Case Study – Computing and Visual Difficulties

Case Study A

Source: Hall, J. and Tinklin, T. (1998). "Students First: The Experiences of Disabled Students in Higher Education." SCRE Research Report No 85. The Scottish Council for Research in Education.

Mike came to university straight from school and is in the second year of a computer science degree. He describes his disability as follows:

"I have several different problems with my vision which reduce my effective vision level to 6/36."

He knew from early on that he wanted to come to university, but says that some of his teachers did not encourage him in this:

"From about middle to end of the second year, before I even started Standard Grades I wanted to come to university, I wanted to do a computing course. But in secondary school it was a case of, well we’re not going to help you because we don’t think that, because of your problem, we don’t think you’re going to do as well."

He also knew from early on that he wanted to study computing, as it was one of his favourite subjects at school:

"Computing it my strong point, mainly because it’s all sitting and tinkering … you can learn a lot of theory about computing and you can put that to good use, but you don’t have to learn that theory from books, you can learn it from the computer itself."

He started off doing a HND, but was allowed to transfer to the degree programme halfway through his first year.

He needs large print copies of handouts and overhead projection sheets from lecturers. He sometimes uses a scanner, available in the library, to scan text from books onto a computer screen. He tapes lecturers and takes notes during lectures or tutorials using a laptop computer. He can usually read text on a computer screen if the font is large enough. In his first year, the department installed screen magnification software onto the departmental computers, but he tends not to use it as it makes it more difficult to see the overall picture.

Mike visited and negotiated his needs before he started his course. One member of staff in each department is designated the disability contact and he informed all Mike’s lecturers of his particular needs before Mike arrived. Right from his first day, large print copies of handouts were provided:

"… from the first day I got here the introductory talks, the introduction to the course, that sort of thing, everything to do with that was large print … [the disability contact] knew me already from having met me before so he actually found me. He didn’t call out my name in the middle of … 350 students in the lecture theatre. He actually came up and looked through the crowds and found me and handed me the notes personally, which was good. You know, it saved being singled out on the very first day …"

He was also loaned a tape recorder and laptop by the university until his DSA money came through. If any lecturer forgets or does not know about his needs, Mike said he feels able to ask because a clear agreement was made at that preliminary meeting about what the department would provide.



Case Study B

Source :

James Owens is a student on a Multi-media technology course.

After returning to the UK from Saudi Arabia where I was employed as a project manager, I was diagnosed as having a visual impairment due to macular degeneration. I decided to take an Access course at Motherwell College to improve my typing skills where I discovered the use of screen readers for use by visually impaired people. I completed HNC and HND in Multimedia Technology at Motherwell and then graduated to Glasgow Caledonian University where I obtained a BSc in that technology.

By now I was very interested in developing the use of various technologies to improve access for people with visual impairments and other disabled people and I continued my education and was accepted to do a MSc at Glasgow Caledonian.

In the Glasgow Caledonian University Library there is a disability room. This is equipped with items such as large display screens on computers, screen readers, screen magnifiers, scanners, CCTV units to enlarge the print of any document and Braille printers that are invaluable to students with disabilities. The room can also be used for exams where the exam papers are provided in large print or electronic format.

I additionally have the use of a computer at home that has all the software installed to enable me to complete the course. The use of a scribe is also available which is of great assistance as the amount of reading involved is huge.

In both Motherwell College and Glasgow Caledonian University the advice and encouragement from tutors and lecturers was outstanding and helped me to carry on through difficult patches that we all face at various times in our lives.



Case Study C



Matthew is a final year (Y4) BSc student studying ‘Computer Science’. Matthew has two conditions that affect his sight: Ocular Albinism and Nystagmus. Ocular Albinism makes Matthew sensitive to light, whilst Nystagmus makes it difficult for Matthew to focus. Additionally, Matthew has great difficulty in reading LED clocks and displays.

For reading, Matthew needs to be very close to the source material. Matthew prefers text in a large print format with the text in appropriate sans-serif fonts (such as Arial, Verdana etc.). Matthew has reading glasses and also makes use of a magnifier.

To access text on a computer screen Matthew makes use of screen magnification software. His preference is for Linux software and he finds that the Linux operating system is more openly designed for users requiring similar accessibility. Linux offers more options and the scope to set up visual presentations to the users needs. To access the Internet, Matthew uses the Mozilla Firefox web browser as this has many accessibility features and offers options for resetting text to precise requirements thus enhancing navigation.

For Matthew, the type of screen and monitor is also important. Matthew prefers LCD/TFT (Liquid Crystal Display/Thin Film Transistor) screens, as they offer him the least difficulty, mainly due to the quality of light they produce.


When Matthew applied to attend university, he was given some advice most notably on subjects that because of their practical nature might provide issues of accessibility. Matthew chose his degree subject, however, more on what subject interested him most, and what subject he would be most competent in. Whilst accessibility was a consideration for Matthew it was not an over-riding factor in either his choice of subject or university.

