Millions of people in the United States and around the world are inflicted by some type of disability, whether it be a hearing loss, a visual impairment, a mobility impairment, or a learning disability. Despite laws that have been passed that have improved the lifestyles of persons with disabilities, these people face difficult challenges in their everyday lives.
"Visual impairments are divided into two general categories: blindness and low vision. Individuals with blindness have absolutely no sight, or have so little that learning must take place through other senses. Only 10-15% of the visually impaired population is totally blind. People with low vision have severe impairments and need special accommodations, but are still able to learn through vision." (Office for Students with Disabilities)
The term visual impairment has a broad spectrum. It may mean a person has difficulty reading, but can still see things pretty well as a whole. The person may not be able to discern shapes or colors, while others may have vision which fluctuates due to a particular disease.
For a person to be considered legally blind, he/she must have a "visual acuity of 20/200 or worse in the better eye with correction (glasses), or a visual field which subtends to an angle of not greater than 20 degrees. While a low vision person has a visual acuity above 20/200 but worse than 20/70 in their better eye with correction." (Visual Impairment)
Typically in a school setting a student is considered visually impaired if the student's learning is affected by their vision. Generally, the biggest challenge that visually impaired students face in school and in the outside world is the huge mass of printed materials. In a classroom, a visually impaired person can be hindered if they are unable to use standard print materials such as textbooks, handouts and tests. To accommodate these students special provisions must be made. These could be as simple as providing the student with audio books, large type books and handouts, or providing materials printed in Braille. In addition to the problem of printed materials, the visually impaired student must also deal with the teacher's use of a blackboard, overhead, and audio-visual equipment. These obstacles can typically be overcome by providing the student with a writer or note take or an audio recorder. Also, the 'typical' classroom has become more accessible to the visually impaired student due to the advances made in technology. Visually impaired students are able to utilize one or more of these tools, sometimes called assistive technologies, to help overcome their impairment. Some examples of assistive technologies used in everyday classroom activities include the following:
- Enlarger or Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) - a magnification device that enlarges and projects printed materials onto a television screen.
- Braille 'n Speak - an input/output device that acts as a Brailler. The student can use the Braille 'n Speak for things such as note taking, writing papers, or doing assignments. The Braille 'n Speak can be hooked to a computer to be used with various software programs or to print to a Braille Printer. The Braille 'n Speak is also capable of being bilingual if the student is taking a foreign language.
- Braille Printer - an embosser that prints in Braille. Examples include VersaPoint, Juliet, and Blazer.
- MegaDots and Duxbury Braille Translator - Braille translator software programs to input and translate text. These programs can also make printed text accessible through the use of a scanner.
- Scanner - provide access to printed materials in order to bridge the gap between print and computer. May be used in conjunction with screen magnifiers, screen readers, and voice input devices. Specific software programs such as VisAbility and OmniPage can bee used to simplify and expedite the process of scanning.
The 'typical' classroom has also changed as a result of technology. Teachers and students are both using computers more and more to complete everyday functions. Teachers are using computers for various assignments, activities and projects, while students are using computers for things such as writing papers (word processing) and doing research (via the Internet). To accommodate visually impaired students' use of computers, there are various hardware and software programs available. Some examples include the following:Screen Magnification / Enhancement Software - People with low vision typically need to magnify or enhance the screen. Large monitors and software application programs can provide minor magnification and simple adjustment of font sizes, where screen magnification software provides higher levels of magnification and contrast and color enhancement.
- ZoomText Xtra
- inLarge for Macintosh
Screen Reading Software - Most blind computer users need visual information to be spoken or presented in Braille. Screen Reading software can be used to translate information shown on the screen and translate it into spoken words using a speech synthesizer.
- JAWS for Windows
- Window Bridge
- Vocal Eyes
Voice Input - A keyboard/mouse alternative that can be used for typing words and sentences into a word processor and for operating program controls like menus and buttons.
- VoiceType and ViaVoice
One increasing problem for the visually impaired is access to the Internet. As the Internet continues to rapidly expand, so does the complexity of web sites. Most have eye catching graphics and a variety of different designs a . See how far you will get." (Campbell)