Students who are Blind or have a Visual Impairment

Vision impairments can result from a variety of causes, including congenital conditions, injury, eye disease, and brain trauma, or as the result of other conditions such as diabetes and multiple sclerosis. A person is considered legally blind if his or her corrected vision is no better than 20/200, meaning seeing at twenty feet what others see at two hundred feet or having peripheral fields (side vision) of no more than 20 degrees diameter or 10 degrees radius. A person is considered visually impaired when corrected vision is no better than 20/70.

Eighty to ninety percent of legally blind people have some measurable vision or light perception. A student who is legally blind may retain a great amount of vision. Many legally blind students are able to read with special glasses, and a few can even drive. It is also important to note that some legally blind students have 20/20 vision. Although these students have perfect central vision, they have narrow field or side vision and see things as though they were looking through a tube or straw. They often use guide dogs or canes when they travel. Some blind students with only central vision loss do not require a guide dog or cane. They are able to see large objects but have great difficulty reading or threading a needle. The term “blindness” should be reserved for people with complete loss of sight. “Visually impaired” is the better term used to refer to people with various gradations of vision.

Few Allegheny students are totally blind, but the adaptations and accommodations needed by blind people can be applied to all students with vision impairments. Most visually impaired students use a combination of accommodations for class participation and learning needs, including books on tape, e-text, or voice synthesizing computers, optical scanners, readers, and Braille.

Blind Students

By the time blind students reach college (unless they are newly blind), they have probably mastered techniques for dealing with certain kinds of visual materials. Most blind students use a combination of methods, including readers, tape-recorded books and lectures and, sometimes, Braille materials. Students may use raised-line drawings of diagrams, charts, illustrations, relief maps, and three-dimensional models of physical organs, shapes, and microscopic organisms. Technology has made available other aids for blind people, including talking calculators, speech-time compressors, computer terminals with speech output, Braille printers, paperless Braille computer terminals, and paperless Braille machines.

Some blind students who read Braille prefer to take their own notes in class using a slate and stylus or a Perkins Brailler, though both are being replaced by laptop computers and other technological devices. Some blind students will get copies of notes (taken on carbonless paper) from classmates and have someone type the notes onto disk for them. They then plug the disk into a computer with speech output to listen to the notes. Other blind students tape record the lecture and later transcribe notes from the tape into Braille. It is easier for some blind students to study from tactile copy rather than from recordings, though some blind students are able to develop strong auditory compensatory skills over a period of time. Either way, the process of reading and studying requires more time for a blind student than for a sighted student.

For various reasons, some faculty members may be concerned about their lectures being taped. It should be noted that federal regulations allow this procedure as a reasonable accommodation for students who would otherwise be hindered from having adequate access to the lecture information. The SDS office can provide a statement of agreement on tape-recorded lecture policy that clarifies the purpose and limited use of tape recordings.

When a visually impaired student is present in the classroom, it is helpful for the faculty member to verbalize as much as possible and to provide tactile experiences when possible. Such phrases as “The sum of this plus that is this” and “The lungs are here and the diaphragm here” are meaningless to blind students. In the first example, the faculty member can just as easily say, “The sum of four plus seven is eleven.” Blind students get the same information as the sighted students. In the second example, the faculty member may be pointing to a model or to the body itself. In this instance, the professor can personalize the locations of the lungs and diaphragm by asking class members to locate them by touch on their own bodies. Such solutions will not always be possible; however, if the faculty member is sensitized not to use strictly visual examples, both blind students and the rest of the class will benefit.

Test adaptation is another concern for blind students. Students will usually have a preference for taking tests. These preferences often involve either a reader or a taped Braille test. The student will either type the answers or dictate them to a proctor to record. Some may prefer to Braille their answers first and then read them for a scribe to record in longhand. Whatever method is proposed, the student and faculty member should agree early in the semester about how the student’s academic work would be evaluated.

Some blind students use guide dogs that are specifically trained and usually well disciplined. Most of the time the guide dog will lie quietly under or beside the table or desk. The greatest disruption a faculty member might expect may be an occasional yawn, stretch, or low moan at the sound of a siren. As tempting as it might be to pet a guide dog, it is important to remember that the dog is responsible for guiding its owner and should not be distracted from the duty while in harness (and therefore working).

Courses that are extremely visual by nature, unless they are considered essential to a major, can sometimes be handled by substituting other courses. However, it should not be assumed immediately that such substitutions will be necessary. Conversations between the student and the faculty member can sometimes lead to new and exciting instructional techniques that may benefit the entire class. For example, it is often thought that a blind student cannot take an art appreciation course. However, the blind student should have an opportunity to become familiar with the world’s great art. A classmate or reader who is particularly talented at describing visual images can assist the blind student as a visual interpreter or translator. It is not impossible for a blind student to have an understanding of what the Mona Lisa looks like, because the painting can be described, and there are poems written about it that may be used as teaching aids to give more insight into understanding the work. Miniature models of great works of sculpture can be displayed and touched in the classroom. Many modern museums have tactile galleries and special guided tours for people with visual impairments. The point is that certain disabilities do not automatically preclude participation in certain activities or classes. Students, faculty, and advisors must be careful not to lower expectations solely on the basis of disability.

Visually Impaired Students

Partially sighted students meet the challenge of gaining access to printed information in much the same way as blind students except for using Braille. They use taped texts, readers, raised line drawings, talking computer terminals, and other equipment. In addition, they use large print materials, closed circuit magnifiers, or other magnifying devices, as well as large print computer terminals, or telescopic lenses. Partially sighted students may also use large print typing elements for papers. Some will be able to take their own notes in class by printing large letters with a felt-tip pen. Others will tape record lectures for later use.

