Teaching Students with Visual Disabilities

There are many teaching strategies you can use to ensure effective and productive learning environments and experiences for all students, including those with disabilities.

Accessible Education[i] is the process of designing courses and developing a teaching style to meet the needs of people who have a variety of backgrounds, abilities, and learning styles. Just as there is no single way to teach, people learn in a variety of ways; using different instructional methods will help meet the needs of the greatest number of learners[ii].

Under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, you have a responsibility to learn about accessibility for persons with disabilities and how it relates to the development and delivery of accessible programs and courses.

The following are some practical tips for teaching students with visual disabilities.

What does it mean if someone has a visual disability?

The term visual disability indicates an individual with some degree of low vision. Some people can see the outlines of objects, and others can see the direction of light. Few people identify as being blind. Not everyone with a visual disability uses a service animal or a white cane; as a result, it may not be immediately apparent that a person has a visual disability.

Suggested tips on teaching a person with a visual disability

In the classroom or laboratory

Avoid making assumptions about a person’s disability or capabilities; many persons with disabilities talk about being frustrated with people assuming what they can or cannot do. Remember that although persons with disabilities might have specific needs, every individual is different.

Prior to beginning the course
  • Choose course materials early. This will allow enough time for you to convert the documents into alternative formats, or for students to request the formats they need.
  • If possible, choose accessible electronic versions of course readings. This will enable students to convert the reading into the format required, whether they use a screen reader, an enlarger, or another technology.
  • When digital formats are not available, provide print material sufficiently far in advance to ensure that transcription requirements (for example, into audio-digital or another e-format, enlarged format, or Braille) can be met in time.
  • Be as precise as you can with regard to the texts and pages that will be used.
  • Ensure course packs are complete. Please note that some PDFs (Portable Document Format files) are not accessible to students using a screen reader; when possible, choose tagged PDFs, which may be read by assistive technology.
When the course begins
  • Consider whether the learning platforms or technologies you plan to use are accessible to all of your students. For example, if you plan to show videos, determine whether the visual information is essential to your students’ understanding of the content or if alternative materials are required.
  • Encourage students to tell you about any accessibility concerns. You can do this both verbally early in the semester and by including an accessibility statement on your syllabus. Indicate that such conversations are confidential and are strictly for facilitating any learning needs or accommodations that may be in place.
  • Identify and clearly express the essential course content, and recognize that students can express understanding of essential course content in multiple ways.
  • Diversify assignments or allow for exceptions to enable all students to demonstrate their specific talents (for example, oral presentations, poster presentations, written assignments).
  • Insist on professional, civil conduct between and among students to respect people’s differences and create an inclusive environment.
  • Consider providing your classes with information about the accessible features of their immediate environment (for example, automatic doors, accessible washrooms).
While in session
  • Provide the course outline, the list of reading requirements, copies of overhead slides, and all other materials in an accessible, digital format to all students whenever possible.
  • Provide verbal explanations for graphs and charts used in class, and provide clear and concise verbal instructions.
  • Read aloud material written on the board and all information that is conveyed visually. You can supplement videos with audio descriptions or descriptive transcripts in an accessible format.
  • Make sure there is high colour contrast between the background and the text in any handouts. If you are giving a slide presentation that will be viewed via projector, the contrast often needs to be more pronounced than on printed material. Black text on a white background and white text on a black background are the easiest to read.
  • Make a lighting adjustment if requested by the student.
Tests, exams, and evaluation

If possible, online tests should be tested for accessibility. Ensure that a student can navigate them using an assistive technology, such as a screen reader to read aloud the information on the screen, or using screen-enhancement software that allows the user to magnify the computer screen or change the contrast.

Suggestions for interacting one-on-one with a student with a visual disability

  • Identify yourself by name when you approach the person and speak directly to them.
  • Speak normally and clearly.
  • Do not assume that the person cannot see you.
  • Ask permission before touching the person, unless it is an emergency.
  • Offer your arm to guide the person, then walk at a normal pace.
  • Be precise and clear when giving directions or verbal information. For example, if you are guiding someone with a visual disability and you are approaching a door or an obstacle, say so.
  • A service animal may accompany a person with a visual disability. Service animals are working and should not be distracted.
  • Identify landmarks or other details to orient the person to the environment.
  • If you are leaving a room or the presence of someone with a visual disability, be sure to let them know that you are leaving and whether or not you will be returning.
  • If you are not sure what to do, ask, “Can I help?”

Accommodating a student with a visual disability

As an educator, you have a responsibility to accommodate students with disabilities under the Ontario Human Rights Code. Requests for accommodation are made on an individual basis by students through the Office for Students with Disabilities and require medical and/or formal documentation.

The following are common academic accommodations that may be required for students with visual disabilities. This list is not exhaustive and is not intended to replace the official request for academic accommodations as communicated by the Office for Students with Disabilities.

Classroom accommodations
  • If possible, send your teaching material to the student electronically, or transfer it onto a USB flash drive for the student.
  • Provide your contact information by e-mail and orally.
  • Identify note-takers.
  • Allow students to audio-record lectures.
  • Allow for preferential seating, either to facilitate better listening or to allow for proximity to an electrical outlet.
  • Talk to the student privately about his/her accommodation needs. If necessary, discuss pairing the student with a sighted partner. Ensure discretion of the sighted partner.
  • Discuss any safety concerns both with the student and with staff in the Office for Students with Disabilities as well as with laboratory support staff.
  • If the student reads Braille, contact the Office for Students with Disabilities to have lab equipment tagged in Braille.
  • For exams that include graphic content (charts, maps, illustrations), it’s best to call on the Office for Students with Disabilities to have the material transcribed into a format that’s accessible to the student; if needed, you can provide an alternate evaluation method.
  • Consider, when appropriate, offering alternatives to more traditional assignments and exams, such as an oral presentation instead of a written assignment or exam.
  • Provide extended time for tests and exams.
  • Arrange to meet with the student to discuss specific learning needs, strategies for success, alternatives to course assignments, and methods of evaluation when the student provides their letter of accommodation.
Laboratory accommodations

Tests, exams, and evaluation accommodations

Remember that students with disabilities do not have to disclose their disability to their professors or anyone else in the academic environment in order to receive accommodations. Unless a student chooses to disclose the nature of the disability to you, you will only receive information on the accommodations the student is entitled to receive. It is important to familiarize yourself with the accommodation and the accessibility resources and protocols at your university to ensure you are following recommended practices.

Sources

University of Ottawa, A Guide for Professors: Minimizing the Impact of Learning Obstacles

Trent University, Accessibility in Teaching: Strategies and Requirements for Supporting an Accessible Learning Environment

York University, Faculty Resource Guide: Teaching Students with Disabilities

[i] The term Accessible Education has been adopted to capture the value of two frameworks in improving the accessibility of university education: Universal Instructional Design (UID) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Both were informed by the architectural concept of Universal Design, which is “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” (Center for Universal Design, The Principles of Universal Design)

“UID is not just about accessibility for persons with a disability – it’s about truly universal thinking – maximizing learning for students of all backgrounds and learner preferences while minimizing the need for special accommodations.” (University of Guelph, UID Implementation Guide)

“UDL is a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn. UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone – not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs.” (Center for Applied Special Technology, Universal Design for Learning)

[ii] Nilson, Linda B. (2010). Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors (3rd ed). John Wiley & Sons.

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