Visual Impairments

Challenges and Subjects – this link takes you to challenges and subjects associated with this disability.

Brief description of Visual Impairments

The term visual impairment covers a whole spectrum of people from those who are only slightly affected to the very small proportion who are totally blind and cannot distinguish light from dark. Only a small minority or partially sighted people have no useful vision.

The principle that every student is an individual with individual needs is particularly true for students with visual impairments, as strategies which suit one student may be irrelevant, even hampering, to another. Only the visually impaired person can really say what they can, or cannot, see.

Students may have developed their own coping strategies and techniques and so it is essential for the student to be closely involved in discussion of teaching strategies appropriate to their situation.

Blind and partially sighted students are more dependent on their hearing for information gathering. People who have been blind since birth may have missed out on informal opportunities for learning to read, for example through the experience of signs and labels in everyday life. They will also have a conceptual framework for such concepts such as distance, dimensions and scale that is not drawn from visual images. They might have missed out on gathering everyday practical information about the world around them, which sighted people take for granted, and may therefore need to be introduced to new situations in a practical experimental manner before moving on to form concepts.

Detailed description of Visual Impairments Impacting on Learning and Teaching

Receiving Information During Lectures

Students who are reliant on taping lectures as a way of receiving information will need a translation of visual material into an auditory form. Some thought needs to be given as to the best way of conveying information from diagrams, graphs, chars and other complicated visual material.If you have a Disability Specialist in your organisation, it would be sensible to discuss this with them.

Students with a range of impairments, such as those with a visual impairment, may want to record information by taping or Brailing. Referring students to a website will be useful if the information there is designed to be visually accessible, and if the student has the appropriate equipment or software for reading it. Lecturers should be able to provide students with a disk or hard copy of lecture material, or copies of overheads. Provision of these can enable students with language and comprehension difficulties to devote more attention to listening.

Taping lectures is not always an unqualified success, unless the student develops a system for retrieving information from the tapes, perhaps by tone indexing the tapes, and keeping a record of the main ideas of the lecture (it is much easier to skim visual material rather than listen to whole tapes). Taking home tapes of lectures for transcribing at a later stage can be very time-consuming, and students who do this may benefit from advice from lecturers about whether this is likely to be a successful strategy for study.

Participating in Seminars/Tutorials

Students who have visual difficulties that affect their ability to access text may be excluded when there is some reading to do in the tutorial. They may also experience difficulties with face to face communication if they are unable to read facial expressions or body language. It can take time for students to get used to the voices of other students in their seminar and it may be helpful for speakers to say their name prior to speaking. It is helpful to provide any textual material, in an accessible format, in advance of the tutorial, even if this is not the tutor’s usual practice.

Practical Classes

There are some fairly straightforward and low-tech ways of modifying or adapting equipment or activities to allow students with various impairments to participate in practical classes. Examples include: auditory displays of visual information (such as talking thermometers), tactical displays of visual information (such as beakers with raised markings), clamps and other devices for holding items of equipment, and hand held, illuminated magnifiers. Examples of such innovations are likely to multiply as more people who develop impairments while in employment are maintained and supported in their employment.

Students with visual difficulties working in laboratories can also experience problems with textual materials as well as equipment. In these circumstances, alternative formats, verbalising text or interfacing lab equipment with computer with large print or speech output can all be useful adjustments.

Students with visual difficulties can also experience problems with laboratory layout and may require extra assistance to help them familiarise themselves with layout and location of equipment.

Work Placements, Study Abroad and Field Trips

Departments organising placements, field trips or study abroad for students with impairments will need to consider, ideally in discussion with the students, the differences between the new context and environment and the more usual, and often more structured, context of study. Sometimes, the use of equipment, arrangements or personal assistance could, with a little planning, transfer to a different context.

Some equipment or educational support may not be so easily transferable. Taping lectures may be acceptable in a way that taping interviews with clients in a setting requiring confidentiality may not be. Portability may also be a factor to be considered for field trips and study abroad. Some non-medical, personal help, such as communication support for lectures, could be regarded as obtrusive during one-to-one work involving clients. A laptop with speech synthesis linked to a data projector could allow a blind trainee tutor to do the functional equivalent of writing on a chalkboard. This latter arrangement could clearly have uses in other work contexts involving presentations.

The fact that funding may need to be found to purchase additional equipment for placements, field trips or study abroad, underlines the necessity to plan and prepare long before the placement start date.

Students with impairments are positive assets on courses, where a reminder of the diversity of human experience is important. It can be instructive to be reminded of substantial gains for all students from organising placements in such a way that students with impairments are safely included, and not to think exclusively about problems.


For students who have impairments of various kinds, the usual assessment format may need to be modified to achieve the assessment objectives. Clarity about the latter will be very helpful in determining acceptable modifications, which will be different for different types of assessment, or for different parts of the assessment, e.g. a student may be considerably disadvantaged by part of an exam paper with a heavy concentration of text, such as multiple choice questions, but have no additional difficulty in reading and understanding brief essay titles.

Students with visual difficulties may require examination papers in formats such as Braille, tape or enlarged print. Alternative, the questions or titles of the assignment could be provided on disk, if appropriate access technology is available. Or they could be read to the student.

Some students may rely on equipment to meet the needs of the assessment, whether in a formal examination environment, or the less formal setting in which assignments are prepared for continuous assessment. A tape recorder, computer, or amanuensis or assistant, may be needed to enable a student to complete an assignment. There is a need for clarity over the role and involvement of equipment or assistant, so that arrangements are identified which ensure that the student maintains control over producing what it is that is to be assessed.

An amanuensis can be regarded as an efficient writing machine, responsive to instructions and free from the mechanical complexities of keyboards or tape-recorders. It is usually necessary for the amanuensis to be literate in the subject s/he is scribing. This is particularly true of subjects with terminology and symbols unfamiliar to most people.

Working with an amanuensis takes practice, for both parties, as decisions have to be taken about such matters as spelling, punctuation, and, especially in a timed examination setting, the speed of dictation. Negotiations may also need to take place regarding how visual material is to be conveyed to and from a student who is unable to see or produce it. Where the assessment is carried out may affect how it is carried out. Students relying, in a formal examination setting, on either speech-to-text software or an amanuensis, will obviously have to be accommodated in a room separate from other candidates.

Many departments mark anonymously. Where students produce assignments in an alternative way, departments may have to consider whether the goals of anonymous marking can be achieved in some other way. If departments regard anonymous marking as a protection against marker bias, then it may be possible to achieve this end by some other way of monitoring standards in marking.

Characteristics Impacting on Learning and Teaching

  • Provide sufficient time to discuss needs with the student before their initial teaching session.

    Large Print

    Some students may require material to be produced in large print format. A minimum of 14 point and preferably 16-18 point is recommended for this. It can be produced by photocopy enlargement or by producing larger print directly from a PC – the latter is preferable as the quality of the print is better. However, some students can find it difficult to scan large print and may find their concentration is quickly depleted.


    Some students may need to use a tape recorder to record lectures/discussions. This means the student has to rely on auditory input which requires skills of concentration and memory, and practice. Also, it is more difficult to scan material and the student therefore has to be well organised. Some students may also require the use of a note-taker. Students should be encouraged to sit in a position where they can hear/see (for those with some residual sight). Everything written on OHPs should be stated orally. Course and reading materials should be available well in advance of the session – in extra large print if required. Providing materials in advance (such as reading lists) allows students to make Braille/taped copies of the content if required.

  • Potential challenges to the achievement of learning


    External resources