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Introduction to Accessible Physics Concepts

Module by: R.G. (Dick) Baldwin. E-mail the author

Summary: Blind students should not be excluded from physics courses because of inaccessible textbooks. The modules in this collection present physics concepts in a format that blind students can read using accessibility tools. These modules are intended to supplement and not to replace the physics textbook.

Preface

General

This is the first module in a collection of modules designed to make physics accessible to blind students.

See http://cnx.org/content/col11294/latest/ for the main page of the collection. See http://cnx.org/content/col11294/latest/#cnx_sidebar_column for the table of contents for the collection.

The collection is intended to supplement but not to replace the textbook in an introductory high school or college physics course.

Impetus for this collection of modules

I am a professor of Computer Information Technology at Austin Community College in Austin, TX. For the past couple of years, I have had the privilege of teaching object-oriented Java programming to a blind student. That has gone very well.

Assist a student in physics

During a recent semester, I volunteered to assist this student in her efforts to successfully complete a physics course that she was taking in another department of the college. I quickly learned that she faced significant barriers in this endeavor, not the least of which was the general lack of accessibility provided by the electronic versions of the textbook. (The student had access to both pdf and Word formats of the textbook.)

Not compatible with accessibility tools

I am not visually impaired, so for me the textbook was adequate. However, it contains numerous elements that don't work well when viewed by a blind student using accessibility tools such as an audible screen reader and an electronic line-by-line Braille display.

Pictures and diagrams

For example, each chapter contains numerous pictures and diagrams that are an integral part of the teaching material. In some cases, there is a reasonable verbal explanation for a picture or diagram and in some cases there is little or no explanation. Therefore, a blind student using this particular textbook is deprived of a significant portion of the teaching material.

Physics can be difficult under the best of conditions

Learning physics is difficult for many students even when they have full access to all of the available teaching resources. Learning physics is even more difficult when the student is deprived of some of the available teaching resources.

Greek characters

While it is not surprising that the textbook is full of Greek characters and other fancy typesetting elements such as subscripts, superscripts, vector symbols, etc., this also leads to difficulties relative to the use of a screen reader and Braille display.

Mathematics and equations

The language of physics is mathematics. Many blind students are fully capable of understanding mathematics and equations when they are presented in a format that is accessible to the student.

Hundreds of equations

Each chapter in the textbook contains dozens and in some cases hundreds of equations. The equations in the pdf version of the textbook look OK to a sighted person like myself. However, they mostly look like garbage when viewed by a blind student using an audible screen reader and a Braille display.

The Word version is worse

The equations are garbage when viewed by a sighted person using the Word version of the textbook. I don't know what process was used to convert the pdf version to a Word version, but I do know that the equations weren't properly converted from pdf format to Word format.

Overcoming the barriers

The situations described above are just a few of the barriers that I will attempt to overcome in the modules in this collection. I will have more to say about this later.

Prerequisite requirements

Accessibility tools

In addition to an Internet connection and a browser, you will need the following tools (as a minimum) to work through the exercises in these modules:

I will have more to say about the need for and the use of these tools later.

Prerequisite knowledge

The minimum prerequisites for understanding the material in these modules include the following.

Supplemental material

I recommend that you also study the other lessons in my extensive collection of online programming tutorials. You will find a consolidated index at www.DickBaldwin.com .

Discussion

The following sections expand on the discussion from above.

Algebra

As I mentioned earlier, the language of physics is mathematics. In order to understand the material in this collection, you will need a good foundation in algebra. If you have such a foundation, you will probably know that to be the case. If not, you might want to work on that before embarking on a course in physics.

Using a graph board

There is a good chance that you already know how to use a graph board based on your earlier coursework in algebra. If not, there is a series of videos beginning at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8plj9UsJbg that will teach you what a graph board is and how to use it.

Why would I direct a blind student to a video?

Of course, you may be wondering why I would direct a blind student to an instructional video. My hope is that if you need this information on graph boards, you can find a sighted friend who will help you to work through the series of graph-board tutorials on the website referred to above.

You will need a graph board

You will need a graph board to complete many of the exercises in this collection. If you don't have access to one, it shouldn't be too difficult for you and a sighted friend to make one using a sheet of Styrofoam, corkboard, bulletin-board material or any flat surface into which you can push pins and expect them to stay until you pull them out.

Tactile grid lines

To create the tactile grid lines on your homemade graph board, ask your sighted friend to draw the grid lines on a sheet of heavy paper and then perforate them using a serrated tracing wheel ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tracing_wheel ). Then turn the paper over and pin it to the backing material so that you can feel the perforated grid lines.

