Teaching Students Who are Blind or Low Vision
Provided by UMA Department of Learning Success
Students with visual impairments are challenged by many typical classroom instructional strategies. Although they can hear lectures and discussions, a large part of traditional teaching is visual. It can be difficult for them to access class syllabi, textbooks, handouts, power point presentations, information written on the board, maps, written exams, demonstrations, and films.
Students that are Blind or Low Vision vary considerably. Some have no vision; others are able to see large forms; and still others can see print if sufficiently magnified. They use a variety of accommodations, equipment, and compensatory strategies based upon their varying needs. Many make use of audio textbooks, e-text, and computer screen reading software such as JAWS, extended time for exams or projects, a reader/scribe during exams, large print books. A few individuals use Brailled materials.
- For sighted people, vision serves as the primary source for information. Estimates of how much sighted people learn visually range from 75% to 85%.
- A person who is visually impaired has difficulty seeing even if wearing glasses.
- Over 75% of the people in the U.S who are legally blind have some residual vision.
Possible functional impacts of vision impairment
- Difficulty finding and identifying objects
- Difficulty seeing objects edges, and discriminating foreground/background differences
- Objects disappearing in the visual field
- Tripping, falling, or bumping into objects when walking or moving about
- Difficulty reading print
- Reduced reading rate
- Reduced reading endurance
- Difficulty seeing handwriting
- Difficulty seeing writing on board, or projector
- Difficulty seeing characters or numbers in books/media
- Inconsistency in seeing objects over time (fluctuating vision)
General Points to Keep in Mind
- Speak to the class upon entering and leaving the classroom.
- Identify yourself by name, don't assume that the student who is blind or low vision will recognize you by your voice even though you have met before.
- Speak directly to a student who is blind, NOT through a companion or third party.
- Call the student by name if you want his/her attention.
- Verbally acknowledge the questions of a student who is blind, they cannot see a head shake or gesture.
- Be specific and descriptive in directions and avoid the use of vague terms with unusable information, such as "over there," "here," "this," etc.
- Don't worry about using phrases that refer to sight, e.g. “see you later,” these are commonly used expressions. Students with vision loss can still "see" what is meant by such expressions.
- Describe and familiarize the student to the classroom, laboratory, equipment, supplies, materials, etc. Once a student is oriented, maintain a consistent classroom environment. Tell the student if a room they are familiar with has been rearranged.
- Students who have had no vision since birth may also have difficulty understanding verbal descriptions of visual materials and abstract concepts. Consider the description, "This diagram of ancestral lineage looks like a tree." If one has never seen a tree, it may not be readily apparent that the structure of note has several lines of ancestry which can be traced back to one central family. However, students who lost their vision later in life may find it easier to understand such verbal descriptions. Using enhanced verbal descriptions in your class will benefit sighted students as well as those with visual challenges. In making comparisons or analogies, use familiar objects that don't depend on prior visual knowledge. Foods or objects found around the house are useful.
- Do not pet or touch guide dogs when they are wearing their harness. Guide dogs are working animals “on duty”. It can be hazardous for the visually impaired person if the dog is distracted.
Good Practice Guidelines
The good practice guidelines outlined below are intended to make course material and methods more accessible to visually impaired students. Improving access for students that have a visual impairment will also benefit other students who have a variety of learning preferences and challenges.
When offering direction or information to the learner with vision loss, it is important that the information be organized and structured logically. People with vision loss have to process information without the benefit of body language, environmental cues and visual memory. This is especially important in online presentations were the student can’t ask for clarification in the moment.
- Provide handouts electronically in advance of the lecture.
- Describe any material you are writing down. Talk through any images or diagrams. If you refer back to the written information, speak it again.
- Spell out any new or difficult words or names.
- If the lecture relies on a demonstration, verbally describe what you are doing with clear, concise language. If the demonstration includes equipment or models that the student cannot see, allow the student to tactilely explore these items either during or before the lecture.
The provision of instructional materials in alternate formats is an institutional responsibility under Title II of the ADA and Section 504. Textbooks, class handouts and other materials must be provided in a timely manner in an accessible format.
for blind students:
- Ready access to printed materials in digital form can allow a blind student to use a computer with adaptive software to “read” text aloud. Since it may take several weeks to get and/or convert course materials to an accessible format, it is essential that materials be selected and prepared well before the materials are needed. Learning Success typically coordinates e-text production in collaboration with faculty and the student to meet adaptive technology needs.
- Avoid using tables, columns and charts when possible. Translation is difficult and older screen readers do not read the information well, if at all.
- Save text from multimedia programs (e.g., Power Point) into text files.
for low vision students:
- Use large-print, typed rather than handwritten visuals.
- Use a clear, sans-serif font such as Arial, Calibri, or Tahoma.
- Use print size 18 point or above.
- Keep the layout clear and simple.
- Avoid text on a patterned background.
On-line Courses and Course Documents
Online courses need to be structured for ease of navigation. A sighted person can use their vision to maneuver through tabs and links even if they are not well organized. For a blind student, logical, consistent structure with a minimum number of steps is needed for them to navigate effectively.
Documents posted to Blackboard or a course web site need to be in an accessible file type in order to be read with adaptive software. Most scanned documents become a pdf which, while it looks like text, is actually a picture that cannot be read by adaptive software. Word, rtf or html are the preferred file types.
Software is available to convert documents to accessible formats. However, it will not work well unless the original is a clean copy without hand written notes and underlining. Scans of newspaper articles often have a dark background that make them almost impossible to convert. Any of this conversion process can take a huge amount of time and labor. The best strategy is to choose documents and resources which are already in an accessible format.
Visual impairments may impact a student's access to standard computer programs and research tools used in writing. Accessing journals, publications, or other library resources can be especially challenging. Adaptive computer technology has improved access. For example, students who are blind can use screen reading programs and speech output systems to write. Still, many students will need accommodations to complete written assignments. General accommodations includes the use of adaptive technology, extended test-taking time, allowing alternative assignment formats, and occasionally extending assignment deadlines.
If a student requires alternative examination arrangements, these will be outlined in the student's “Accommodation Authorization” from the Department of Learning Success. Strategies that may be used include extra time, use of a reader or scribe, magnification equipment or large print tests, or use of a computer with or without adaptive software.
If you have questions about teaching a student who is blind or low vision, contact Don Osier, Director, Department of Learning Success. Other faculty who have worked with visually impaired students may also provide useful perspective. If your questions relate to course design or technology, the Instructional Design staff should be able to assist you. Library staff can assist with locating resources such as journal articles in accessible formats.