Main content

Alert message

By Susan Osterhaus, Secondary Mathematics Teacher, TSBVI

The use of scientific graphing calculators is now a mainstay of secondary math classrooms, and they must be provided to students for the End-of-Course Examination for Algebra I. When the new statewide assessment (TAKS) begins in Spring 2003, the Algebra I exam will be eliminated, and it is expected that the TAKS 9th, 10th and 11th Grade (Exit Level) Mathematics will require the use of a scientific graphing calculator. Initially, calculators will not be permitted on the 8th Grade math TAKS. However, their use may be included in the near future. Each student must also have access to a graphing calculator for routine classwork and practice. Visually impaired students must meet the same requirements as their peers, and Teachers of the Visually Impaired (TVIs) must be prepared to teach their students the skills needed to be successful in mathematics courses. A review of the technology currently available may help TVIs determine the most appropriate ways to teach their students and prepare them for statewide assessments.

The Administrator's Manual of the 2001 End-of-Course Test states that each student must have access to a graphing calculator during the testing. Students may use any graphing calculator except those with typewriter-style keypads (known as QWERTY) or those that include a computer algebra system. Students may also use any four-function or scientific calculator on the test, but hand-held minicomputers or laptop computers may not be used. TEA usually accommodates the needs of special education students on an individual basis. If a visually impaired student uses, or wishes to use, a piece of technology not currently approved by TEA, the student's TVI should contact the Accommodations Task Force at TEA, which may give permission to use it on statewide assessments. For further information, the TVI might also call the Student Assessment Division of TEA, at (512) 463-9536. Remember, the device must be an accommodation that the student routinely uses in class.

Large Display Scientific/Graphing Calculators

TI ViewScreen Solutions (Current price: $300) 

Texas Instruments (TI) makes a ViewScreen package for several TI calculators including the TI-82 and TI-83. It has worked well with some low vision students. They use a ViewScreen calculator connected to a ViewScreen LCD display panel placed on a light box. Some students prefer using their calculator on the newer color CCTVs. This technology is easily available and has been approved by TEA. The ViewScreen package is already used by math teachers on their overhead projectors, so they should have no problem training visually impaired students with this technology.

VisAble (Current price: $269) 

The VisAble is the only large display scientific calculator made as a one-piece portable unit, and is an alternative for low vision students who are unable to use one of the TI solutions. However, it does not have graphing capabilities. Betacom Corporation manufactures it. Although most general education math teachers will be unfamiliar with the VisAble, the various functions are easily identifiable, and a willing math teacher should have little difficulty orienting the visually impaired student to the VisAble. This technology is more expensive than some, but it does meet with TEA's approval.

TI-83 Trainer (Current price: $49.50) 

Professor Goldstein's TI-83 Trainer is an affordable computer software program with complete TI-83 calculator emulation. When installed on a laptop, the student has a very portable device. The addition of magnification software provides even better accessibility. If the math teacher has selected the TI-83 as the class calculator of choice, the TI-83 Trainer is an excellent option for the low vision student. The math teacher should have little difficulty orienting the visually impaired student. However, this option has not been approved by TEA at the present time.

Scientific Notebook (Current price: $129) 

Scientific Notebook (SN) is another software package. When installed on a laptop, the student has a very portable device, which is more than just a graphing scientific calculator. SN is also a math/text processor, so the student can do all assignments, calculations, and graphs in one document directly on the laptop. It has onscreen magnification up to 400%, or additional magnification software may be used. In addition, two large print fonts are available from MAVIS at NMSU, which will allow further onscreen magnification and large print hard copies. Metroplex Voice Computing is even working on voice recognition software to make it accessible to the totally blind. With the right techniques, it is also possible for a blind student to work with matrices using Scientific Notebook and a screen reader to solve systems of equations and find regression lines. Furthermore, math teachers can enter all their worksheets, tests, etc. on SN, and the teacher of the visually impaired can easily translate them into Nemeth code. Many general education math teachers are just now discovering SN and seem quite excited about its potential. Although it has not been approved by TEA at the present time, most math teachers should find it to be affordable and user-friendly.

