Teaching Students with Visual Impairments

Only a small minority of people are totally blind. Most individuals are considered "legally blind" and their functional abilities vary considerably. Some have no vision, others are able to see large shapes, and still others can read standard print if magnified. Depending on their disabilities, they use a variety of accommodations, equipment, and compensatory strategies to overcome their visual limitations. Most students with visual disabilities take advantage of assistive technology, especially screen reader software (JAWS, Kurzweil, Zoomtext). Some students also use digital recorders, portable note-taking devices, or talking calculators. Some students who are blind will use Braille with competence, but many do not use it.

The mobility skills of individuals who are visually impaired vary, depending on the age of onset, the limitations and the extent of mobility training.

The following are some suggestions on instructing students with visual impairments:

  • Students should be seated near the front of class to hear clearly what is being presented and to see as much as possible, although some students may choose to sit in other places. Depending on the student's vision ability, you may need to tell the student when someone enters the room or when you leave the room.
  • Provide all printed materials (syllabi, handouts, overhead materials, diagrams and exams) electronically, or on white paper in enlarged print if that is the student's preference.
  • Submit your book order to the campus bookstore according to the established University deadlines. Most students with visual impairments need their books to be converted to alternative formats (electronic), using a screen reader to listen to the text. This process is time intensive, so it is crucial that faculty honor the Academic Senate policy on "Timely Adoption of Textbooks, Course Readers, and Course Materials". Also, it would be helpful when you talk with publisher representatives to ask if the text you have chosen is already available in an alternative format (i.e. electronically, large print, Braille, CD, etc.).
  • Because of the extra time necessary to convert materials to alternate format or Braille, students may need extra time to complete assignments. Last-minute assignments can present a problem.
  • When lecturing, try to be as descriptive as possible, and avoid using vague words like "this", "that", "here" or "there". Avoid making statements that cannot be understood by people without sight: for example, "This diagram sums up what I am saying about statistics."
  • Read aloud everything you write on the board and verbally describe objects and processes.
  • Please assist the student, if requested, to find a classmate to share lecture notes and send them via email to the student. Accessibility Services can also assist with arrangements for a lab assistant as needed. A stipend will be provided to the notetaker or assistant at the end of the quarter.
  • Don't worry about using words and phrases that refer to sight: for example, "See you later!" Such expressions are commonly used, and most people with visual impairments don't find them offensive.
  • When making comparisons and analogies, use familiar objects that don't depend on prior visual knowledge. Foods and objects found around the house are good choices. You might say, for example, that a particular dance movement requires a lot of weaving and turning, "like getting from one side of the living room to the other on moving day."
  • Pace the presentation of material; if referring to a textbook or handout, allow time for students with visual disabilities to find the information.
  • Guide dogs are trained to guide people and should not be touched or treated as pets while working.
  • Testing accommodations may include additional time, in a workspace equipped with assistive technology, enlargement of tests, oral exams, and/or use of assistive devices during exams (i.e. electronic spellers and calculators).
  • When relocation or cancellation of a class is necessary, a note on the door is not adequate. Email or tell the student ahead of time, or arrange to have someone wait for the student with the visual disability.
  • It is never impolite to ask a student with a visual disability if they need or would like assistance.
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