An Educator's Guide to Visual Disabilities

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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.


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)
  • Keep the screen uncluttered. People with low vision impairments may have trouble reading what is on the web page if it is cluttered, while a blind person using screen reading software may have trouble because the information on the page could get jumbled if it is not presented in an orderly fashion, because typically screen readers read the page from left to right.
  • Avoid placing multiple hyperlinks on any one line. It is easier for the user to find the links if each one is on a line of its own. It also makes it easier to click on the right link.
  • Avoid having a tiled background. People with low vision may have difficulty reading information on sites with a tiled background or a background image because the text may become obscured.
  • Avoid backgrounds that are dark or light in color. People with low vision or color blindness may have difficulty reading text if the background and text colors do not contrast well.
  • Space out items on the page. Providing space around items will make the site neater and cleaner. This may help avoid any confusion for the visually impaired user.
  • Provide an alternative page that is text-only. Text only v ore accessible to all visitors.
  • Include descriptions of graphics and images. If the graphics are critical to the content of the page it is good to provide a caption for the graphic for those people using screen reading software.
  • Use the ALT attribute with images. The ALT attribute provides alternative text for the user that is intended to help the user understand the graphics on the page.
  • Provide "speech" using options such as Talker or Real Audio. These are software programs that can be downloaded to make a web page talk.
  • Include menu alternatives when using image maps. An image map is a picture on which part of the picture can be clicked on to find a link to another page. Providing menu alternatives for image maps ensures that the embedded links are accessible.
  • Make links descriptive. Nondescriptive phrases like 'click here' when used as a link present problems for those people using screen readers. Screen reading software typically allows the user to tab through the page to all links, so the words the user look different in different web browsers. One should try to test their web page with at least one text-based browser such as Lynx.
  • Use an accessibility validation site. These sites run a diagnostic test on a web page and point out the parts of the page that are inaccessible.
    • BOBBY as many of the guidelines as possible his/her pages should be more accessible to all users.


    • Although our country and the world as a whole have made tremendous strides in improving access to those with disabilities, their is still room for improvement. In the booming age of technology, access to computers, the Internet and other technologies is steadily improving for those with disabilities. If we all consider this audience in our teaching practices and in designing web pages, access will improve that much more.

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