Visual disabilities encompass disorders in the structure and function of the eye that are manifested by at least one of the following: (1) visual acuity of 20/70 or less in the better eye after the best possible correction, (2) a peripheral field so constricted that it affects the student's ability to function in an academic setting, (3) a progressive loss of vision which may affect the ability to function in an educational setting. Some examples of visual disabilities are cataracts, glaucoma, retinal detachment, retinal pigmentosa, and strabismus.
Students with visual disabilities are constantly challenged by traditional classroom instructional strategies, which are largely visually dependent. Although lectures and discussions are easily heard by these students, class syllabi, textbooks, overhead projector transparencies, maps, videos, written exams, demonstrations, films, etc., are not easily accessed. Fortunately, many students with visual disabilities have developed strategies to learn effectively.
For many individuals with visual disabilities the advancements in modern technology have been extremely beneficial. The equipment that is now available makes learning much more accessible to them. Students with visual disabilities use synthesized voice adaptations or enlarged print when using a computer. Machines are available to enlarge the print of any printed material, or printed material can be converted to Braille. Another machine can convert printed material into a synthesized voice. Some students also use talking calculators, and for others, a tape recorder is helpful for taking notes.
The following is a listing of suggestions that may assist you when instructing students with visual disabilities: Suggestions listed in the "General Procedures" section may also apply to students with visual disabilities.
- Provide reading lists or syllabi in advance to allow time for arrangements to be made for taping or Brailling of texts and other required readings. Provide copies of classroom materials in large print formats by enlarging them on a photocopier or use at least an 18 point high contrast font when word processing.
- Plan field trips and special projects such as internships well in advance and alert field supervisors to whatever adaptations may be needed.
- Get to know students with visual disabilities early in the semester. Meet with them and find out what, if anything, they are able to see. Approximately 80% of students with visual disabilities will have some usable vision.
- Like anyone else, students with visual disabilities appreciate being asked if help is needed before it is given. Ask a student if she or he would like some help and then wait for a response before acting.
- If a student has a harnessed guide dog, it is working and should not be treated as a pet by others in the class.
- Be specific when giving directions or alerting students with a visual disability to obstacles. It is more helpful to say, "Please have a seat--there is a chair directly on your right," rather than, "Have a seat over there." Convert directions to the student's perspective. When giving assistance in seating, place the person's hand on the back or arm of the seat.
- Never leave a person who is blind in a open area. Instead, lead her or him to the side of the room or to a chair or some landmark from which she or he can obtain a direction for travel. Also do not leave the person abruptly after talking in a crowd, or where there is noise that may obstruct the person's hearing, without saying that you are leaving. Otherwise, she or he may continue talking when no one is listening or present.
- When there is a blind student in the classroom, remember not to use phrases such as "this and that." For example, "The sum of this, plus that, equals that," is very confusing.
- By using enhanced verbal descriptions in your class, blind students as well as sighted, will benefit from the vivid descriptive materials. Use familiar objects in comparisons and analogies that don't depend on prior visual knowledge, such as foods or objects found around the house.
- Words and phrases that refer to sight, such as "I'll see you later," are commonly used expressions and usually go unnoticed unless the speaker is particularly self-conscious. Students with vision loss can still "see" what is meant by such expressions and may not be offended by them. They may be embarrassed, however, by clumsy attempts to avoid such common usage.
- When writing on the blackboard or using overheads, read aloud the written material.
- During discussions, try to acknowledge students by name so that students with visual disabilities will know who is participating.
- When lecturing, pace the presentation of material; if referring to a textbook or handout, allow sufficient time for students to find the information.
- Partially sighted students should not be overlooked. They sometimes have greater difficulty in college than do totally blind students, partly because some try to "blend in," and don't use special assistance or ask questions.