Visual Impairments

Brief Facts about Visual Impairments

Approximately 500,000 Americans have vision impairments to the extent that they are considered "legally blind." There are three degrees of vision loss:

  1. Visual acuity of 20/200 - the legally blind person can see at 20 feet what the average sighted person can see at 200.
  2. Low vision - limited or diminished vision that cannot be corrected with standard lenses.
  3. Partial sight - the field of vision is impaired because of an illness, a degenerative syndrome, or trauma.

Only two percent of the people with vision impairments are totally blind; most people who are blind have some amount of usable vision. 

Guidelines for Working With Students with Visual Impairments

  1. Some students with vision loss use canes or guide dogs for mobility purposes; however, many navigate without them. Like anybody, students with vision impairments appreciate being asked if help is needed before it is given. Ask a student if he or she would like some help, and then wait for a response before acting.
  2. Words and phrases that refer to sight, such as "I'll see you later," are commonly used expressions and usually go unnoticed unless a speaker is particularly self-conscious. Students with vision loss can still "see" what is meant by such expressions.
  3. When talking with or greeting a student with a vision impairment, speak in a normal voice; most people with vision impairments do not have a hearing loss. Speak to the student, not through a third party or companion, and use the student's name when directing the conversation to him or her.
  4. When entering a room, identify yourself to the student. When giving directions, say "left" or "right," "step up" or "step down." Convert directions to the vision-impaired student's perspective.
  5. When guiding a student (into a room, for example), offer your arm and let him or her take it rather than pulling the person's sleeve.
  6. If a student has a harnessed guide dog, it is working and should not be petted.

Common Accommodations for Students with Visual Impairments

  • Alternative print formats, which may require text conversion
  • Magnification devices 
  • Bright, incandescent lighting 
  • Raised lettering or other tactile cues
  • Adaptive computer equipment 
  • Readers for exams 
  • Priority registration 
  • Recorded lectures 
  • Lab or library assistants

Instructional Strategies for Students with Visual Impairments

The following strategies are suggested to enhance the accessibility of course instruction, materials, and activities. They are general strategies designed to support individualized reasonable accommodations.

  • Have copies of the syllabus and reading assignments ready two to three weeks prior to the beginning of classes so documents are available for recording or Braille transcription.
  • Provide students with visual impairments with materials in alternative formats at the same time the materials are given to the rest of the class.
  • Repeat aloud what is written on the board or presented on overheads and in handouts.
  • Pace the presentation of material. If referring to a textbook or handout, allow time for students to find the information.
  • Allow students to record lectures.
  • When appropriate, ask for a sighted volunteer to team up with a student with a vision impairment for in-class assignments.
  • Keep a front row seat open for a student with a vision impairment. A corner seat is especially convenient for a student with a guide dog.
  • Make arrangements early for field trips and ensure that accommodations will be in place on the given day (e.g., transportation, site accessibility).
  • Be flexible with deadlines if assignments are held up by the document-conversion process.

Document Conversion

Alternative print formats (CD, Braille, electronic, and large-print) allow individuals with vision impairments and other disabilities to have access to standard print materials. SSD provides document-conversion services, which are described below, free of charge to the University community.

  1. CD - Many textbooks, novels, and periodicals are available on CD and can be obtained from a variety of sources. For more information, see our facilitating non-test accommodations page. Requests should be made at least two weeks in advance of when the material is needed.
  2. Braille - Original documents may be submitted either in print, on computer disk, or via e-mail to SSD for Braille transcription. Documents in electronic format can be transcribed quickly; print materials require more time because they must be scanned in or entered by hand.
  3. Electronic - Many people have access to computers with synthesized voice or Braille output devices and may request an electronic version of material. Anyone can provide an electronic version of a document simply by copying the document onto a flash drive for the person making the request. Documents can also be made available by placing them online, thereby benefiting all students who have access to a computer network.
  4. Large print - Anyone with access to a computer or copy machine can create large-print documents by following one of the procedures below (ask the person making the request how much enlargement is needed).

With a computer

If a document has been created using a standard word-processing program, it can easily be enlarged before printing. Geneva or Helvetica fonts are the clearest. An eighteen-point type is generally the best. When the type is larger than eighteen points, fewer words appear on each page, making it difficult for a person to make sense of the document. Bold characters also make the print clearer. The following example illustrates the difference between standard and large bold print. 

Standard print

Reasonable accommodation leads to equal access.

Large print (Times, 18 point, bold)

Reasonable accommodation leads to equal access.

With a copy machine

Documents can also be enlarged by duplicating them on a copy machine that can print on eleven-by-seventeen-inch paper. This is a useful procedure for course packets or articles in periodicals or books. The quality of the enlarged version will depend on the clarity and condition of the original document.