Tips for Teaching Students who are Blind or Visually Impaired

The basic categories of visual impairments are total and partial blindness. Only ten percent of the visually impaired population may be able to discern light, colors, or shapes to one degree or another. Some may be able to see a whole area but have difficulty with precise visual functions. Some students have diseases that cause their visual acuity to fluctuate. Visually impaired persons are sometimes also mobility impaired because of their visual disabilities.

The major challenge facing visually impaired and partially sighted students in colleges and universities is the volume of printed materials. These include textbooks, syllabi, outlines, class schedules, and tests. Unless recently disabled, students with visual impairments have probably developed their own personal method of dealing with the volume of visual materials by the time they reach college. Students may use readers, Braille books, tape-recorders and computer equipment that give them access to required course material. In addition, some students may be able to use large print books, electronic visual aids or other magnifying devices for readings, and/or a large print typewriter for writing papers. They may also be able to take their own notes in class by printing with a felt pen. Students may use a slab and stylus which enables them to record notes in Braille. Often students may need the assistance of a fellow student's notes to be copied and enlarged. Many students may prefer to record class lectures to alleviate additional time needed to transcribe written notes shared by a fellow student. This is all a matter of preference.

Other common difficulties visually impaired students may experience differ only in degree. Faculty are sometimes confused about the legitimacy of a visual impairment when the student does not use a cane or service animal for mobility assistance. Actually, the large majority of individuals who are visually impaired do not require these types of support. For the majority, other signs are more apparent. The use of adaptive methods when scrutinizing printed materials and larger-than-normal handwriting may give the impression of childlike or immature responses or that the student is attempting to "stretch" the quality of the printed assignment. In actuality, the visually impaired student is only trying to see what he or she has written. These students are usually unable to adequately utilize standard printed material like textbooks, classroom handouts, references, and tests. This is also true for information written on the chalkboard, seen on the overhead projector, or on other audiovisual formats.

a. Suggestions for teaching students who are blind or visually impaired

  • Some students may have their textbook converted by SDS into electronic text or Braille. Because these types of conversions are time and staff intensive, a minimum four to eight weeks is required for each text (depending on the type of text and conversion used). It is very important that the faculty select their required texts early in the previous academic semester and make that information available. Student Disability Services works with each student to decide which type of conversion is best applied and will assist all qualified students with this process.
  • Visual aids used during lectures should be clearly described. This would include verbalizing what is written on the board.
  • Copies of overhead materials should be made available to the student to be viewed at a later time via a reader or alternate material transfer.
  • Due to the time needed to schedule an appropriate testing arrangement, "pop-quizzes" in class create tremendous difficulty and more often than not preclude involvement by the student who is visually impaired. Alternate arrangements may have to occur by setting up test proctoring services that are available through Student Disability Services. For those students able to benefit from enlarged print, there is a copy machine available in Student Disability Services for enlarging class work.
  • If any room changes occur, be certain the arrangement is made in verbal form. Students who are visually impaired might well miss a notice written on a chalkboard.
  • Preferential seating is important for students who are visually impaired. When visual cues are not available, the student must receive all auditory cues possible. Please arrange seating the first day of class.
  • Give the student plenty of advance notice in the event that research papers are to be assigned as someone may have to aid in the literature search, both in finding and in reading materials.
  • Early in the semester, it is a good idea to orient the student to the room by explaining where things are located and guiding the person around the room.
  • Inform the student when classroom furniture has been rearranged.
  • Keep doors fully open or fully closed.
  • If an individual who is visually impaired seems to need assistance, identify yourself and offer your services.
  • If you are walking with an individual who is visually impaired, let him or her take your arm just above the elbow and walk in a relaxed manner. The person can usually follow the motions of your body. Warn the person when you are approaching a step or other obstacle.
  • When giving directions, use descriptive words such as "straight ahead" or "forward." Be specific in directions and avoid vague terms such as "over there."
  • When interacting with students who are visually impaired, use verbal identification when you arrive or leave an area.
  • Guide/service animals are working animals; it can be hazardous if the guide dog is distracted. Never pet the dog without the owner's knowledge and permission. Normally, the dog is "working" when wearing the harness.
  • Do not hesitate to use words like "see" or "look" when speaking with an individual who is visually impaired. Also, make sure you identify yourself by name, maintain a normal voice volume, speak directly to the person, and maintain eye contact.