Matthew’s needs were assessed prior to entering university. The department concerned were informed in advance of the hardware / software required and the nature of support that Matthew would require. As a result Matthew did not expect to experience major difficulties when starting his degree programme. Matthew soon discovered, however, that the ‘system’ only just about worked for non-disabled students. There was no ‘float time’ built into the system to accommodate disabled students like himself. Notably, notes required for the first four weeks were only provided in accessible format a few weeks later. Matthew describes the academic side of the experience of his first year as “complete misery and despair”. He feels fortunate that he was only required to pass his year 1 examinations and the results of these do not count towards his overall degree classification. Matthew cites the lack of awareness amongst his tutors about the need for accessible material (and how to respond to this need) as the critical element in his first-year experience.

Matthew remarks that his experiences led to an opportunity for a meeting with the head of department and the head of registry. Along with increased focus being given to the SENDA regulations, bringing these issues to a head led to a marked change of awareness amongst academic staff within his department and a realisation that there were solutions to the difficulties that Matthew was experiencing. Matthew himself was given the opportunity through discussion to ‘educate’ staff about his needs and the solutions available, and to inform staff of which websites were more accessible and which were not, and the reasons for this. As a result Matthew now feels that the academic staff within the department are far more aware of accessibility issues and that his experiences are consequently much more positive.


Matthew has experienced a number of barriers in learning and teaching situations. The following are some of the most relevant experiences and the strategies that have been adopted to address potential barriers:


Matthew experienced a number of difficulties during lectures, especially during the first year of his course. During the first two years of the course Matthew had a note-taker but has now decided to work without one. Matthew found that as the note-taker was not a specialist in the subject area that critical information might be missed as the note-taker would not know what was important and what was not. In addition, the provision of a note-taker presented, for Matthew, another layer of complexity. At the start of his final year Matthew decided that a note-taker no longer provided added value to him and he decided to work without one.

Matthew currently uses a lap-top during lectures. Matthew downloads the lecture notes, which are posted on the departmental website, for the lecture concerned onto his laptop. He then adds notes onto these during the lecture. If information is conveyed by OHP, a copy of the transparency is provided for Matthew. Observation of the student during a tutorial involving up to forty students confirmed the value of this practice as Matthew was unable in the time provided to take down the full text of answers given to previous examination questions.

Matthew e-mails ‘new’ lecturers in advance to make his accessibility needs known. Despite these arrangements Matthew still experiences some difficulty. Notably he speaks of issues concerning the speed of delivery (too fast) and explanation of processes (not always clear, though some lecturers are purposefully, helpfully, verbose). Much of the content of lectures is based on mathematical equations and processes. Once again, observation confirmed the difficulty that Matthew experiences in assimilating such information in real time as he has to rely on the tutor’s verbal description of the mathematical process. Matthew finds that he needs time to digest such information. Indeed, Matthew comments that mathematical content and content presented in diagrams or graphical format carry a number of accessibility issues for him.

Laboratory Work

Matthew requires access to PCs set up with the appropriate software (see earlier section). His department has bought under licence screen magnification software that can be installed on the network though there are only a limited number of machines per computer laboratory that provide for Matthew’s needs. This set-up provides Matthew with the accessibility level that he requires to complete lab work tasks.

Group Work (including Class Discussions)

Group work does not pose particular difficulties as tasks within the group can be delegated to take account of individual strengths and weaknesses. Class discussions (tutorials) typically involve about 30 students. This tends not to be problematic except where diagrams are involved (and they are not explained in full)

Accessing Online Resources

Matthew accesses virtually all the information he needs online. This is critical as a screen magnifier then enables him to read text much more easily than if he were using paper-based resources. When accessing lengthy documents, Matthew might choose to use a screen-reader. This is a piece of software that ‘reads’ the text to him using a synthesised voice. This, however, is not practical if there is any graphical representation or mathematical content.

Work Placement

Matthew spent his third-year on work placement at BAE Systems (Warton, Lancashire). This involved him in testing software and in designing and developing software. Matthew’s main difficulty centred upon the length of time it took due to bureaucratic structures for his PC to be set up with the appropriate software. Other than this, there were no notable barriers to accessibility.

Assessment / Examinations

For assessment (especially examinations) a number of adjustments are made. These include: separate accommodation, modification of diagrams, greater tolerance in accepting results if interpreting diagrammatical information, and the provision of extra-time (25%). Matthew always uses the extra-time provided. For extended project work, Matthew is offered extra time by means of an earlier start date.

Impact on Learning & Academic Progress

On reflecting upon the impact of his disability upon learning and academic progress, Matthew cites the difficulties he experienced during the first year of his degree course. Only through changes to practice within his department that made his course more accessible was he able to progress.

For Matthew, certain information can still be difficult to access. In particular, he cannot readily follow lengthy mathematical equations, as he must focus on the individual components of the equation thus not being able to view the progression from one stage of the equation to another. Thus, it is difficult to get an understanding of the way that the equation is built up. This implies that Matthew must take extra time to review the material in question.

