Visually impaired students have greater opportunities to succeed when pursuing bachelor’s and master’s degrees because of the expansion of college accessibility. Taking advantage of available resources and assistive technologies can make an enormous difference in the quality of a student’s college experience. It’s essential that students with vision impairments are fully aware of all of the tools and services that can help them achieve their academic goals.
What Does it Mean to be Visually Impaired?
A person with a vision impairment has a condition that makes it impossible to correct to a normal level of eyesight. Compared to other people, an individual who is visually impaired might not be able to see as clearly or may not be able to see as wide an area without moving. People who wear glasses, for example, may not necessarily qualify as being impaired if it’s possible to correct their sight to 20/20.
Types of Visual Impairment
Although many people associate visual impairments exclusively with blindness, there are actually a number of ways and degrees to which a person’s sight can be affected. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the different types of visual impairment include:
- Loss of central vision: the loss of detailed vision with only side vision remaining
- Loss of peripheral/side vision: the loss of side vision, with only central vision remaining
- Generalized haze or cloudy vision: the sensation of a film, glare, or cloud over the visual field
- Blurred vision: difficulty seeing clearly or sharply
- Night blindness: difficulty seeing in dark conditions
- Extreme light sensitivity: eye pain resulting from exposure to light
Vision impairments differ in severity and can be rated as mild, moderate, severe, or blindness. The most serious cases of impairment are known as total blindness, in which a person is completely unable to see.
Vision impairments are also often categorized as either distance vision or near vision. According to the World Health Organization, at least 2.2 billion people worldwide have near or distance vision impairments.
Effects of Visual Impairment
Vision loss can have significant impacts on the visually impaired and those close to them. Some of the potential effects of vision impairment include:
- Loss of independence: a struggle to complete necessary tasks or travel alone
- Mobility issues and falls: unseen obstructions, steps, and slopes that lead to injuries
- Isolation: a lack of human interaction
- Depression and anxiety: feelings of hopelessness, worry, and sadness
- Fewer opportunities for employment: difficulty in finding jobs with adequate pay
Many of these effects are quite common. For example, a 2021 study by the CDC found that one in four people with vision loss experience depression and anxiety.
The Importance of Making Accommodations for Visually Impaired Students
According to the CDC, vision disability is one of the most prevalent disabling conditions among children and is in the top 10 most common disabilities for adults. With such a significant portion of the population experiencing some form of vision impairment, it’s crucial that academic institutions recognize and appropriately accommodate this common form of disability.
Legal Requirements for Accommodations
Making accommodations for visually impaired students is not only a matter of morality but also a legal requirement. There are two laws that ensure that students with disabilities receive fair treatment:
- The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits any school that receives federal funds from discriminating on the basis of disability. Any college or university that receives federal grants to pay student tuition is covered by this law.
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990 and protects the civil rights of all people with disabilities. This includes college and university students, who cannot be denied admission on the basis of a disability and must be given reasonable accommodations.
Students who feel that their rights under the ADA have been violated can file a formal complaint with the government and an investigation may follow.
Types of Accommodations Available to Visually Impaired Students
Colleges can help visually impaired students by modifying policies and procedures or granting access to aides or services. Some common visual accommodation requests include:
- Audio recordings
- Learning materials in braille
- Assistive computer software or programs
- Accessible locations for classes
- Service animals
- Outlines or summaries of class lectures
- Extended time for testing
Modifications and services differ significantly based on each student’s individual needs. In order to receive accommodations, schools generally require students to contact the accessibility or disability services office and provide medical documentation demonstrating that the request is reasonable and justified.
The National Disability Authority also encourages schools and educators to use Universal Design, which is intended to make environments accessible to all people regardless of age, disability, or size. The principles of universal design were developed in 1997 and recommend that environments be:
- Simple and intuitive
- Tolerant of error
- Appropriately sized and spaced
This translates not only to features like the layout of classrooms but also to the design of learning management systems and online courses.
Assistive Technology for Visually Impaired Students
For students with limited vision or blindness, the experience of attending college has unique challenges. Assistive technology for visually impaired students can help them to overcome some of these hurdles.
Transitioning to a college campus can be difficult because the space is typically so much larger than a high school. Service dogs can help students navigate the terrain more safely.
- USSA: US Service Animals can help visually impaired students search for and register a service dog.
- Southeastern Guide Dogs: Blind students can reach out to Southeastern Guide Dogs for help finding and training a service dog.
- GDB: Guide Dogs for the Blind has a number of resources for vision-impaired students, including applications for those seeking a service dog.
Canes & Electronic Mobility Aids
White canes, sometimes referred to as probing canes, and electronic mobility aids are important tools that make it safer for visually impaired people to walk in public and private places and across streets.
- NFB: The National Federation of the Blind distributes free white canes to blind people who submit an application.
