LINGUIST List 10.710

Mon May 10 1999

Sum: Teaching blind student

Editor for this issue: Brett Churchill <>


  1. DAVE GOUGH, teaching blind student

Message 1: teaching blind student

Date: Thu, 6 May 1999 19:56:13 +0200
Subject: teaching blind student

Dear linguistlist

a while back you kindly posted a request i had for advice in teaching blind
students linguistics. i had a number of responses - people really were
helpful. I was wondering whether this could somehow be used as a resource
on your list. i have responses from people who have taught blind students
and students with visual impairement, as well as from blind linguistics
students and linguists i have not contacted the authors about using their
information, but don't see too many hassles about this. all the best, and
thanks for the great work. the best newsgroup by far!!

dave gough

university of the western cape. south africa.

Though I have no first hand information to help you with your
problem, I am a subscriber to the "Teach-Ling" list where this issue came
up recently. I saved a few of these messages, having just had a deaf woman
in my intro to linguistics class. I will forward them to you and hope they
are helpful. Below is the first one. Two more will follow. Good luck.


Susan Banner Inouye, PhD
Kapi'olani Community College
4303 Diamond Head Road
Honolulu, HI 96816

- -------- Forwarded message ----------
>Date: Mon, 15 Jun 1998 08:11:05 -1000
>From: s farwaneh <>
>Subject: Re: teaching blind student

Concerning accommodating a blind student in a linguistics class, the main
key is to find out what the student's needs are, and what thir skills and
experiences are. I am a professor of linguistics and I'm also blind. In
my experience, the main conventions that need to be accessed were the IPA
nonlinear representations, and OT tableaus. The choice of strategies to
access these conventions depends on the students skills and level of
linguistic knowledge.

One of the best devices for producing tactile graphics to help a blind
student with phonetic symbols is the raised line kit, which consists of a
rubber board and transparencies. The sighted reader or instructor can draw
the symbol on the transparency with a pen or a stylus and that produces a
tactile image which the student can detect easily with her hands. If you
use an overhead, give the student the transparencies after class, her
reader can trace the lines with a tracing wheel to form raised graphs.

It is very easy to get used to verbalizing what one writes on the
blackboard, and the concepts can be easily communicated to the blind
student if the instructor and student meet beforehand and agree on terms
to use for different symbols and diagrams. The student should memorize the
names of the phonetic symbols such as theta, engma, etc. Illustrative
terms can also be used like "tailed n" for engma or upside down v for

I find the most effective way to describe a phrase marker is to read the
tree from top to bottom and left to right. For example, the tree is headed
by the node S which dominates NP, AUX, and VP. The NP node dominates . .
. Contrary to what some profs think, giving verbal input does not have to
be time-consuming if there is adequate communication between instructor
and student outside class. OT tableaus are best read in rows beginning with
the set of ranked constraints. Each candidate output is then read with its
evaluation results. Please _do not_ wave any portion of a linguistics
course on account of blindness. This is not fair to the blind student who
has to compete equally for assistantships, scholarships, and future

Concerning tests, if the student is proficient in braille, the test
questions should be sent to the library or the Disabled Student Office for
braille transcription.
They are required by law to do that. The student can type her answers on a
computer with speech or braille output. If the student prefers to record
the test, it is her responsibility to provide the instructor with a tape
and recorder before the designated test time.

Finally, it is the student's responsibility to initiate the request for
accommodation and to determine e exactly what her needs are. It is the
responsibility of the instructor to provide accommodation in the form of
in-class verbal input, information about the available facilities on
campus, extra time for tests if needed, special room for taking tests, etc.
Reasonable accommodation does not include exemptions, special grades, task
reduction, or task substitution.

Sorry for the long post, and please feel free to e-mail me privately if
you have further questions.

Samira Farwaneh

- -------- Forwarded message ----------
>Date: Mon, 15 Jun 1998 16:50:34 -1000
>From: Geoffrey S. Nathan <>
>Subject: Re: teaching blind student

Samira Farwaneh's comments on teaching a blind student mirrored our
experience with a blind woman who did an MA in Linguistics with us several
years ago. It took a bit of getting used to before we remembered (in
phonology and historical linguistics) to read the data off the blackboard
and not to point to material on the board instead of referring to it
verbally. But it is absolutely true that the enterprise is collaborative;
our student had to work with us, explaining what she needed. Tinker toys
worked to illustrate three-dimensionally non-linear phonology and
everything else could be said out loud as Samira Farwaneh said. As far as
the testing center giving exams, since this student was computer literate,
we would dictate questions which she took down in braille and then went
away to write answers we could read. A side note: we always had feedback
about how interesting our lectures were (or weren't) since note taking in
braille is not entirely silent and this student would write faster - and
therefore more loudly - when the material got her excited!

