A visual impairment is any visual condition that impacts an individual’s ability to successfully complete the activities of everyday life. Students with visual impairments are infants, toddlers, children and youths who experience impairments of the visual system that impact their ability to learn.
There are three classification systems for individuals with visual impairment that are used by education professionals. To be declared legally blind, an individual must have visual acuity of 20/200 or less, or have a field of vision restricted to 20 degrees or less at the widest point. However, this federal classification system is used primarily to determine eligibility for adult agency services.
For educational purposes, a specially trained teacher must determine that the visual impairment impacts the child’s ability to learn, and this professional determination, with the agreement of the IEP team ensures access to special education services. To implement appropriate classroom accommodations for students with visual impairment, these students are also classified according to their level of functional vision:
- Low vision – students use their vision as their primary sensory channel
- Functionally blind – students can use limited vision for functional tasks but need their tactile and auditory channels for learning
- Totally blind – students use tactile and auditory channels for learning and functional tasks
A third classification system exists is based on the advent of the visual impairment itself:
- Congenital – occurs during fetal development, at birth or immediately following birth; visual impairment is present before visual memory has been established
- Adventitious – occurs after having normal vision either through a hereditary condition or trauma; visual memory may remain.
Students with congenital visual impairment typically have more difficulty mastering visually strengthened concepts such as spatial orientation and many environmental concepts.
It is difficult to obtain an exact prevalence of visual impairment due to the often hidden nature of visual impairment in special education. Many students with visual impairments also have additional coexisting impairments and are thus classified in an alternate disability category. The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities reports that the rate of occurrence for visual impairments in individuals under the age of 18 is at the rate of 12.2 per 1,000. Legal or total blindness occurs at a rate of .06 per 1,000. Current special education demographics obtained from the American Foundation for the Blind 2009 report that there are:
- 93,600 students who are visually impaired or blind;
- 55,200 students who are legally blind;
- 5,500 braille readers
Visual impairment is essentially an umbrella term used to describe the loss of sight that can be a consequence of a number of different medical conditions. Some common causes of visual impairment are glaucoma, retinopathy of prematurity, cataracts, retinal detachment, macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, cortical visual impairment, infection and trauma. These are just a handful of dozens of conditions impacting sight, and each condition has its own unique characteristics and clinical features. In addition, the impact of the visual impairment on individual learning is also tied to the onset, the severity, and the type of visual loss, as well as to any coexisting disabilities that may be present in the child. For this reason, all classroom accommodations, modifications, and strategies must be designed with the individual needs of each student with a visual impairment in mind. There is no one-size-fits-all model.
In addition to decreased visual acuity and visual field, a number of other vision problems may also impact the visual functioning of the student with visual impairment. There may be issues with sensitivity to light or glare, blind spots in their visual fields, or problems with contrast or certain colors. Factors such as lighting, the environment, fatigue, and emotional status can also impact visual functioning in many of these students throughout the day. Students who have the same visual condition may use their sight quite differently. To ensure accessibility to classroom instruction, it is essential that you know how your student is using his/her vision. A specially trained teacher of students who have visual impairments, working with the IEP team members, can help determine the best adaptations and learning media to use with each student.
Impact on Learning
One characteristic that is shared by all students with visual impairment is that these students have a limited ability to learn incidentally from their environment. It is through sight that much of what we learn is received and processed. It is believed that up to 80% of what children without visual impairments learn is through visual cues. The other senses do not fully compensate for the loss of sight. Touch and hearing can be ineffective substitutes for many individuals.
Children with visual impairments must be taught compensatory skills and adaptive techniques in order to be able to acquire knowledge from methods other than sight. The presence of a visual impairment can potentially impact the normal sequence of learning in social, motor, language and cognitive developmental areas.
Reduced vision often results in a low motivation to explore the environment, initiate social interaction, and manipulate objects. The limited ability to explore the environment may affect early motor development. These students cannot share common visual experiences with their sighted peers, and therefore vision loss may negatively impact the development of appropriate social skills. As a result, these students may experience low self-esteem that limits their sense of mastery over their own lives.
It is not enough to just provide instruction in the general core curriculum. Students with visual impairments also need specialized instruction in a number of other essential skill areas. These areas, called the expanded core curriculum, include communication skills, social interaction skills, orientation and mobility, independent living skills, recreation and leisure skills, use of assistive technology, visual efficiency, and career education skills, and self-determination. Mastery of these skills is essential for students’ long-range educational and life outcomes.
Students with visual impairments can learn at roughly the same rate as other children but require direct interventions to develop understanding of the relationships between people and objects in their environment.
Classroom accommodations will be quite varied and should be individualized according to the specific needs of the student. However, there are some basic best practices that can guide the development of the most effective adaptations.
