Touch, sound and smell

Vision impaired (VI) students rely on other means of communication such as sound, feel and smell. Olfactory sense has strong memory associations, which can be used in geography to establish a location in a student’s mind. Teachers and support staff should use objects to convey geographical skills and locations - these techniques can go some way to help a student who is not able to learn by sight.

  • Use tactile displays, graphs, maps, models, pictures and audio devices to give information.
  • Use smell and touch to establish locations – for example, scents for seaside, meadows, woods and different countries.
  • Use relief models, especially when teaching contours or map coordinates.
  • Encourage students to feel different types of rocks and minerals to explore how their weights, texture and structure differ.

Teaching strategies in the classroom

In thinking how to support a student with vision impairment teachers should consider ways to make their subject more hands-on and accessible. You could make teaching more accessible using the following strategies.

  • Arrange the classroom so that the student can find what they need for a lesson, e.g. maps, models, tools and equipment.
  • Use the school building as a tool for geography – use a 3D printer to make a model of the school which a VI student can explore.
  • Discuss the plan for any field trip to the student privately so that they can ask relevant questions.
  • Buddy the vision impaired student with a sighted person (maybe a support worker) who understands their needs.
  • In planning a field trip make use of tactile maps and audio devices for description and direction.
  • Guide students to the objects to study such as rocks, landscapes, models and maps.
  • Give lots of time for the VI student to explore any objects, maps or displays.
  • Describe landscapes in detail and include how objects relate to each other – for example, ‘Next to the pond is the village green,’ or ‘The streets are narrow and crowded with lots of people and street furniture.’

Assistive technology

Using assistive technology (AT) in geography gives vision impaired students access to more information when learning – here are some of the best pieces of assistive technology for geography.

  • Tactile markers with a talking pen are useful for giving instructions when learning to map read
  • Talking globes
  • Virtual reality (VR) is becoming cheaper all the time, and many schools have bought class sets of Google Cardboard headsets. VR headsets give vision impaired students a unique individual insight into places around the world. Use earpieces or headsets so that the sound becomes the main source of information, and beware of sensory overload. Headsets have even been used to create virtual field trips
  • GPS and wearable technology are developing in ways which could have implications for VI people - a mobile phone's GPS can send a vibration to a smart device including smart watches and long canes that signals their arrival.
  • Google maps can give audible directions to a given destination
  • Speech recognition tools like Siri, Cortana and the Google Assistant can be useful in researching geographical skills and locations.

See 'General tips for teaching vision impaired students' for introductory information including lighting, emotional support, formatting documents, assistive technology, techniques such as hand-over-hand guiding and further sources of information.