Visual Disabilities, Information Technology, and the Learning of Mathematics

Visual Disabilities, Information Technology, and the Learning of Mathematics

Nancy Alajarmeh (Department of Computer Science, New Mexico State University, USA) and Enrico Pontelli (Department of Computer Science, New Mexico State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-5888-2.ch033
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Introduction

Students are any nation’s future work-force; they shape the future and influence the economic wellness of countries. Students with disabilities are often limited in their ability to function in daily life. Policy makers have emphasized the importance of inclusion of individuals with disabilities. For example, the Assistive Technology Act emphasizes that disability is a natural part of someone’s life and it should not deprive anyone of their rights, such as education, employment, and all kinds of society participation and integration: social, political, economic, cultural, and educational. However, in practice, there are several instances where people with disabilities are not given the same opportunities as their peers; as a consequence, they are missing opportunities to improve their quality of life.

Vision impairment is one of the most challenging disabilities for students. Visual impairment is a disability that affects individuals in all aspects of daily life – e.g. inability to read prints, limitations in performing tasks that need a level of detail, challenges in mobility, and difficulties in recognizing people and objects (American Optometric Association, 2010).

Among the efforts made to address this situation, assistive technologies play a critical role to aid individuals who are visually impaired. Assistive technology products take many shapes. The goal behind these technologies is to enhance the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities. These solutions help with simple to sophisticated tasks that might be impossible to fulfill otherwise. In particular, assistive technology has a significant role in education; many countries enforce laws to provide equal access to technologies for students who are disabled. In the past 20 years, students with disabilities (including those with impaired vision) have been increasingly integrated into mainstream classrooms. Such inclusion entails the facilitation and availability of a solid assistive technology infrastructure and tools in these schools. Assistive technologies in education are aimed to ensure that students with visual disabilities have equal access to instructional material, class collaboration, assignment work, and testing as their sighted peers.

Mathematics is among the most challenging subjects for all learners. Students who are visually impaired encounter additional challenges in learning mathematics compared to sighted students. However, there is evidence that, if given a proper experience to develop mathematical skills, students with visual impairments can gain levels of proficiency in mathematics at par with their sighted counterparts. This has prompted researchers to focus their efforts on developing effective solutions that target students with visual disabilities to open wider education opportunities for them in order to succeed in the mainstream world.

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Background

According to the latest estimates, 314 million people worldwide live with visual impairment due to either eye diseases or uncorrected refractive errors. Of these, 45 million are blind. (World Health Organization, 2010)

Vision loss varies from one person to another, and consequently the ability to interpret the visual input differs according to factors such as: type of visual impairment, severity of the case, cognitive ability, and previous knowledge of the context (Alberta Education, 2006). Limited vision affects information reception, which in turn limits individuals’ capabilities in many tasks (e.g., learning). In particular, learning disabilities occur when there is a deficit in one or more of learning skills: absorbing, remembering, processing, organizing, analyzing, synthesizing, and applying information as well.

Mathematics, viewed as the abstract tool to investigate quantitative measures and dimensions (e.g., space, numbers, change), is a core instrument underlying our understanding and practices in a variety of different disciplines, such as engineering, economics, social sciences, medicine, and natural sciences. Mathematics is highly dependent on visualization, and hence, the visual processing is essential in learning mathematics. While in early years of school mathematics is related to daily practiced activities and concepts, the nature of the subject gradually becomes more complex, abstract, advanced, and more representational (Tanti, 2006). Mathematics is basically taught in visual written notations rather than verbal communication (Edwards & Stevens, 1994; Schleppenbach, 1997). These mathematical representations are very complicated, rich, bi-dimensional, and have a spatial nature.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Haptic: A form of non-aural communication based on touch.

Assistive Technology: A technology that provide support in accessing information to compensate a physical or cognitive disability.

Braille: A tactile alphabet used to convey textual information to visually impaired individuals.

Multi-Modality: The combined use of different feedback mechanisms (e.g., sound, touch, speech) to convey information.

Accessibility: Ability to allow individuals with different capabilities and limitations to gain comparable access and use of information or resources.

Non-Visual Access: The process of providing access to information using modalities that do not require the use of the visual channel.

Visual Disability: Reduced access to the visual channel to an extent that require the use of additional support to gain access to information.

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