Geoff Nathan and Margaret Winters

Geoff Nathan

420 Heritage Rd.,
Carbondale, IL, 62901

(618) 549-0106 (Home)
(618) 453-3421 (Office)

- -------- Forwarded message ----------
>Date: Tue, 9 Jun 1998 05:26:04 -1000
>From: Monica Macaulay <>
>Subject: Re: teaching blind student

I also had a blind student in an intro to linguistics. The only area that
was really a problem was phonetics, because of the transcription. I was
prepared to let her out of that, but she wanted to try. She had a helper
who came to class, and the helper and I both explained the shape of the
symbols to her. She would actually write out her transcriptions for
homeworks & exams - the symbols were very large and sometimes a little hard
to decipher, but really, she did fine. She was a *very* determined young
woman, though!

There are all sorts of things to get used to that are really obvious, but
we sighted people just don't think of them. She taped all lectures, and
listened to them at home a second time. I tried to remember to read out
everything I wrote on the board (instead of saying, e.g. "it can be like
this"). Actually, I can't remember if we did this, but it might help to
have the helper write down what gets written on the board, so that she
could read it to the blind student later. Of course, the student and the
helper made it very clear that the helper was not taking the class, and was
not there to help the student study or learn, only to assist with the
visual parts. They were careful to impress upon me that the student was
doing this on her own and wasn't getting an unfair advantage or cheating by
using the helper. (I never would have thought of that, myself, but they
were at pains to convince me of this. Maybe they had had some problem in
the past.)

I guess we had some of the same problems with drawing trees when we got to
syntax; I can't really remember that part. We must have used the same

And then for exams, I read the questions onto a tape, and she took the
exams apart from the other students, in a room where she could listen to
the tapes. I gave her as long as she wanted, but I don't think she really
took a lot of extra time.

Altogether I found it a very interesting and fulfilling experience. Don't
be shy to talk to the student about what would help - she's the best one to
tell you.

My student got an A in the class, I'm happy to report.

Good luck!

I, too, once had a blind student. It was in a formal syntax class some
years ago (intro to GB theory). The student was congenitally blind and
had absolutely no concept of treehood (for syntax trees). HOWEVER, she
had a very, very enhanced feeling for [bracketed [representations]] and
could put the really complicated ones together faster than any of the
others of us, including me. (she was also very, very smart!) I don't
know if her case would represent anything more general or not ...

Lynn Eubank
Division of Linguistics
Department of English
Univ of North Texas
Denton, TX 76203

I'm a Ph.D. candidate in Linguistics at U.C. Santa Barbara, and am blind.
I'm not exactly sure what kind of help/advice you're wanting, but would be
happy to assist in any way I can. Really the only issue here, in my
opinion, is that the student needs to get the textbook and other course
materials read on tape or put in Braille. There's a Braille version of
the IPA out there, and it shouldn't be any problem for the student to type
things up on a computer. There's certainly nothing intrincic about
blindness that would need any special adaptation for a Linguistics course,
except for getting the material in a format the student can access.

Robert Englebretson, UC Santa Barbara

i'm a blind linguistics student attending the university of binghamton or
should i say binghamton university in new york; northern united states.
please excuse the way i'm writing this email because i don't have much time
on my hands. but, i am willing to answer any questions you may have about
blind linguistics students. i was sent an email by professor Steven
Straight at Binghamton University to answer any of your questions or to
help you in any way that i can.

i have my own talking computer given to me from the local state government
and this is the tool that i use to do all my work. it costs about
$4000-$5000 for a laptop of this sort. i also use state money to pay
readers to read linguistics books for me. at first i started out by asking
people or classmates to read my books for me seeing the fact that they have
to read the books anyway and they didn't mind reading it out outloud.

all my linguistics classes were relatively good except for a few that were
exceptionally difficult: 1. phonology and phonetics, 2. syntax, 3.
structure of ukatek maya. these courses were hard because i had to work
with symbols that i could not see and tree diagrams and such. but, i used
grade 2 braille and made up my own equivalents for these symbols when i had
to speak about them in front of anyone. otherwise, i would just have the
people who are reading to me be very discriptive about the topics and i
would go over it until i understood; sometimes they would have to draw the
symbols in my hands with a finger or they would use elmer's glue on a piece
of paper and when it dried i was able to feel the symbol and store them.

i think the best keys to getting through linguistics as a blind student are:

1. knowing how to type
2. try always to understand the basic concepts
3. always make those who are reading for you describe the concepts and
symbols until you understand
4. always improvise using the skills you already have

if you have any more questions or you want to know more about how i get
things done please email me and i'll get back to you as soon as possible.
this week is difficult for me because i'm trying to graduate. but after
the 10th of may i can answer all your questions in full detail step by
step.... i see no obstacle in linguistics for a blind student; one must
just know how to use the right tools....