Several difficulties confront the partially sighted student that do not affect the blind student. For instance, the partially sighted student is sometimes viewed by faculty member and classmates as “faking it.” Faculty and staff members may have difficulty believing that partially sighted students need access to printed material because most of these students do not use canes for travel and are able to get around like everyone else. Also, depending on the nature of the vision loss, these students may not be able to read other people’s visual cues, so they sometimes appear expressionless and seem uninterested when quite the opposite might be true.

One partially sighted student commented that after having been observed playing Frisbee by one of her instructors, she was sure the instructor would no longer believe she was partially sighted. As she explained, she has more peripheral that central vision and is able to see a red Frisbee. If any other color Frisbee were used, she could not see it well enough to play. It is difficult for a fully sighted person to understand that playing Frisbee and reading a printed page present different visual requirements. In fact, some partially sighted students are able to obtain driver’s licenses.

Another difficulty that some partially sighted students experience has a more subtle effect and can be troublesome – the psychological response that large printing evokes in a sight-reader. Such handwritten communications tend to give the reader the idea that “a child has written this” and may lead to the conclusion that a student with this kind of handwriting is immature or childish and that the written communication is less sophisticated. This problem can also occur when the student uses a larger font. The assumption is sometimes made that the student is merely trying to make a paper appear longer when a term paper of a specific length is required. Stating the number of words required instead of the number of pages solves this problem.

Potential problems can be obviated if the student and faculty member discuss the student’s needs early in the semester. The Office of Disabled Student Development maintains medical information on partially sighted students registered with the Office of Disabled Student Development that verifies the nature and extent of visual disability. If faculty members have questions about student’s limitations and the need for accommodations, this information can be shared with the consent of the student.

It is usually beneficial for partially sighted students to make use of what vision they have unless it is not recommended medically (after eye surgery or during an active inflammation). Sitting in the front of the room, having large print on the chalkboard, or using enlarged print on an overhead projector may assist partially sighted students. Overheads can also be reproduced on copy machines. However, the capacity to read printed materials depends greatly on such conditions as the degree of contrast, brightness, and color. It is preferable that the student and faculty member discuss what methods, techniques, or devices may be used to maximum advantage.

It is important to remember that there are a wide range of abilities among partially sighted students. Some can benefit from good sources of light; others are hindered by bright light. Some visual impairments may fluctuate from time to time, as those of persons who have multiple sclerosis often do; others remain constant. Some partially sighted students can use printed materials longer than others; some may be able to read for hours; others can tolerate only a few minutes before the strain causes their vision and mental alertness to deteriorate.

Most partially sighted students will require some adaptation for taking tests. Such adaptations may include a large print test, use of closed circuit magnifiers, a reader, a scribe, or a word processor. Many visually impaired students cannot see well enough to use a computerized answer sheet and will need to write answers on a separate sheet for someone else to record on the answer sheet. Partially sighted students will usually need extra time on their test, especially if they are reading the test themselves. The SDS coordinator can help faculty members plan appropriate instructional test accommodations.

Suggested Classroom Accommodations

  • Discuss necessary classroom accommodations and testing adaptations early in the semester (within the first couple of class days).
  • Contact the Student Disability Services office to verify a student’s vision impairment and request accommodation letters if there is question about eligibility.
  • Taped textbooks may be available, but sometimes they can take a few weeks to arrive. The student should also be familiar with other ways to make print accessible, such as scanning the book and listening to it with a speech output system on a computer.
  • Be open to students’ taping your lectures; agreement forms are available from the SDS office.
  • Provide appropriate written and verbal descriptions to accompany any visual aids, diagrams, films, or videos that you might use in class.
  • As you are writing on the chalkboard or discussing a diagram, verbalize what you are writing. When using technical terms, remember to spell them out or give descriptions if appropriate.
  • Try to speak directly to the class, remembering that turning your head away can muffle sound; body language and gestures cannot be seen.
  • Appropriate seating is important for a visually impaired student; since the student cannot see visual cues, he or she needs to be seated in a position to receive verbal cues.
  • Guide dogs are trained and well behaved. You do not need to worry that they will disturb your class.
  • Guide dogs will need special consideration when you plan laboratory exercises and field trips.

Accommodated Testing Administration

  • Adapted testing procedures generally include the use of readers, scribes, word processors, and large print magnifying equipment.
  • The Student Disability Services Coordinator and the professional staff of the Learning Commons are available for consultation and assistance in test administration.
  • Tests can be administered by having the questions read to the student by a reader.
  • Reproduce tests in a large print or Braille format. ┬áThe Learning Commons will help implement this accommodation.
  • Allow extra time for test taking in a separate, quiet setting.
  • Use the Learning Commons professional staff and facilities to administer tests. Discuss testing arrangements with the Learning Commons staff early in the semester to assure that the process will be smooth when it is actually time to schedule and administer tests.

Tips for Positive Communication

  • Introduce yourself and anyone else who might be present when speaking to a student with vision impairment.
  • Use a normal voice level when speaking; remember a student with a vision impairment has sight problems, not a hearing loss.
  • Speak directly to the student with the vision impairment and address him or her by name.
  • Do not hesitate to use such words as look or see; students with vision impairments use these terms also.
  • When walking with a student with a vision impairment, allow him or her to take your arm just above the elbow. Walk in a natural manner and pace.
  • A guide dog is trained as a working animal and should not be petted or spoken to without the permission of the handler. A general rule of thumb is that the dog is working while in harness.
  • When offering a seat to a student with a vision impairment, place the student’s hand on the back or arm of the seat. This gives the student a frame of reference to seat himself or herself.
  • Do not hesitate to ask a student what accommodations, if any, are required in the classroom. The student is the “expert” about his or her particular needs.