One thing to always consider is that it is often difficult for these students to become as fully independent as they are capable of being. The classroom teacher should encourage independence as often as possible to avoid the trap of “learned helplessness.” Encourage the student to move independently through the classroom, and organize your classroom accordingly. Materials, desks, and other objects in the classroom should be maintained in consistent locations. Ensuring that cabinets are fully closed, chairs pushed in, and doors are not left half ajar will help with safety in navigating the classroom. Part of becoming independent for students with a visual impairment is learning when to advocate for assistance. Not all instructional tasks will be immediately possible for a student with a visual impairment, even with accommodations. The key is to design your instruction so that the student has the most opportunity to act independently. The student’s orientation and mobility specialist and teacher of students with visual impairments can assist with room arrangements and room familiarization.
Adapting your classroom to accommodate a student with a visual impairment is a relatively easy task—it just requires an awareness of the student’s level of visual functioning (how the student sees) and how the student works and learns. For example, for the student with low vision, make sure that he is near the front of the room where he can see the blackboard. Control lighting variables when presenting learning materials to those students who are sensitive to light and glare. Use verbal cues with those students who cannot see body movements or physical cues. A trained teacher of students visual impairments can help you make a few simple changes to classroom design that may mean all the difference in the education of the student with a visual impairment.
One key accommodation that is absolutely essential is access to textbooks and instructional materials in the appropriate media and at the same time as their sighted peers. For students who are blind this may mean braille and/or recorded media. For the student with low vision, this may mean large print text or the use of optical devices to access text and/or recorded media while in class. Working closely with a student’s teacher of students with visual impairments in advance helps ensure accessible materials and availability of these materials in a timely manner.
In order to access print information, students with visual impairments must be trained in the use of a number of adaptive devices, methods, and equipment that are collectively referred to as assistive technology. Some of this technology allows access to information presented on a computer while others are devices to be used independently. Computer hardware and software are continuously advancing, allowing for more access to information than ever before. Some examples:
- Braille translation software and equipment: converts print into braille and braille into print.
- Braille printer: connects to a computer and embosses braille on paper.
- Screen reader: converts text on a computer screen to audible speech.
- Screen enlargement software: increases the size of text and images on a computer screen.
- Refreshable Bbraille display: converts text on computer to braille by an output device connected to the computer.
- Braille notetakers: lightweight electronic note-taking device that can be connected to a printer or a braille embosser to produce a printed or brailled copy.
- Optical character reader: converts printed text into files on a computer that can be translated into audible speech or Braille with appropriate equipment and software.
- Electronic braillewriter: produces braille, translates braille into text or synthetic speech.
- Talking calculators: calculates with voice output.
- Closed Circuit Television (CCTV): enlarges an image to a larger size and projects it on a screen
- Magnifiers: enlarges images
- Telescopes: used to view distant objects
A specially trained teacher of students with visual impairments can help supply many of these devices and can provide training for the student to become independent and proficient in using assistive technology.
There are a number of organizations that can help support classroom instruction for students with visual impairments. The information presented in this module is intended as a brief description of visual impairment and its impact on learning. Much more in-depth information and instructional strategies can be accessed through the following organizations:
American Council of the Blind
ACB strives to improve the well-being of all blind and visually impaired people by: serving as a representative national organization of blind people; elevating the social, economic and cultural levels of blind people; improving educational and rehabilitation facilities and opportunities; cooperating with the public and private institutions and organizations concerned with blind services; encouraging and assisting all blind persons to develop their abilities and conducting a public education program to promote greater understanding of blindness and the capabilities of blind people.1155 15th St. N.W., Suite 1004
Washington, D.C. 20005
American Foundation for the Blind
AFB's priorities include broadening access to technology; elevating the quality of information and tools for the professionals who serve people with vision loss; and promoting independent and healthy living for people with vision loss by providing them and their families with relevant and timely resources. AFB's work in these areas is supported by the strong presence the organization maintains in Washington, DC, ensuring the rights and interests of people with vision loss are represented in our nation's public policies.11 Penn Plaza, Suite 300
New York, NY 10001
American Printing House for the Blind
The American Printing House for the Blind promotes independence of blind and visually impaired persons by providing specialized materials, products, and services needed for education and life. The American Printing House for the Blind manufactures textbooks and other educational publications for students who are visually impaired. APH also provides publications useful to adults, such as cookbooks and dictionaries. In addition, APH creates recorded books on a contract basis.1839 Frankfort Avenue
Louisville, KY 40206
