Microbiology for Blind or Visually Impaired Students

Dec. 2, 2022

A microbiology classroom with a table and microscopes.
Source: iStock.
Ensuring classroom and lab accessibility for students who are blind or visually impaired means providing equitable accommodations. This will not only help with retaining students who have visual disabilities, but also set students up to be successful in their academic pursuits.

“Students [with visual disabilities] have traditionally been told not to pursue science,” Barbara Heard, Ed.D., a professor of biology at Atlantic Cape Community College and advocate, said at ASM Microbe. “Many students have been told that because science is so visual, they should avoid science and be given an exemption for their science requirement. Students with visual disabilities and blindness want to learn science just as much as anyone else and can be successful.”

Accommodations in the Classroom

When making accommodations for students who are blind or visually impaired, Heard recommended first coordinating with the disability support services office at one's university. To receive an accommodation, students in the U.S. are encouraged to acquire a 504 plan—documentation that stipulates what accommodations a student is granted, like extended time for taking tests or the option to type assignments versus write them by hand.

However, disability support services offices may not be aware of all the accommodations that an individual student will require in a laboratory setting. That is when faculty can provide feedback and suggest accommodations that are relevant for microbiology students.  

Read the Audio Discussion Transcript

Vassell: Hi, I'm Shannon Vassell, the Senior Program Officer for IDEAA at ASM. At ASM, IDEAA stands for inclusive diversity with equity accessibility and accountability. Thank you so much for joining us today. 

Potter: And hi, I'm Leah Potter, the Communications Specialist at ASM. Today, we're discussing a session, “Microbiology for the Blind and Visually Impaired,” presented by Dr. Barbara Heard, a professor of biology at Atlantic Cape Community College, at ASM Microbe 2022.  

So what I remember really standing out about this session was first discussing both accessibility and accommodations in the classroom. And considering that accommodations and accessibility are not synonymous, but definitely work together. Accessibility, Dr. Heard described as being more proactive. So establishing an accessible and inclusive environment up front, and then accommodations being how you get to a place of accessibility and inclusion in the classroom. Shannon, I'm wondering what stood out to you most about the session in June? 

Vassell: Yeah, the session was very intriguing to me, Leah. One of the reasons is because, like I said, I work with promoting and elevating IDEAA at ASM and in the microbial sciences. And so certainly from an IDEAA perspective, just thinking about inclusion, and obviously accessibility, it really stood out to me about again, as you said, making the learning environment, the lab environment, accessible for students and for folks working in that environment.  

My background is actually in education. I taught middle school for several years before joining ASM. And so I'm always, as a former classroom teacher, thinking about accommodations, thinking about accessibility in learning spaces and classrooms.  

Another thing that really stood out to me is about how to make science classrooms more accessible and how to add accommodations in the classroom, so not being necessarily a microbiologist in background, just thinking about even something like a student using a pipette. How a student might use a pipette in the classroom, an example that Dr. Heard gave was placing colored paper behind the pipette, which can help a student see the demarcation lines easier, as well as fix pipettes, so presetting or premeasuring pipettes for students in order to ensure that they can get correct measurements.  

Something else that really stood out to me, and something that was new since I taught in the classroom, is using 3-D printers. So if a school or university has access to 3-D printing, then you can create more tactile graphs that students can engage with. While another student might describe what they're seeing under a microscope. Another student might actually be able to feel the 3-D graphical representation of what is actually under the microscope.  

Another thing that was new for me was actually thinking about using 3-D pens or maybe something as simple as a hot glue gun to create those tactile labels. So even if you don't have access to a 3-D printer, again, a hot glue gun or 3-D pens might be something that could be used to help create accommodations in the classroom. 

Potter: And Dr. Heard also discussed for students with color vision deficiency, or CVD, how important color contrast is for different materials in the lab. She discussed how typically red, green, pale pastels, those are colors that are oftentimes the hardest to see and distinguished from one another. So she recommends using alternative color palettes.  

She also emphasized that if you're describing something that is distinguished by different colors to make sure you use alternatives to describe an image, or a graph or a material in the classroom, so she recommends using dotted lines, stars or something to indicate texture versus color. The image doesn't have to automatically become grayscale, but you can use different textures to show that different elements of a visual are different colors.  

She also discussed always providing oral instructions as well as written instructions, and then potentially being able to record those instructions so that students can review them later, or view them again, or maybe even providing students with their own tape recorders so that they can record whatever is said and then listen to it again when they're completing the lab assignment. 

Vassell: And thinking about kind of oral instructions, or even oral audio descriptions, that reminded me about videos. Many videos have a visual component to them. And so it's important to not just include subtitles, but also audio descriptions for videos. 

Potter: Absolutely. And the example that stood out for me during the session was when Dr. Heard showed a clip from “The Lion King,” a video clip of Simba being presented on Pride Rock. And in addition to having closed captions or subtitles for the video, you also have a narrator come in and describe everything that's happening in the video. So everything from what other animals are gathering around Pride Rock to the expressions on the different characters' faces. 

