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Visual difficulties can range from total blindness to conditions affecting partial vision such as tunnel vision, double and blurred vision and colour blindness. Some people may have trouble seeing in low light levels, have problems judging speed and distance, or experience painful irritation to the eyes caused by bright light. Only about 18% of people who have visual difficulties are classed as totally blind, and most of these people can distinguish between light and dark. Some people are born visually impaired and others may have become visually impaired as a result of illness or accident, and this will affect the way people approach and address their impairment. It is likely that a large amount of information in most programmes will be delivered visually, therefore a student with visual difficulties may be at a significant disadvantage academically.
Difficulties may occur with:
- Accessing course material — overheads, slides, printed material, diagrams, practical observation, on-line material etc.
- Using the library — finding, collecting and returning books.
- Taking lecture notes.
- Practical laboratory work and field trips — recording observations.
- Travelling to, from and around the campus.
There are various examples of support that students with visual difficulties may require during their time at University, and some of these examples are as follows:
Equipment and Technological Support
- Large Print is defined as that which is 14 point or above in size and is one of the simplest ways of increasing accessibility for students with a visual impairment. Research carried out by the Royal National Institute for the Blind showed that 36% of blind and 75% of partially sighted people are able to read large print comfortably.
- Braille is a system based on sequences of raised dots to represent letters and words. Moon is a similar system to Braille, but with raised shapes rather than dots. It takes a long time to become fluent in Braille, and is mainly used by those people who are visually impaired when young, rather than those who lose their sight due to old age. Although the actual numbers of Braille users is small, it is a useful medium, and can also be used by deaf blind people. Diagrams, tables and other pictorial information can be produced as a tactile diagram of raised lines.
- Magnification software The majority of computers currently being produced have some kind of magnification software, which can be used to view any information on the screen in the required size. In Microsoft Office 2000, look under: Programs — Accessories — Accessibility — Magnifier. Windows 95 also has accessibility options whereby the resolution, colour and size of the text can be changed. Other more specialised magnification software is also available commercially.
- CCTV Cameras can also be used to enlarge printed text where magnification software is not practicable. CCTV cameras can be used to enlarge books maps, journals etc, without the need to scan material into a computer. It is also useful for enlarging reference material that is problematic to remove from the library.
- Specialist software Voice activated software is used by some visually impaired students which allows the student to dictate information into the computer and it to be produced in the required medium. Software can also be used that reads back what the student has written.
- Audio tapes Lectures and seminars can be recorded onto audiotape for referral at a later date, or to be transcribed into another medium.
- Library Resources Visually impaired students will usually be eligible for extended library loans and a photocopying allowance.
- Readers transfer material from text media onto audio tape for a student with visual difficulties to listen to.
- Note-takers Some visually impaired students may require a note-taker to attend lectures with them. This allows the student to concentrate on information presented in the lecture.
- Amanuenses An amanuensis (scribe) may be used in exam situations. The amanuensis is usually a graduate student from a related Academic Department, with an understanding of the subject matter and the terms which may be used. The amanuensis writes only what the student speaks and does not help or advise the student on the subject matter.
- Mobility Trainers The Student Support and Guidance Section can arrange mobility training for blind students who are long cane users. A qualified mobility trainer guides the student around the University campus and surrounding area so they become familiar with the layout. Students can also be taught routes (both walking and public transport) to the University from their accommodation, and routes to any placements that may be part of their study.
- Non medical helpers Non medical helpers are recruited to support the student in a number of ways. For example, they may collect and return the student’s library books, undertake practical work under the student’s instruction, and generally do practical tasks that the student finds difficult because of their visual impairment.
Teaching strategies – Good practice guidelines
The good practice guidelines outlined below are intended to make course material and methods more accessible to students with visual difficulties. Remember that improving provision for students with visual difficulties may also benefit other students in a group, particularly those with dyslexia.
- Handwriting is often difficult for visually impaired students to read. If you are marking work, use a black felt tip pen for maximum visibility, and write legibly.
- Provide printed material in the student’s preferred format, for example Braille or large print.
- Use printed transparencies, rather than handwritten overheads.
- Use a clear font such as arial or comic sans.
- Use print size 16 point or above.
- Keep the layout clear and simple.
- Avoid text on a patterned background.
- Printing on coloured paper may make text easier for some visually impaired students to read. Black text on a yellow background provides maximum contrast.
- Avoid using red and green ink.
- Provide handouts in advance of the lecture.
- Notes may be required in Braille and diagrams or tables may need to be produced in tactile form. This can take a few weeks and so material will need to be sent for Brailling well in advance of the lecture.
- Describe any material you are writing down. Talk through any images or diagrams.
- Visually impaired student may wish to be seated at the front of the class.
- Use printed transparencies, rather than handwritten overheads.
- Speak clearly – the student may have few visual cues. Spell out any new or difficult words or names.
- Allow the student to make a recording of the lecture if they need to.
- Provide booklists well in advance as students may have difficulty accessing the library and may read more slowly. Annotated book lists can be extremely useful to visually impaired students, for example, if only sections of a book are relevant.
- Providing material such as booklists in electronic format rather than hard copy will allow the student to view in their preferred format.
- If a student requires alternative examination arrangements, this should be recommended by the student assessment and be put into place by the Examinations Office. Strategies that may be used include extra time, use of a reader or amanuensis, large print or Braille question paper, use of a word processor. Alternative arrangements will not give the student an unfair advantage, or put them at a disadvantage, and the arrangements must not compromise the validity or professional accreditation of the examination.
Practical and Fieldwork:
- Some visually impaired students may use a non medical helper to support them in practical work, for example to explain diagrams that the student cannot see.
- Alternative provision may need to be made for practical fieldwork. A student who copes well in a lecture or seminar may be faced with difficulties when working outside or in an industrial setting. Talk through possible options with the student and Student Support and Guidance staff well in advance of the fieldtrip.
- Have written information available for the student before the fieldtrip. A detailed timetable of the day and instructions for carrying out practical work will be particularly useful.
- There may be safety issues — think through any potentially hazardous situations and alternative arrangements that may need to be made.
Working with Visually Impaired people:
- Always introduce yourself by name as the visually impaired student may not recognise your voice.
- Tell the student when you are leaving the room.
- Tell the student if a room they are familiar with has been rearranged.
- Don’t leave obstructions where they may be walked into.
- Make sure that the student is aware of any venue changes. An unfamiliar room may be difficult to find at the last minute.
- Don’t worry about using phrases that refer to sight, e.g. ‘see you later’, as most visually impaired people would not be offended.
- Don’t pet or feed guide dogs when they are wearing their harness – they are working animals on duty.
- When working with a group of students that includes a visually impaired students, ask everyone to introduce themselves so the visually impaired student knows who is in the room.
Case Study A describes an Education Studies student with visual difficulties. He describes the support he received.
Case Study B describes the experiences of two vision-impaired lecturers on a PGCE programme, in particular their difficulties obtaining course materials.