Braille Scientific Calculator

Leo Braille Display Calculator (Current price: $1000) 

The Leo is the only stand-alone braille-display scientific calculator, and is an alternative for the deafblind student who does not use a notetaker with braille display. However, it does not have graphing capabilities. Robotron Sensory Tools manufactures it. Most math teachers will need training before they can assist the student with this technology. The cost may be prohibitive for most, but it does meet with TEA's approval.

Talking Scientific/Graphing Calculators

ORION TI-34 (Current price: $199) 

Certain low vision students may prefer a stand-alone talking scientific calculator, and although there are many such calculators on the market today, the ORION TI-34 from Orbit Research is currently the most affordable and user-friendly. It is also approved by TEA. While it does not have graphing capabilities, it is easily accessible by totally blind students (unlike the TIs and the VisAble), and features a built-in learning mode. The ORION's LCD display and functionality are identical to the TI-34, so math teachers should feel very comfortable orienting the visually impaired student.

Graph-It (Current price: $49) and Graph-It PC (Current Price: $149) 

Graph-It is a tactile scientific graphing calculator program for Blazie Engineering Note-Takers. Graph-It PC is designed for use with IBM compatible PCs. Both are available from Freedom Scientific. The student can type in an equation and produce a tactile graphic on most embossers. An audio representation of the graph can also be played through the speaker for a quick, sound-picture of the graph. The software is quite limited, however, and the tactile graphics and audio graph lack precision. The note-takers also include a built-in scientific calculator. Although this combination is not the most user-friendly or time efficient scientific graphing calculator solution, it may be the only option for a deafblind student. Most math teachers will need training before they can assist a visually impaired student with Graph-It, and this is not a TEA-approved solution.

Accessible Graphing Calculator (Current price: $75) 

The Accessible Graphing Calculator (AGC) from ViewPlus Software, Inc. is a self-voicing graphing scientific calculator software program. Unlike a hand-held calculator, it displays results through speech and sounds, as well as visually presenting numbers and graphs. This program is intended to have capabilities comparable to a full-featured hand-held scientific and statistical graphing calculator. The AGC is truly accessible for all students, and could be used for the entire class. The onscreen graphics are easily seen by a low vision student via an enlargement feature, and the graph can be listened to by using the sophisticated audio wave feature. Print copies can be made with any standard printer using a variety of fonts, including braille. The print copies with braille fonts can be copied onto swell paper and run through a tactile imaging machine. One of the best ways to use the AGC is with a TIGER Braille/graphics embosser from ViewPlus Technologies, Inc., but the TIGER is rather expensive. Although considerable time is typically needed for training a blind student to use the ACG totally independently, the math teacher is usually able to assist the student because it is so user-friendly for the sighted individual. The AGC cannot do matrices or parent functions, but the various functions it will perform are quite impressive. (The vendor plans to continue upgrading the software, including working with matrices.) It has not been approved by TEA at the present time.


Teachers of the visually impaired must make many decisions about appropriate programming and technology for their students. They must not only be aware of the different kinds of technology that are available, but also be able to teach their students how to use them. For TEA to approve the use of a piece of technology, it should be routinely used by a student to complete assignments at school. The student should (a) have access to a graphing calculator, (b) know how to use a graphing calculator, and (c) use it to practice routine class work at the same time as his or her classmates.

TSBVI is committed to being a resource for visually impaired students, their teachers, and their families. It sponsors a variety of workshops and training opportunities, and maintains a math website at The website not only provides information about appropriate materials, tools and technology, but also offers specific suggestions for collaboration between teachers of the visually impaired and general education math teachers. In addition, the Special Programs Department offers a three-week summer class, Adaptive Tools and Technology for Accessible Mathematics (ATTAM), and a one-week ATTAM class during the regular school year. They also offer several one-week sessions of individualized instruction on specific IEP objectives throughout the year, which might include math and/or math technology goals. Finally, the Comprehensive Programs Department offers Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II in two-period blocks during the academic school year. The two-period block allows additional time for learning the necessary Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), perfecting the Nemeth code, and training in the use of adaptive math tools and technology.

If you have questions about teaching math to students with visual impairments, contact Susan Osterhaus at or (512) 206-9305.