Teaching visually impaired students

Introduction to Visual Impairment

The visual medium dominates everyday life because of its immediacy and versatility. Visual information informs and drives our day to day communications, social interactions, orientation and ability to avoid danger, and of course our learning, teaching and assessment experiences. Students with a visual impairment face multiple potential barriers in all aspects of university life.
What is the difference between blindness and visual impairment?

Visual impairment is a broad 'umbrella' term, which covers many different experiences and degrees of impairment.  

Some people gradually lose their sight over a number of years, some are born with a visual impairment, some experience sight loss as a result of an accident, while others may have lost their sight as a result of a medical condition. Sight loss can be measured in many different ways. Some examples include sensitivity to light, the rate of focus, the ability to see contrast, the ability to see distance, and night blindness. Being registered as blind does not always mean that a person has no sight at all. Many have some useful sight and will have developed strategies for recognising and safely navigating their environments unaided. If someone has very little or no useful vision they will usually rely on some kind of mobility aid such as a cane, guide dog or sighted human assistance.

Issues a student with a visual impairment may encounter

These are highly variable but may include:

Accessing all types of visual information and course materials (including diagrams/charts and tables/new vocabulary and textual information); difficulties skim reading and selecting text; navigating campus and congested/crowded areas; navigating unfamiliar routes and buildings; meeting new people and socially interacting; finding library books and carrying out tasks quickly. 

Students with a visual impairment will often use a combination of technologies to access material. For example, they might use Braille text books or Braille print outs, they may use a Braillenote (a special computer with a Braille display) or they may use screen reading software like JAWS, which reads out all text on screen. Additionally, they may use audio recordings or podcasts to take in information, and they may use smartphones or tablets with the built in accessibility options. Often students with a visual impairment will be able to adapt their learning materials to their own preferences as long as the initial material they are provided is well formatted and accessible.

Useful Links

RNIB - RNIB Sight Loss Advice Service 

Good Practice Guidance

General Guidelines - Many of the approaches that will benefit visually impaired students will be helpful to all students and should be adopted within an inclusive teaching framework. Try to avoid making assumptions about what the student can and cannot do; including students in discussions about their learning needs and seeking feedback will help them to feel valued and facilitate improvements in communication, teaching and learning.

Accessible Course Materials - 

  • Ensure that all your course handouts and slides are created and provided in an accessible format. Follow our Guidance for creating accessible teaching material
  • If you plan to use video material in class, consider how a visually impaired student will access this, and whether an alternative resource is available.
  • Ensure that reading lists, identifying key texts are provided to the student well in advance of when they are required (at least 4 weeks prior). This will enable visually impaired students to seek assistance from the Disability Team and Library in accessing accessible format copies.

Lectures - 

  • Verbally describe and read aloud all information on your slides or any other visual teaching aids.
  • When describing imagery, try to help visually impaired students construct a mental image using descriptive language.
  • Try to follow a logical structure so notes and recordings are easier to follow.
  • Ensure that all handouts and other materials to be referred to in class are made available, in an accessible format, prior to the class.
  • Consider the slide format in relation to the accessible text guidelines. 

Seminars/Tutorials/Labs - 

  • Ask all students to introduce themselves at the start, and preferably before each contribution to ensure that the student knows who is speaking.
  • Avoid excessive and distracting background noise.
  • Allow a visually impaired student to select where they wish to sit, according to their needs (e.g. close or at a distance from the board, away from direct sunlight, centrally or near the front to enhance acoustics etc)
  • Ensure that all students are able, and encouraged, to fully participate. 
  • Be aware of potential compatibility issues between specialised course software and assistive software used by visually impaired students. These should be investigated with the support of the Disability Team, at the earliest opportunity.

Communicating - 

  • Always remember to make your presence known, and introduce yourself by name. Let the student know when you are leaving their presence.
  • Ensure that all your students receive important information in writing. Remember that visually impaired students may not be aware of information displayed on notice boards, temporary signs on doors, whiteboards, posters, etc. 
  • Ensure that visually impaired students are also able to access jokes in class, avoid using purely visual gestures for communication, and don't be afraid to use terms such as 'see' or 'look'.

The physical teaching environment - 

  • You might need to consider treating people differently in order to treat them fairly. For example, a visually impaired student could find it easier to be based in one place rather than ‘hot desking’, so that they are better able to remember where things are kept.
  • Try not to move the students things or change where things are kept without discussing with them first. Use high contrast to distinguish the edges of objects and surfaces.
  • Ensure trip hazards are not created, by avoiding room layout changes, and encouraging all to push chairs into desks, avoiding bags obstructing walkways etc.

Guiding a visually impaired student (how to) - 

  • Offer help and introduce yourself. Don’t feel you should wait for someone else to do so.
  • Ask where and how they would like to be guided. Allow them to take your arm, rather than you holding or grabbing theirs.
  • Point out kerbs and steps as you approach them stating whether they go up or down. Mention any potential hazards that lie ahead.
  • If you are guiding someone into a seat, place their hand on the back of the seat before they sit down, so they can orientate themselves