Celebrating World Sight Day with Innovative Teacher Neil McKenzie

In honor of World Sight Day, today we are featuring the inspirational story of Neil McKenzie – a teacher harnessing the power of design and technology to reshape the field of teaching for visually impaired students.

In Northern California’s Sonoma County, assistive technology specialist Neal McKenzie is creating innovative new uses for 3D design and printing to address the needs of some very special students – the visually impaired. His design thinking-based approach is fundamentally improving how blind and low vision students learn, by enhancing access to content and evening the educational playing field.

McKenzie instantly embraced the 3D printer when his department acquired one a year and a half ago. At that time, a blind 5th-grader had to write a report on rural life and someone had suggested including an ox. But the boy had never touched an ox or even a cow and had no reference for the animal. Instead of having to scramble for a toy ox for his student to explore by touch, McKenzie used Tinkercad and a downloaded ox file from Thingiverse to design and 3D print a 3” x 4” plastic ox. “As soon as the boy held it in his hands, he said, ‘Oh, I get it now,’” recalls McKenzie. “It was that simple.”

McKenzie has since created dozens of his own designs for objects to help bridge the accessibility gap between his visually impaired students and the sighted counterparts with whom they share classrooms and teachers. “A fact of life for these students is that they have to deal with the extra burden of getting accessible materials before they can even tackle the content,” says McKenzie. He collaborates with teachers and students on specific needs, then “whittles out different solutions.”

For instance, the teacher of a blind sixth-grader asked McKenzie for help with a math problem of sorts. The class was going to be charting graphs for months, and ordinarily the blind student would need a separate embossed graph for each problem—a burdensome process. So McKenzie designed and made a plastic quadrant graph that can be charted with push pins. “Now the student can find a plot point instantly and keep up with the rest of the class,” says McKenzie. “He can worry about content, not access.”

quadrant_Shot.jpg-1502426558                                                              3D printed quadrant graph

When a visually impaired student is learning a very visual concept, says McKenzie, the goal of any 3D design project is full inclusion. So if he makes tactile 3D prints for a science class, the teacher incorporates the prints into the lesson for the whole class. “Although crucial for the specific student,” he explains, “it makes the whole lesson accessible and better for everyone.”

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Neil McKenzie

McKenzie has made many things that serve the needs of those who are blind and low vision, including hooks to hold a white cane alongside a shopping cart, a tactile dial for a cellphone, and for a student who has the use of just one finger—a little plastic crayon holder.

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3D printed shopping cart hooks to hold white cane

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3D printed crayon holder

One of his inventions has garnered widespread attention, recently winning an Infy Makers award. McKenzie’s Braille Thing? is an interactive Braille teaching device. He created it specifically for a kindergartener who was losing her sight from a degenerative condition but was resistant to learning Braille. “It was a way to teach her Braille that wasn’t scary to her, that she could have fun with,” he says. And it has worked for other students as well.

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The Braille Thing?

McKenzie hopes that design concepts and Maker technologies will soon be embraced across special education with the same enthusiasm as they have been in general education. “I think in special education as a whole this tool could bring these amazing kids to the next level.”

Post excerpted from EdSurge: With 3D Technology, Special Education Students Can Focus on Content—Not Access

See Neil’s 3D designs

Follow Neil on Twitter: @neal_at

Watch Neil on YouTube:  AT Neal