michael villafane
linguistics major
french literature major


We had a blind student studying French/German/linguistics, and I was his
supervisor for three years. \140A lot of our coping with him relied on his
computer, but sometimes that was over-sophisticated (in my opinion!) In
phonetics we got by using a transcription system developed by a colleague
where place of articulation was represented numerically, voicing by a
preceding point vs no point, manner/aperture by a following letter. So /p/
is "1"; /b/ is ".1"; /f/ is "2b"; /v/ is ".2b" etc. Vowels are
also represented by numbers, but preceded and followed by "-",
semivowels preceded and followed by "=". Laborious to read
(and write!), but since braille allows no non-alphabetic characters, no
distinguishing between lower and upper case, no diacritics, it had to do!

Syntax was a nightmare - someone in the computing service was writing a
tree-generating program at the time, but the student couldn't get on with
it, so my colleagues relied on brackets, which got exceedingly complicated
and meant that the student could only take it so far. He ended up having
to do options which didn't entail this sort of representation (eg
sociology of language).

We had also tried paper on which a heated pen produces bumps in the hope
that he'd be able to read diagrams (e.g. simple sociolinguistic networks),
but since he'd been blind from birth he had very poor spatial awareness
and was unable to make sense of them. Another blind student who was here
at the same time,and who had not been born blind fared better with that.

Hope this is helpful. I vaguely remember contact with someone (poss at
University College London?) who was developing an alternative phonetic
script, but I'm afraid I can't remember the details, or who it was!

Ros Temple


Ros(alind) A. M. Temple,
Dept of Language and Linguistic Science,
University of York,
Heslington, direct: + 44.1904.432671
York YO1 5DD dept sec: + 44.1904.432650
England / Lloegr fax: + 44.1904.432673

read your appeal for ideas to help in the teaching of a blind
student on the Linguist net. Our experience here is different, as
teaching a degree in English Language and Literature makes
different demands, but since this university also has no means for
dealing with this kind of student (we have had two in the last six
years) and only occasional support was offered by the ONCE
(Spanish organization for the blind) perhaps the following
observations may be of help.
- In large classes (we have over 150 in badly designed rooms, poor
acoustics) it is important that the student should be sitting
somewhere that ensures s/he will hear everything clearly. If the
blind student is using a braille typewriter to take notes, teachers
have to remember that the time it takes to take notes is longer,
and make allowances accordingly. Having helpful students sitting
beside him/her will provide support. In an EFL course, where
lectures were given in English, our blind students frequently had to
have words spelt out, and novice teachers had to remember that
visual supports (OHP, blackboard) were not available to the blind,
and again, had to make allowances for this.
- Exams and term papers. We had two alternative procedures. One
was an oral interview/exam, and the other was computer-based.
Our blind candidates were provided with software to convert the
normal keyboard to braille, and allowed teachers to read it back
alphabetically. If you don't know where to get hold of this software, I
suppose a local organization for the blind can help. If not, I can find
out for you locally.
- Background readings were not a problem in this kind of degree as
a lot of the set texts are available either in braille or in Penguin
talking-books version. In Phonetics, when using the IPA, I
"invented" transcription procedures , eg , EV1 for English vowel
number one and "alphabetical" representations for consonant
phonemes such as "sh" for voiceless affricate consonant, etc. As
the kind of transcriptions required were relatively unsophisticated,
and few allophonic variants needed to be recorded, again we were
able to agree on ways of transcribing ( for example, upper case or
lower case for "dark" or "light" /l/).
As you can see, most solutions are "home-made". Some teachers
found time to learn braille, but most of us relied on exchange of
floppy disks which could be converted to/from braille.
In retrospect, I feel that we could have done a lot better, but with
such enormous numbers of students it was difficult to find time. I
hope you get better ideas from other centres. Good luck!

Fiona MacArthur
University of Extremadura

But first let me tell you our own (not very encouraging) experience with a
blind Egyptian student in Vienna. This was about 10-15 years ago. The only
extra equipment he had was a walkman with which he recorded all the
classes he attended. At a departmental meeting we decided to give him
carte blanche to tape anything he wanted anywhere in the department
without asking (an important point psychologically, I think). Fortunately
he was interested in computers and in time managed to type up all his own
notes (before that he had help from his brother, who also studied
linguistics). He also had general help from other students, especially in
getting around the building. He finished up running his own software firm
for blind people, specializing in multilingual applications. That would
have been a nice ending for the story, but when I met him about 3 months
ago he said that MS Windows had put him out of business with its
Accessibility utilities.
I have experience teaching the blind and visually challenged. I
used a scanner to scan texts and then converted the texts to braille with
a software package in MS DOS. This was not wholly successful. The
students often complained of abreviated forms of words which forced them
to guess what they were reading(I imagine as a badly photocopied
text would be the same for us).