Vassell: Yeah, I really appreciated that video as well, Leah. Like you said, just having that additional description of what's happening in the video.  

Another accommodation that really stood out to me or that was really helpful for me to think about was allowing students to be able to zoom in on text or smaller images. That might mean providing an image that's being shown, for example, under a microscope on a computer screen, or even a TV screen or maybe even a tablet. So that way, students can zoom in on that image.  

Going back to using other senses other than sight to help students that may have visual impairments, providing tools with Braille for example, rulers, or calculators. And while Braille is a great accommodation, we have to also recognize that not all individuals with visual impairments can read Braille. So again, thinking about providing tools that have Braille as well as tools that might have other ways that students can access the tool. 

Potter: In addition to discussing accommodations in the classroom, Dr. Heard also emphasized the importance of having safety considerations and safety planning in place. So first, she discussed really wanting to have solid emergency planning and emergency procedures in place with students and looking at things, like how to exit a lab during a fire emergency. And that would entail also making a safety plan, but also including your students in the process of making that safety plan and seeing what would work best for them. And then also looking at emergency lockdown procedures as well, and what that would look like for students, and also students and their service animals if they're present in the lab.

Vassell: Right, exactly, as you brought up, Leah, service animals. So thinking about safety in regards to students as well as their service animals. So, you know, often asking the question, does the student have a service animal to consider? Making sure that other students are safe around the service animal and that the service animal is safe in the lab. For example, safe from harmful materials, thinking about does the service animals need personal protective equipment or PPE? Like protective boots? 

I really enjoyed an image that Dr. Heard shared during her presentation back in June was a the service animal that was wearing protective goggles, protective boots, a lab coat and other protective equipment. And it was a very cute picture. And it was also an important image for me to see, and for Dr. Heard to describe. So that way, thinking about how can service animals be kept safe in the lab. And while students might not necessarily need to wear PPE at certain points in the lab, Dr. Heard explained that if students are wearing PPE, that animals should be wearing PPE as well. But even if students are not wearing PPE, you want to think about, for example, the animal’s feet or the animal’s fur. So for example, if there was broken glass or a chemical spill, an animal may touch that chemical or that glass and then later lick his paws. So you want to think about, again, how to keep the animal safe. What space does the animal need in the lab in order to move around, sit down, get in and out of the lab with their PPE, as well as without?  

Another thing that was really important for me to hear is thinking about safety warnings and safety labels. So maybe using other tactile materials, like sandpaper, in order to warn a student that there is a Bunsen burner or another harmful chemical. Using sandpaper is an affordable option that again provides that kind of tactile recognition. And again, this is another point to remember that not all students read Braille. So again, using some of those more tactile materials within the lab.  

Potter: And with so much content now, in schools and universities being online, Dr. Heard also went over some tools and suggestions when looking to make online content accessible as well. And in terms of reading assistance, Dr. Heard mentioned looking into changing the font style of materials. So she emphasized a lot of times that sans serif fonts are a lot easier than serif fonts to read. And so an example might be Arial versus Times New Roman. So Arial be a sans serif font, whereas Times New Roman would be a serif font, because it has those extra tails on the letters and that can be sometimes more difficult to read.  

She also suggests changing the font size, and specifically making the font a little bit larger. So maybe taking it up to 18-point font. And she even recommends making it 24-point font for extra clarity.  

And then for contrast, she also overall suggests making sure that there is high enough contrast between all different visual elements. So anything from text, images, graphs, making sure that they all stand out on the page. 

Vassell: And Leah, as you talked about, you know, like you said with so many schools providing classes, courses material online, just advances in technology may allow some students to have screen readers. And so we want to make sure that we're providing materials that are usable for screen readers. So for example, providing headers in materials. So for students using screen readers, those headings provide organization and can make it easier for students to navigate a document.  

Another example is using descriptive links. So screen readers, if you have a full URL, will read every letter of a URL. And as we know, some URLs can be quite long. And so to make the URL more comprehensible, Dr. Heard recommended using descriptive hyperlinks by linking to the text and that description really conveying what the content will be that the link connects to.  

And then finally adding even alternative text. So at one point, it was advised that providing more information or alternative texts should be as long as it needs to be in order to thoroughly explain a visual, but Dr. Heard said that now, it's being understood that alternative text is supposed to convey the content and the function of the image and really should be presented succinctly in maybe 1 or 2 sentences. If more text or a longer description is needed, then Dr. Heard recommended creating a longer description that can be included in a different document, thinking again about screen readers, some screen readers have a character limit for reading that alternative text.  

As our listeners can hear, there were a lot of wonderful suggestions, recommendations and best practices presented in the ASM Microbe session.  

And I also appreciated the several links and resources that Dr. Heard shared. There were 2 websites that have been particularly helpful for me. One is from the University of Minnesota called their Seven Core Skills. Another is from Accessible Science, and they work on accommodating students with disabilities in a science laboratory, and that URL is the bheardu.net. And then also, Dr. Heard shared a few YouTube videos including, “Creating Accessible Documents.” The second video is entitled “Making Your PowerPoint Presentations Accessible.” And finally, “Audio Descriptions.” So a lot of what we talked about here today, Leah, you can get more information and more details with those links and those additional resources.  