Actions by tutors / lecturers that are or have proved to be particularly helpful include: 

  • The provision of lecture notes on the web well in advance of lectures 
  • The provision of transparencies (that might include additional notes made by the lecturer during the lecture) onto Matthew after the lecture 
  • A clear verbal explanation by lecturers of what they are doing / demonstrating as they are doing it 
  • Speaking in a measured and structured manner 
  • The provision of well structured notes, as opposed to textually dense notes

Matthew believes that many of the problems he encountered during his first year were the result of both a lack of awareness amongst teaching staff and difficulties in the chain of communication between the university’s disability support unit and his department. This led to Matthew taking a far more proactive role. Now he would make new lecturers fully aware of his needs in advance of lectures etc..


AT has been Matthew’s personal tutor during the first three years of his course, as well as one of his academic tutors. AT is also the departmental disabilities co-ordinator.

AT states that prior to Matthew’s arrival the Department (of Computer Science) tended to respond reactively to the needs of disabled students, dealing with issues on a case by case basis. This had proved adequate with previous visually-impaired students. However, as a result of difficulties experienced during Matthew’s first year and a recognition that SENDA requirements would need a more positive response, the department decided to take a more proactive stance. AT feels that in retrospect many tutors did not at that time have much understanding of accessibility issues.

At the time of Matthew beginning his course (2001) the Department had just undergone a review of the accessibility of its web material. This had brought to light specific difficulties: 

The Department had already developed a departmental website that offered module information. However, much of this information (lecture notes etc.) – as it had been produced in a non Windows environment – was not in an easily accessible format. 

Many tutors had also developed websites and materials that made full use of web-based technologies and interactive capabilities (i.e. websites that would offer non-disabled students an interesting and varied experience). As such these did not easily conform with accessibility requirements.

AT also states that the use of complex (often colour-based) diagrams – sometimes through the medium of PowerPoint – continues to present difficulties for visually-impaired students. He states that there are no ‘off-the-shelf’ solutions. Software to create 3-D models are limited in both availability and practical use. The drawing of diagrams is seen as an essential part of Computer Science courses both to transmit information to the student and also to act as a means of communication that students can use to demonstrate understanding. It remains an issue if disabled students are unable to fully use diagrams in this way. AT warns that the nature of computer technology will not stay stable and as a result accessibility will always remain an issue. Progress is likely to be driven by the technology. Accessibility is likely to follow technology in terms of development.

In responding to Matthew’s needs the Department initiated a process of consultation between Matthew and his tutors prior to each semester. This led to the creation of a bespoke Semester Plan for Matthew. This clarified Matthew’s needs in relation to each module and detailed what each module leader would do or provide to meet those needs. In addition all notes are now provided on the departmental website in accessible format. Moreover, if required, notes are produced in large print for Matthew.

AT reflects that meeting Matthew’s needs has accelerated tutors’ awareness of accessibility issues. Indeed he states that it would be fair to say that Matthew has ‘educated’ academic staff in this respect. AT feels that whereas Matthew was not confident that his needs would be met at the outset of his course that he is now much more comfortable with the Department. AT notes that the required adjustments have taken relatively little time to implement and have been amply rewarded by Matthew’s academic progress.


This Case Study highlights a number of issues. Matthew’s experiences shed considerable light upon the factors that affect accessibility for visually-impaired students.

In responding to the needs of visually-impaired students, academic tutors might consider the following: 

  • Detailed communication with the student and the University’s Disability Officers prior to the student commencing his/her course is vital if the student’s needs are to be addressed from the start 
  • The need to ensure availability of IT hardware and software that meet the requirements of disabled students. (Note: academics should be aware that such software may still have limitations in regard of accessibility. In particular, information presented by graphical and mathematical means are not readily translated by screen-reading software) 
  • The recognition that accessibility should be considered when developing departmental and personal websites that students may be expected to use 
  • That all teaching staff are made aware of accessibility issues and potential solutions to such issues 
  • The value of highlighting accessibility issues for each disabled student (following discussion with the student) on a module to module basis, and if appropriate devising a semester plan detailing required action by tutors for each student.

In terms of more specific learning and teaching issues, academic tutors might consider the following actions: 

  • The provision of lecture notes on the web well in advance of lectures 
  • The provision of transparencies (that might include additional notes made by the lecturer during the lecture) to the student following the lecture. (The value of this has been confirmed through observation of the student during a tutorial). 
  • A clear verbal explanation by lecturers of what they are doing / demonstrating as they are doing it 
  • Speaking in a measured and structured manner 
  • The provision of well structured notes, as opposed to textually dense notes

In the final analysis, this Case Study highlights the value of encouraging the disabled student to actively advise academic staff on accessibility issues and good practice. By doing so academics’ awareness of accessibility issues will be enhanced to the potential benefit of future students.

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