Supporting Students with Visual Impairments
The barriers to learning for a student with visual impairments broadly fall within four distinct categories:
- Physical environment
- Delivery of teaching and learning
- Coursework and Assessments
- the student's physical and social well-being
What is a visual impairment?
The term `visual impairment´ covers a wide range of conditions that can adversely affect vision and are not correctable by contact lenses or glasses. There are varying degrees of visual impairment: a person may be registered as sight impaired (partially sighted) or severely sight impaired (blind). It is important to note that someone who is severely sight impaired may still have some perception of light, shape and/or shade.
How might a visual impairment impact upon a student and how can they be supported?
Below are some specific examples of barriers to learning which may be encountered by a student with a visual impairment, alongside some potential adjustments which could be made to overcome them. These are solely intended to provide an overview of the nature and scope of requirements which staff may encounter, and to demonstrate some of the ways that a disadvantage incurred by a disability could be alleviated or removed. Above all else, it is important to note that staff being receptive and sympathetic to a student´s needs is paramount. As the examples below illustrate, the requirements of individuals with visual impairments will vary greatly from person to person, and it is thus important to establish from the outset what an individual´s needs are and maintain an ongoing dialogue with him or her regarding these.
Students who are likely to have difficulties finding locations are often provided with training from a qualified mobility trainer in order to learn routes to the University from their accommodation, and to become familiar with the layout of the University campus and surrounding area. Staff should be aware that students with visual impairments may need additional time for travelling between venues. It is also important that notices of changes to venue etc. are given as far in advance as possible so as to allow for alternative arrangements/assistance to be implemented if necessary.
Some severely visually impaired students may attend sessions with guide dogs. These dogs need to concentrate on their surroundings and owner, and should not be distracted. In group work and tutorials, it is sensible to ask if any students have allergies to dogs so alternative arrangements can be made if necessary.
Some visually impaired students may be photosensitive and will thus experience difficulties with glare and bright light, whilst other students may require bright light to enable them to see more clearly. Staff should be sensitive to the light levels in a room and make adjustments as necessary. Similarly, a student with distance vision difficulties may need to be seated at the front of classes or in close proximity to demonstrations in order to be able to see them.
It is important to let severely sight impaired students know if a familiar room has been rearranged and also to inform them of potential obstructions and hazards that may be walked into or knocked over - for example, pieces of furniture.
The student will need to be made aware of the evacuation routes in any buildings/locations they are to be taught in, and in some cases departments will need to draw up a Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan (PEEP) in order to ensure that a student can evacuate a building safely in the event of an emergency.
Any student or member of staff can report issues with physical access to Estates at any time, using this reporting form:
More information on campus maps and guides for disabled students, staff and visitors:
Delivery of teaching and learning
A large amount of information in a student´s course will be delivered visually. A visually impaired student may therefore be at a significant disadvantage academically if adjustments are not made. The following are examples of reasonable adjustments that can be made to teaching, learning and materials. It is impossible to cover all scenarios and the list is not exhaustive. Advice should be sought from the student and also from DDSS.
When using visual aids in taught sessions, staff should give clear verbal descriptions of them. Students should be provided with adequate time to absorb and record information. Some students may require the services of a note-taker in order to do this. Staff should also permit the use of assistive technology (such as digital recorders or laptops) in taught sessions.
More information on Assistive Technology at the University:
Sometimes teaching or class activities involve written or visual materials which are provided at short notice or in class. Where students are expected to read and prepare during class time, or where they are involved in group work or presentations, the arrangements should be discussed with the student well in advance.
Course handouts should be provided well in advance of taught sessions, in alternative formats if appropriate, so that students have time to edit, read and digest the information. Most students will access materials through their own screen-reading or magnification software and consequently may prefer to receive materials electronically. Other students may simply require enlarged copies of printed material and staff should always check what font types and sizes individuals prefer. Some individuals with visual impairments may require written material to be transcribed into Braille or other formats. More information available here:
Coursework and Assessments
It is helpful to distinguish on reading lists between core and secondary texts, so that students can prioritise and direct their energies effectively. Before recommending websites and e-resources, try to ascertain whether these are accessible to students with visual impairments. If not, can they be made so?
Many visually impaired students will require additional time when there is a large amount of materials to read for coursework. Many individuals with visual impairments experience physical discomfort when studying, and the extra time and organisation required to access materials and meet course requirements can place extra demands on them in relation to their non-disabled peers. Therefore, staff should treat deadline extensions requests sympathetically.
In certain situations (e.g. where students are being assessed on the production/interpretation of visual media) it may be appropriate for staff to consider alternative means of assessment for students with visual impairments; DDSS staff would be happy to discuss this further with you.
Physical and social well-being
Students will either have been born with their visual impairment or acquired it later through accident or illness. This will impact on their approach to the difficulties they face in higher education and also on their ability to carry out their studies and everyday activities. In many cases students will be well-accustomed to dealing with the challenges presented by educational pursuit but some may experience anxiety and even depression as a result of the encountering of barriers to learning. It is important that staff encourage students to discuss concerns and anxieties as and when they arise, so that problems can be quickly and effectively addressed.
As much of our day-to-day functioning and social interaction is informed by visual social cues, it is quite easy for a student with a visual impairment to feel isolated. It may be difficult to access social events and activities. Striving to make social events inclusive and accessible can help to overcome this barrier.