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 highliy 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.