Perforating with a tracing wheel

I find that it works well to place the paper on a sheet of Styrofoam to perforate the lines with the tracing wheel. Also, some tracing wheels work better than others for this purpose. The serrations are very sharp on some wheels and less sharp on others. The sharp ones work best.

Using a protractor

There is also a good chance that you already know how to use a protractor to measure angles based on your earlier coursework in algebra. If not, there is a series of videos beginning at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-F06HgiUpw that will teach you how to measure angles with a protractor.

Once again, you may be wondering why I would direct a blind student to an instructional video. As before, my hope is that if you need this information, you can find a sighted friend who will help you to work through the series of protractor video tutorials.

You will need a protractor

You will need a protractor to complete many of the exercises in this collection. While it may be possible to adapt a protractor normally used by sighted students for this purpose, this will probably be more difficult than making a graph board.

A protractor that looks like the one in the video can be purchased at http://shop.aph.org/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/Product_Braille-Large%20Print%20Protractor_1-04115-00P_10001_11051 . However, this is not a recommendation that you purchase this particular brand of protractor. You should do your own shopping and make your own decision.

JavaScript programming

As I stated earlier, you will need an introductory understanding of JavaScript programming ( http://www.dickbaldwin.com/tocjscript1.htm and http://www.w3schools.com/js/default.asp ) to work through the exercises in this collection of modules. Why is that?

Incompatible typesetting elements

Typical physics textbooks designed for use by sighted students are full of typesetting elements that are often incompatible with accessibility tools such as screen reading software, a Braille display, or both.

In writing these modules, I will need a way to ensure that all of the text, including the text in equations and other mathematical expressions, is compatible with those tools. One way that I hope to do that is to ensure that all of the text consists only of the characters on a standard QWERTY keyboard ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/QWERTY ).

Restrict to QWERTY characters

One way to accomplish that goal is to write all equations and other mathematical expressions in a format that is compatible with a standard computer programming language that will only accept a subset of the characters on a QWERTY keyboard. I have selected the programming language named JavaScript for this purpose. While JavaScript is not my favorite programming language, it is adequate for this purpose and is probably the most accessible programming language for blind students.

Prior knowledge of JavaScript is not required

It will not be necessary for you to have prior knowledge of or to develop expertise in JavaScript programming to understand and work through these modules. One of the early modules in the collection will be a module on JavaScript programming. That module will be designed to teach you what you need to know about JavaScript programming to satisfy your needs. There will also be additional information about JavaScript programming scattered throughout the modules on an as-needed basis.

Trigonometry

While it would be advantageous for you to have prior knowledge of trigonometry, that is also not a requirement. One of the early modules in the collection will be an introduction to trigonometry. That module will be designed to teach you what you need to know to understand and work through the material in the modules. There may also be additional information about trigonometry scattered throughout the modules on an as-needed basis.

Pictures and diagrams

I will be very frugal with the use of pictures and diagrams.

In those cases where a picture or a diagram is needed, I will make such pictures and diagrams as simple as possible so that a blind student can print an enlarged version and ask a sighted friend to perforate the lines using a tracing wheel. Then the student can turn the paper over and explore the perforations while reading the text.

In many cases, I will provide detailed instructions for using a graph board to create the picture or diagram.

Finally, I will provide SVG graphics files for all pictures and diagrams so that you can convert them to tactile graphics as described at http://cnx.org/content/m38546/latest/ .

Greek characters

I will not use any Greek characters in the modules. In those cases where the use of a Greek character is unavoidable or highly desirable, I will spell out the name of the character using QWERTY characters.

Resources

I will publish a module containing consolidated links to resources on my Connexions web page and will update and add to the list as the modules in this collection are published.

Miscellaneous

This section contains a variety of miscellaneous information.

Note:

Housekeeping material
  • Module name: Introduction to Accessible Physics Concepts
  • File: Phy1000.htm
  • Revised: 6/18/2011
  • Keywords:
    • physics
    • accessible
    • blind
    • graph board
    • protractor
    • screen reader
    • Braille display
    • JavaScript
    • trigonometry

Note:

Disclaimers:

Financial : Although the Connexions site makes it possible for you to download a PDF file for this module at no charge, and also makes it possible for you to purchase a pre-printed version of the PDF file, you should be aware that some of the HTML elements in this module may not translate well into PDF.

I also want you to know that, I receive no financial compensation from the Connexions website even if you purchase the PDF version of the module.

Affiliation : I am a professor of Computer Information Technology at Austin Community College in Austin, TX.

-end-

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