Blind Children's Center
The Blind Children's Center is a family-centered agency which serves children with visual impairments from birth to school-age. The center-based and home-based programs and services help the children acquire skills and build their independence. The Center utilizes its expertise and experience to serve families and professionals worldwide through support services, education, publications, and research.4120 Marathon Street
Los Angeles, CA 90029-0159
Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired
The Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER) is an international membership organization dedicated to rendering all possible support and assistance to the professionals who work in all phases of education and rehabilitation of blind and visually impaired children and adults.4600 Duke Street, Suite 430
Alexandria, VA 22304
Center for Disability and DevelopmentDept. of Educational Psychology
4225 Texas A&M University
College Station, TX 77843-4225
Council for Exceptional Children-Division on Visual Impairment
CEC-DVI has interests that encompass curriculum development, parent counseling, development and selection of appropriate materials, research needs, teacher preparation, career education and vocational preparation of infants, children and youths with visual impairments.CEC-Division on Visual Impairments
1110 North Glebe Road, Suite 300
Arlington, VA 22201-5704
National Association for Parents of Children with Visual Impairments (NAPVI)
NAPVI is a national organization that enables parents to find information and resources for their children who are blind or visually impaired, including those with additional disabilities. NAPVI provides leadership, support, and training to assist parents in helping children reach their potential. NAPVI is dedicated to giving emotional support, initiating outreach programs, networking, and advocating for the educational needs and welfare of children who are blind or visually impaired. Family Connect website provides a wealth of information for families of children with visual impairments at familyconnect.orgP.O. Box 317
Watertown, MA 02472-0317
National Braille Association, Inc. (NBA)
The mission of the National Braille Association, Inc. is to provide continuing education to those who prepare braille and to provide braille materials to persons who are visually impaired.3 Townline Circl
Rochester, NY 14623-2513
National Braille Press
The guiding purposes of National Braille Press are to promote the literacy of blind children through braille and to provide access to information that empowers blind people to actively engage in work, family, and community affairs.88 St. Stephen Street
Boston, MA 02115
National Eye Institute
As one of the Federal government's National Institutes of Health (NIH), the NEI conducts and supports research that helps prevent and treat eye diseases and other disorders of vision. This research leads to sight-saving treatments, reduces visual impairment and blindness, and improves the quality of life for people of all ages. NEI-supported research has advanced our knowledge of how the visual system functions in health and disease.31 Center Drive, MSC 2510
Bethesda, MD 20892-2510
National Federation of the Blind (NFB)
The mission of the National Federation of the Blind is to achieve widespread emotional acceptance and intellectual understanding that the real problem of blindness is not the loss of eyesight but the misconceptions and lack of information which exist. They do this by bringing blind people together to share successes, to support each other in times of failure, and to create imaginative solutions.1800 Johnson Street
Baltimore, MD 21230
National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress, administers the free program that loans recorded and braille books and magazines, music scores in braille and large print, and specially designed playback equipment to residents of the United States who are unable to read or use standard print materials because of visual or physical impairment.Library of Congress
1291 Taylor Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20011
Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired
The Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSVBI) is a center for educational services and resources for individuals with blindness or visual impairments. In addition this center has resources that can assist persons who teach or care for this population.Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired
1100 W. 45th St.
Austin, TX 78756
The Virginia Murray Sowell Center for Research and Education in Sensory Impairment
The Virginia Murray Sowell Center is housed at Texas Tech University College of Education. It prepares specialists in visual impairment, orientation and mobility, and deafblindness. It promotes quality research to address the academic and social needs of school-age students with visual and other sensory impairments and provides public service to assist local, national, and international constituencies. The Center offers degree and certification programs in visual impairment (VI), orientation and mobility (O&M), and deafblindness (DB). Scholarships are offered for students in both degree and certification programs. The students in the program are often found throughout Texas and the bordering counties, as most of the programs are available through distance education.Texas Tech University, College of Education
P.O. Box 41071
Lubbock, TX 79409-1071
Phone: (806) 742-1997 ext. 233
Fax: (806) 742-2326
American Foundation for the Blind (n.d.). Statistics and Sources for Professionals. Retrieved December 1, 2007 from http://www.afb.org/Section.asp?SectionID=15&DocumentID=1367.
Huebner, K. M., Merk-Adams, B., Stryker, D., & Wolffe, K. (2004). The national agenda for the education of children and youths with visual impairments, including those with multiple disabilities. New York: AFB Press.
National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (2004). Fact Sheet 13. Retrieved December 1, 2007 from www.nichcy.org/pubs/factshe/fs13txt.htm.
Spungin, S. (2002). When you have a visually impaired student in your classroom: A guide for teachers. New York: AFB Press.
Turnbull, A., Turnbull, R. & Wehmeyer, M. L. (2007). Exceptional lives. Special education in today's schools. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.