience instructor

·      Gabrielle Close, third-year psychology student

·      Inaya Seraj, third-year neuroscience student, project manager

·      Can Sozuer, accessibility-experienced TA, neuroscience and math alum

·      Basmah Hendy, third-year neuroscience student

·      Isaac Zacher, fifth-year neuroscience student


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