Potter: That's great info, Shannon, thank you so much for sharing those as well. 

Interested in learning more about making microbiology classrooms accessible for students who have visual impairments? Check out the websites and videos recommended by Barbara Heard that focus on accessibility and accommodations in classroom and lab settings. 



Heard offered several suggestions to facilitate accessible and inclusive learning for students with visual impairments in classroom and laboratory settings.

  • Lab Measurements: Place colored paper behind pipettes to help students see demarcation lines more clearly and/or provide fixed pipettes, where measurements are previously set. Students may elect to utilize measurement tools (e.g., rulers, calculators) that use Braille, but educators should recognize that not all individuals with visual impairments read Braille.

    A 3-D pen.
    3-D pens or hot glue guns can be used to create tactile labels for items in the lab. Source: Flickr.
  • 3-D Materials: Use a 3-D printer to create tactile graphs and models that students can engage with while the visual is being verbally described. Educators may also consider using 3-D pens or hot glue guns to create tactile labels for items in the lab.
  • Color Contrast: Describe colorful visuals using alternative language that focuses on differences in texture rather than color. Red, green and pale pastels are typically the hardest colors to see and distinguish for students with color vision deficiency (CVD). Look for alternatives (CVD-friendly palettes) when creating visuals that display color.
  • Verbal Instructions: Provide both written and verbal instructions, which students can record and re-play when needed.
  • Audio Descriptions: Include both subtitles and audio descriptions for video content. Audio descriptions—via narration—provide information about what is happening in the video (e.g., the visuals) during portions of the video when there are not speaking parts.
  • Zooming In: Provide students with options to enlarge images and other visuals. For example, some microscopes have the capability to connect to a computer, television or tablet screen, facilitating larger viewing of the subject matter being displayed by the microscope.

Safety Considerations

When first welcoming a student to a new classroom, emergency planning is critical. Heard suggested that educators include students in the process when preparing and practicing emergency planning (including fire emergency plans and emergency lockdown procedures).

Emergency plans should also consider whether a student is accompanied by a service animal. For students with service animals, personal protective equipment (PPE) is an important consideration. For example, a service animal may benefit from wearing a protective cover, boots and goggles, especially if there may be chemicals or broken glass on the lab floor.

“If students are wearing PPE, the service animals should be wearing PPE,” Heard explained. “Even if the students are not wearing PPE, you want to think about the animals' feet. If there's a chance that there's broken glass, or perhaps a chemical that didn't get stored appropriately, that animal may [touch the chemical] or lick their paws later.” Furthermore, educators should ensure that service animals have enough space to move comfortably and safely around the lab.

A dog with a vest that says "service dog."
Service animals may benefit from wearing a protective cover, boots and goggles. Source: iStock.

When considering labels for lab materials that may be dangerous to handle (e.g., harmful chemicals, Bunsen burners), Heard recommended covering the material with sandpaper as an affordable option that provides a tactile indicator that something should be handled with care. Safety warnings could also be provided in Braille, though, again, educators should note that not all students with visual impairments read Braille.

Making Online Content Accessible

Given content for university courses is often posted online, Heard emphasized the importance of ensuring all web components are accessible and easy to navigate, both in terms of readability and screen reader usability.

  • Change the Font Style: Use sans serif fonts (e.g., Arial) instead of serif fonts (i.e., fonts with tails on the letters, like Times New Roman), which can be difficult to read.
  • Change the Font Size: The minimum recommended font size to ensure accessibility is 18-point font, though Heard suggested 24-point font for extra clarity.
  • Add Contrast: Ensure there is high visual contrast between all elements (e.g., text, images) on the page.
  • Provide Headings: For students using screen readers, headings provide organization and can make it easier to navigate a document.
  • Use Descriptive Hyperlinks: Screen readers will read every letter of a URL. To make a URL more comprehensible, use descriptive hyperlinks. Here, the text that best conveys the content in the URL is hyperlinked, instead of writing out the full URL.
  • Add Alternative Text to Images: Alternative text (Alt text), which can be read by a screen reader, can help inform the user what an image looks like and the purpose behind including the image (e.g., how the image enhances the content). “In the beginning, there was a lot of confusion about alternative text, with some people being told by their institutions that the alternative text should be as long as it needs to be to thoroughly explain the visual,” Heard said. "Actually, that is not the case. Alternative text is supposed to convey the content and the function of the image succinctly in a sentence or 2.” If you need a longer description, especially for complex scientific figures, Heard recommended creating a longer description that can be included in a separate document as some screen readers have a character limit for reading alternative text.

Research in this article was presented at ASM Microbe, the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, held June 9-13, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

Following the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Guidelines increases the accessibility, inclusivity and equitability of courses.

Author: Leah Potter, M.S.

Leah Potter, M.S.
Leah Potter joined ASM in 2022 as the Communications Specialist.