- MaxiAids: Visually impaired students can choose from a variety of sizes, colors, and types of canes and electronic mobility aids on MaxiAids.
- VisionAware: Students who are new to using canes can find information and training resources on VisionAware’s website.
There are a number of devices available that can help visually impaired students read printed materials on paper and on screens.
- AFB: The American Foundation for the Blind has resources about a number of reading assistance devices and applications, including screen readers, magnifiers, braille printers, and braille displays.
- AAO: The American Academy of Ophthalmology has detailed information about low-vision assistive devices.
- Low Vision Specialists: Students with vision impairments can research and purchase assistive devices like magnifiers from Low Vision Specialists.
Other Assistive Devices for Education
There are a number of other technologies that can make the college classroom more accessible to students with vision impairments. These include notetakers, mobile applications, portable recorders, and low-vision and talking calculators.
- HumanWare: HumanWare sells a variety of devices, including notetakers, braille displays, and media players.
- Perkins School for the Blind: Perkins is an excellent resource for students who want to learn more about assistive devices, including talking calculators.
- Paths to Literacy: There is an excellent list of mobile apps for people with visual impairments on the Paths to Literacy website.
Resources for Visually Impaired Students
There are many national and local resources available for students with vision impairments. Some of the most prominent organizations include:
- ACB: The American Council of the Blind has scholarship programs, mentoring, and extensive resources for visually impaired students.
- APH: American Printing House for the Blind offers materials like accessible textbooks, tactile graphic images, and accessibility devices for children and adults.
- Hadley School for the Blind: Hadley gives people with vision impairments access to podcasts, workshops, and discussion groups related to assistive technologies and independent living skills.
- HKSB: Helen Keller Services for the Blind offers training and resources related to careers, daily living skills, and technology.
- LearningAlly: College students can download audio textbooks and access adult learner resources through LearningAlly.
- Lighthouse Guild: Lighthouse Guild is an organization that offers support groups and resources for people with vision impairments.
- NEI: The National Eye Institute has extensive information about different eye conditions as well as outreach materials for people with vision impairments.
- VSA: VisionServe Alliance has a podcast, newsletter, and conferences to support people with vision impairments and their loved ones.
In addition to these resources, visually impaired college students can benefit by contacting their college’s accessibility office to learn about locally available services.
6 Tips for Students with Visual Impairments
Starting college can be intimidating for any student, but even more so for one who faces increased challenges due to vision impairment. Following some simple tips can help ease the initial anxiety of your college experience and ensure that things go as smoothly as possible.
1. Take Advantage of College Services
The college you choose should have an accessibility or disability services office of some kind. However, the operation and structure of these offices are different. As you explore potential schools, set up a meeting with the accessibility team to learn more about what services are available. More importantly, once you have enrolled, make sure that you go back to the accessibility office to get the necessary paperwork for your instructors so that you receive all the accommodations that you need.
2. Familiarize Yourself with Available Tools
The assistive technology and tools that you used in high school may no longer be adequate once you get to college, where learning is much more independent and some classes can be extremely large. Before your first semester begins, explore available options for technology that you may need and test them out so that you can be certain that they will meet your needs when classes begin.
3. Make Use of Resources
There are many government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private businesses that serve students with vision impairments. These groups can help you access the technology and information that you need in order to excel in college. Once you’re on campus, the college library will also be a valuable resource. You will likely have access to materials, like audiobooks, and library staff who can help you with researching and locating information for course assignments and projects.
4. Explore Social Experiences
While college is an academic environment, that isn’t the only purpose it serves. It’s also an opportunity to explore your interests through clubs, organizations, and extracurricular activities. While residential colleges are best known for their social experiences, online colleges also often have student groups that you can join. Taking part in this part of college life is a great way to develop relationships with peers and mentors, engage in the topics you’re most passionate about, and build new skills for the future.
5. Plan Ahead to Navigate Campus
Some small colleges have campuses that are relatively compact, while large universities can sprawl over hundreds of acres. In either case, you will need to plan ahead so that you can navigate campus and arrive at your classes, dorm, and activities safely and quickly. Once you have scheduled your first semester of classes, consider asking a family member, friend, roommate, or school staff member to give you a tour of the campus that goes directly to the locations that you will need to visit most frequently. This includes not only academic buildings but also dining halls, athletic facilities, and the campus library.
6. Develop and Nurture New Friendships
For many people, friendships developed during college are some of the most lasting relationships of their lives. While it can be intimidating to be surrounded by so many new people, remember that you are all embarking on an adventure together. Asking new friends if you can join them to attend campus events is an excellent way to learn more about campus life.
Also keep in mind that, as a visually impaired student, friends may be more than happy to help you navigate campus or give you rides when necessary. In exchange, you can show them your genuine appreciation in whatever way you can, perhaps with a small gift or by offering some money to help pay for gas.