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Vision Impairment and Blindness

There is no 'typical' vision-impaired student: the impairment may be the result of a range of conditions and its impact will depend on the type, extent and timing of vision loss.

The impact of the impairment on learning will vary significantly according to the nature and extent of vision loss: some students will have been born without vision, others will have lost it gradually; some will have no vision at all, others will have some vision, be light-sensitive, or have limited peripheral vision. It is also possible that vision and light-sensitivity will fluctuate day-to-day.

Some students may rely on a guide dog or white cane to assist mobility while others have sufficient residual vision to get around independently. Students may require adjustments and assistive devices to facilitate access to education. An adjustment may be as simple as a seat near the front of the class, but most students use assistive technology (such as closed-circuit TV, screen-magnification or screen-reading software) to enable them to read and access the internet.

Impact of Vision Impairment and Blindness

The learning processes of students with vision impairment may be affected in the following ways:

  • Students with vision impairment may access information in a variety of ways, for example Braille, audio-tape, or enlarged print. Braille readers cannot skim read and may take up to three times as long as other students to read a text. Students with some vision may be large-print readers. Many will be unable to read examination questions and handouts in standard print or read their own handwriting when answering examination questions.  They may also be unable to take their own notes. Extra time is needed to carry out some tasks, such as locating words in a text when shifting from one reading medium to another.
  • Students who need information put into alternative formats must wait, often up to six to eight weeks, for the material to be produced for them. This means that they will often fall behind other students in the class.
  • Students with vision impairment may feel isolated in the learning environment, which can  have an impact on learning.
  • Headaches often result from eyestrain. This may reduce considerably the study time available to these students.
  • Participation and interaction in tutorials may be limited. It is difficult for students who cannot see the body language and interactions of others to feel comfortable about participating. Judging when it is appropriate to interrupt or to take a turn in discussion is particularly difficult.

Teaching Strategies

There is a range of inclusive teaching and assessment strategies that can assist all students to learn but there are some specific strategies that are useful in teaching a group which includes students with vision impairment.

We often take for granted the amount of visual information received every day. Many students with a vision impairment do not have a lifetime of visual experiences to draw upon. It may be necessary to consider the amount of assumed visual content in your subject when designing learning tasks.

  • Prepare as much information as possible in electronic format - this makes it much easier to provide materials in accessible formats and allows users with disabilities to adapt the information to a format which is suitable for them.
  • Make required book lists and course materials available early so there is sufficient time for them to be reproduced in audio or Braille, if required.
  • Indicate compulsory texts in your reading list, noting important chapters if possible. Specifying the order of reading within a text is helpful, as it can take many weeks to have a book reproduced into audio or Braille.
  • For students with vision impairment your teaching style will need to be ‘verbal’. Think about how to communicate information to students who cannot see what you are doing.
  • Verbalise what is written on the blackboard and on overheads. Talk through any calculations as they are made or procedures as they are carried out. Read any printed information and describe any charts or graphs being used.
  • Academic activities which take place off-campus (such as industry visits, interviews or field work) may pose problems and on-campus alternatives may need to be considered.
  • Provide an individual orientation to laboratory equipment or computers in order to minimise the anxiety likely in an unfamiliar environment.
  • Consider supplementing laboratory practicals, experiments or field trips, for example by audio taping commentaries.
  • Inform the student if you plan to use videos, slides or overheads, and discuss alternative ways of presenting the necessary information.
  • Because students with vision impairment are generally slower than other students in completing reading tasks (reading is slower; considerable time is involved in getting material taped or Brailled), provide reading lists well before the start of a course so that reading can begin early. Consider tailoring reading lists and provide guidance to key texts.
  • Providing the student with a vision impairment with prior notice that you plan to use a film or video in class allows him/her the option to request to see it beforehand. This will enable him/her to sit very close to the screen or have someone explain the film or video. It would be helpful to 'pause' on important points when the student is viewing the resource in class with others.
  • A student may have difficulty finding his/her essay or assignment in a pigeonhole or amongst a pile of other students' work.
  • Students may not be able to read your hand-written comments. It would be helpful if you could negotiate alternative feedback mechanisms with the student.
  • Students are usually able to access online learning materials with the use of assistive technologies if websites follow accessible web design guidelines.
  • The vision of some students may be affected by the glare from fluorescent lights or sunlight so you may need to attend to some aspects of your teaching environment. This should be done unobtrusively.
  • Use tactile graphics where necessary

Assessment Strategies

In considering alternative forms of assessment, equal opportunity not a guaranteed outcome, is the objective. You are not expected to lower standards to accommodate students with a disability, but rather are required to give them a reasonable opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned. Once you have a clear picture of how the disability impacts on learning, you can consider alternative assessment strategies:

  • Students with a vision impairment may need particular adjustments to assessment tasks. Once you have a clear picture of how the disability impacts on learning you can consider alternative assessment strategies.
  • Provide extensions to assignment deadlines if extensive reading has been set. Consider setting alternative assignments in which students have the opportunity to work intensively on a few selected texts rather than having to read widely.
  • Examination papers may need to be enlarged or Brailled, with tactile diagrams, maps etc. It may be necessary to provide heavy line paper, a scribe or special writing implements.
  • Some students may undertake examinations using a personal computer with assistive software. Some may need other assessment adjustments such as a reader/scribe, an oral examination, audio taped questions or large print papers. It may be necessary to provide extra space for equipment and specific personnel or a separate examination venue if the noise from equipment being used is likely to be distracting for other students.
  • Provide extra time in examinations. Some students with vision impairment will require double time for examinations so time for rest breaks will be essential. Take-home examinations or split papers are a preferred option under such circumstances.

Tactile graphics

People with a vision impairment are finding tactile graphics extremely valuable and, in some cases, vital for successful study, work and leisure. While people with a vision impairment are routinely provided with text transcribed into Braille, audio or large print, the pictures, diagrams and maps which accompany text are often omitted or only very briefly described.

Visual graphics can effectively be converted into tactile graphics, even for the highly graphical information contained in maps and scientific material. This is not simply a matter of taking a visual image and making some kind of tactile photocopy – the tactile is a considerably less sensitive sense than the visual.

Visual graphics need to be re-designed by experts, in a variety of formats such as vacuum-formed (thermoform), swell paper (microcapsule paper) and embossed (such as that produced on a Braille printer). They can also be accompanied by labels and descriptions in Braille or audio format.

Tactile graphics are useful when:

  • the user is print-impaired but has some tactual ability
  • a concept not easily described in words
  • a real object is unavailable for touching
  • the shape, form or pattern is significant
  • it is necessary to illustrate scale and explain maps, technology or biological relationships
  • a one-time reference or reminder is needed
  • the educational experience can be enhanced.

Tactile graphics are not, however, exact replicas of the original, nor are they good for fine detail and representing very large graphics. They should not be used without training and support materials.

Colour Blindness

Colour blindness (or colour deficiency) is typically a genetic condition, although it can also be the result of injury, disease or ageing. (Although not actually called colour blindness, age-related colour deficiency is a result of the yellowing of the corneas, which severely hampers the perception of violet and blue.)

It is much more common in men than in women - around one in 12 men have some kind of colour perception problem. There are many different types and degrees of colour blindness. It is extremely rare to have monochromasy, the complete absence of any colour sensation.