Accessible STEM: One Student’s Perspective 

By Carrie Motamedi, posted on

Ellashae is a rising senior at a public high school in the Atlanta suburbs. A self-described theater kid, she loves Latin, finds chemistry fascinating, recently got a new guide dog, and aspires to act in films. 

Ellashae is one of eight visually impaired students in her high school of 4,000 total students. Seven years ago, her TVI (teacher of the visually impaired), introduced her to Bookshare, Benetech’s accessible ebook service for people with dyslexia, vision loss, and other reading barriers, because she was flying through all of the National Library Service books. “I love being able to pick any book I want on Bookshare,” she explains. “When someone talked about a book in class, I would go home, download it, and read it that night. I read so many books that I was known as ‘that girl who reads,’ not the blind girl.” 

In the following interview, she discusses the challenges of taking STEM classes and her vision for a more accessible future. 

What are math and science classes like for you?  

Science and math aren’t my favorite subjects. Growing up, when I was visual, they were my favorite classes. I lost much of that love, however, when those subjects became difficult due to switching from one braille code to another and teachers who relied heavily on visual teaching – obviously, that’s not my strong suit. 

This year, it hasn’t been awful, but it hasn’t been great. I’m taking chemistry, and I find it fascinating to learn about the compositions of elements that make up the world. However, it’s been a struggle because the teacher uses so much visual instruction. I have a paraprofessional who helps me, but sometimes I don’t know what is going on. 

How do you get accessible materials for those classes? 

I have a BrailleSense that I use for classes that don’t involve a lot of math, but there are certain things a BrailleSense can’t do. For example, it can’t format a chemical equation. In those cases, I have to get embossed braille. I have the periodic table in braille, and my paraprofessional can create a tactile representation of chemical elements from wikki stix and a sheet of graph paper. 

In math, everything is in paper braille. I also use a 14×14-inch peg board, which we section off to make the X and Y axis, and then I use rubber bands to make the graph.  

What do you think would make math and science classes better for you? 

First, in the classroom environment, it would be helpful to have more discussions with my peers, so that they can explain what’s going on.  

Second, access to charts at the same time as other students would be helpful. Getting accessible charts doesn’t happen immediately. My school has a lot of VI students, and there is a vision itinerant teacher shortage in the US, so we have more students than the teacher can reasonably handle. We are all taking different classes and need things in different formats. Some students need braille, others need large print, and it’s really hard to get materials in time. Getting accessible materials at the same time as our peers would be great, but at this point, it’s not realistic.  

It sounds like Born Accessible textbooks with descriptions of the graphs and charts built in would be helpful. 

Fully accessible textbooks would be so helpful, not just to me and other blind students, but to all TVIs. Some materials can be difficult and time-consuming to convert to accessible formats, so my TVI needs to know my assignments at least three days in advance. What do I do when I have a homework question? My (sighted) friends can check the book. It would be nice to have that option, but right now, it is not available to me. If it’s not on Google, and my friends don’t know, that’s it. 

Benetech thanks Ellashae for sharing her experience with math and science courses. We believe that all students deserve equal opportunity to study STEM. To learn more about the work that Benetech is doing to make STEM education inclusive, equitable, and accessible, read Benetech Inclusive AI Initiatives Break down Barriers to STEM