Assistive Technology for Math: 10 Tips for TVIs

Authors: Cecilia Robinson, Technology Consultant, TSBVI Outreach

Keywords: assistive technology, AT, braille math codes, Nemeth Code, manipulatives, real objects, brailler, refreshable braille displays, tactile graphics, American Printing House for the Blind, APH

Abstract: All students need a strong foundation of knowledge and skills in math so that new learning can be retained and new mathematical concepts can continue to be developed. This is true for students with visual impairments as well, and there are many assistive technology (AT) devices available to help facilitate their learning of math concepts and skills. The author shares information on a variety of these materials and describes how both low-tech and high-tech can enhance students’ learning of math.

Assistive technology (AT) for math consists of items and devices that range from low-tech to high-tech. Low-tech items may include manipulatives, such as money, shapes and solids, or measuring devices. High-tech devices can include, but are not limited to, calculators, video magnifiers, embossers, or machines that produce tactile graphics.

In order for students to become competent users of AT for math, they must establish a strong foundation of mathematical knowledge and skills. A strong foundation in mathematical concepts will provide a stronger “platform” on which new learning and experiences can accumulate.

The following are ten tips for Teachers of Students with Visual Impairment (TVIs) to consider when using AT to support the learning of math:

  • Start early. Using both hands, if appropriate, let young learners manipulate real objects with different sizes, shapes, textures, and other details. Encourage them to explore the space around them. Spatial awareness and learning through experiences will help young learners understand relationships with numbers and other concepts later on.
  • Caption: A student uses both hands for calculations on a Cranmer Abacus.Use manipulatives and devices in your instruction. Consult with the student’s math teacher to identify materials that will best facilitate student learning. Consider devices such as the abacus, tactile rulers, a number line device, or a place value setter from the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) to maximize a student’s learning experience.
A young girl with dark hair sits at a table. Her hands are moving beads on an abacus.

Student moving beads on an abacus.

A female student with blue glasses uses a tactile ruler to measure a box.

Student uses a tactile ruler to measure a box

  • Facilitate building a strong foundation of knowledge and skills. Every child learns differently. Individualizing is the key to helping students gain an understanding of concepts, especially more abstract concepts, and skills such as how to use AT. Collaborate with the student’s team, including family members, on how to support the child’s learning of math and AT.
  • Introduce braille math codes early so that students who are blind will have a way to read and write numbers as they are first learning about numbers and how to work with them. Braille math codes also allow students to read and write many other symbols related to math and science, from the most basic to very advanced concepts. They can use braille math codes such as the Nemeth Code to solve a variety of math problems using low tech AT devices, like a Perkins brailler, or high tech AT devices, such as refreshable braille displays and scientific and graphing calculators.
  • Include tactile graphics in your instruction. Tactile graphics are created to be touched so that number lines, pictographs, Venn diagrams, bar graphs, graphs on the coordinate plane, and geographic drawings can be represented in meaningful ways. Tactile graphics can be produced by using AT such as the PIAF (Picture In A Flash) or Swell Form Machine, or a ViewPlus graphics embosser. Additionally, students can create tactile graphics using AT such as the TactileDoodle, DRAFTSMAN Tactile Drawing Board, inTACT Sketchpad, Sewell Raised Line Drawing Board, or the Sensational Blackboard. Some students with limited low vision use tactile graphics as well. The SwellTouch graphics produced with the PIAF or Swell Form Machine can be especially beneficial for these students.
A female student uses her right hand to examine a tactile graphic containing raised line forms and braille.

Student exploring a tactile graphic

A male student with dark blue glasses feeds a piece of thermaform paper with drawings of different shapes into a PIAF tactile graphic maker.

Student using a PIAF machine to create a raised line graphic

  • Learn about the AT before introducing it to the student. Approaching new AT from the perspective of a learner will provide you with valuable insight as to how to teach it. The more familiar you are with the AT, the better able you will be to demonstrate the AT to your student or the math teacher.
  • Allow students the time to learn about the AT. They need time to practice using the AT so that they can be efficient when they need to use it in class.
  • Teach your students to solve challenges related to AT, especially when you are not scheduled to be at a student’s campus. Empower your students by teaching them the commands to become “unstuck” or to access the built-in Help options. Let them know that it is acceptable to ask for help from the math teacher as well. If appropriate, teach them how to solicit technical assistance from the companies that make the devices they use most frequently.
  • Train your student to use a backup system when AT fails. A backup system can be another device or a device similar to the one the student typically uses. It can also be a low-tech system, such as a Perkins brailler, abacus, or pen and paper. Be sure that the student’s team knows about the “backup” system so that the student can be encouraged/reminded to use it when AT is not available. Having a backup system in place can minimize time wasted to find alternative options.
Photo of a student's hands exploring three raised number lines for comparing fractions and whole numbers.

APH Tactile Number Lines

  • Have high expectations for learning and performance. As the TVI for your student, consider taking the lead in implementing high expectations for learning and performance on the IEP team. Be sure that the team, including the student, understands the expectations and what they may look like (for the student).


AT Devices

For questions about assistive technology for math or any of the information in this article, please contact Cecilia Robinson at [email protected]. This article can also be found on the Paths to Literacy website

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