The immediate and best way of getting the students to assimulate
information and to enjoy doing so was to have them do tasks in small
groups so that a sighted learner could read or present new information.
My non -sighted learners either had a machine known as a "Perkins"
machine, (a kind of braille typewriter(pretty noisy)) or a sort of clip
board on which they fastened a piece of paper (heavy paper) so that they
could then punch holes in it with a small tool. The paper is then reversed
and the learner reads the "bumps".

My recommendation to you given the cost effective means that you
require would be to plan the lessons with all of the learners in mind,
putting an emphasis on small group work. Make the groups yourself so that
each group can help explain and present new information to the non sighted
learner. If you do this from the beginning of the semester then the class
won't resent it. They'll treat it as part of your particular class and
be prepared to split into different groups. If you can have the non
-sighted learner present one day -- all the better for the group!

In situations where you need to convey large amounts of
information - lectures etc. Have the lesson tape recorded so that the
student can work privately and independently.

My best wishes,

Angela Evans.

Angela Evans
MS Program in Computational Linguistics
Georgetown University
) The website
 has scientific things available in Braille, but not linguistics
 There is a technology called 'capsule paper' which you use to copy
the image and then when you heat the paper, the image and Braille dots

2) But no linguistics, so the professor who 'developed a way to automate
transcription of mathematical and scientific formulas into Braille' is:

Fred E. Lytle
Professor, chemistry
Purdue - West Lafayette
Purdue WL
765-494-5261; home: 765-743-3224

3) And from a newsclipping:
"Within the past year, a new medium, capsule paper, has made it possible
to create tactile graphics from a computer file. After an image is copied
onto it, the capsule paper is heated, making the areas covered with copier
toner expand and rise. A special heating unit, which costs less than
$1500, is needed to produce the tactile images."

I wonder if a hair dryer would work???

Anyway, I suggest you contact Prof. Lytle and find out what translation
programs are available. Good luck.


I noticed your posting to LINGUIST. I currently have a visually impaired
graduate student in linguistics and have had one as an undergraduate also.
Both students had some vision but could not read normal type, see the
blackboard or overhead projector. In the U.S., disabled students at
universities are entitled to "reasonable accommodations" and are further
assisted by the university. Given the limited resources you describe, I'll
mention what I have done which may be possible for you to adapt to your

In each case, any materials that I provided (syllabus, handouts, material
on overhead transparencies, exams, etc.) were produced in a large font (18
pt. for these students) or enlarged on a photocopier. These students also
had a strategy for note-taking. In the case of the graduate student,
Disabled Student Services provided an hourly wage for another student in
the class to take the notes. The undergraduate audio-recorded the class
sessions - a much better approach I think because otherwise the student who
is taking notes is too pre-occupied with the task and it is distracting to
his/her own learning process. Dealing with published materials is more
difficult. Both students had individuals read for them. The higher the
level of student, the greater the number of articles, chapters etc. that
have to be read.

It is important for the teacher to adjust the presentation of material so
that everything that is said does not rely on the ability to see. For
example, one cannot say "consider the third point on the list" - rather one
has to mention exactly what it is. Expressions such as "here" "there"
"that one" are meaningless to the visually impaired.

If the student has no visual ability, then aural presentation of material
and recording of lectures/class discussions are the only approaches. A
mentor serves a valuable role provided the student and mentor have a good
rapport. Another student or group of students willing to help out is also
valuable for general assistance and study purposes. Students are less
reluctant to pose questions to one another.

If I can provide any further information, please let me know.

Debra M. Hardison, Ph.D.
Program in Linguistics/ESL
University of California, Davis
One Shields Avenue
Davis, CA 95616

I had a blind student last year, and I found that I struggled to get across
at one on one tutorials. Then I came right - I was not making
"eye-contact". Once I realised that and adjusted, our relationship and the
quality of our tuts blossomed! She clearly had sensed my unease, but became
receptive and participatory once I realised that she was a normal person
with a disadvantage!

A bit like asking a blind persons's friend at tea time "does she take

Hope this little touch (no pun!) helps!

Dear Dave Gough

I have a little experience, having taught beginners Russian to a group
including a blind student some years ago.

One thing we got right was having a conversation before classes began in
which I asked the student what she would expect from me as a teacher, and
in which I said how I thought I should modify my teaching. There were great
misconceptions on both sides (the student had been to a special school
before university, and assumed that things that specialist teachers did as
a matter of course would be second nature to university lecturers too).

The student was the inspiration of the department for four years, and left
to take up a good job in Paris.

Good luck, I hope things go well

Greville G. Corbett
Linguistic and International Studies
University of Surrey
Guildford email:
Surrey, GU2 5XH FAX: +44 1483 259527
Great Britain phone: +44 1483 300800 ext 2849
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