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The Needs of Visually Impaired (VI) Learners in Education: Key Issues and Principles
If the answer to one or all of the above is yes, then this article is definitely for you!
For so many teachers the word “blind” may mean that the student sees nothing at all and as a result they may not make the effort to make the teaching environment visually interesting for these learners. But what if you knew that in the United Kingdom (UK) for example, only around 5% of the VI population have no sight at all and the rest have some sight remaining which varies from one individual to another. Variations also exist in the causes of visual impairment, its severity and the way it effects what the individual can see. Therefore, VI people might be able to see things in different ways to one another even if they share the same eye condition.
There is no doubt that visual impairment enhances the difficulties that arise when VI people try to understand the world around them. As the teaching and learning environment relies heavily on visual cues, things might become more complicated if educationalists do not look for possible ways to meet the educational needs of their VI learners. But what are the issues teachers may have to consider?
Having been with no sight through a big part of my educational journey, I would like to share with you a few of those things that have helped me, and others that I think should be avoided when dealing with a VI learner, with the hope that this may give you some food for thought when thinking about your own teaching environment.
How do VI learners access information?
We as VI people can access information using a range of different mediums and tools. This depends to a certain extent on the level of sight that we have remaining, when our condition was acquired and whether we have additional needs to our visual impairment. For example, in the UK, there are around two million people who are not able to read standard print with ease; however, approximately 4% of the VI population are fluent Braille readers. Some VI learners may be able to access enlarged print; others may be able to read standard print. Some VI learners like to receive audio material while others may prefer receiving the information in electronic format. Some Braille readers like to access Braille with no contractions while others prefer contracted Braille which may help them to speed up while reading and may make Braille books less bulky and so much easier to be carried around.
Likewise when it comes to the assistive tools that we use to access information, some VI people prefer using magnification, some like using screen readers, while others are satisfied by making changes to computer settings to magnify the display screen. Some VI learners will use computers with speech or magnification software, touch screens with voice over, and low-vision or Braille devices.
What is an accessible environment?
A building’s physical environment affects the comfort, concentration and well-being of all learners. For us as people with a visual impairment, it can also affect what and how we can learn, our level of independence, as well as the level of access available to us. A well-planned environment is beneficial not only for learners with all types of visual impairments but also for fully sighted learners. For a building to be inclusive for all its learners it should consider a number of issues.
Firstly, lighting, which needs to be well distributed and natural when possible; secondly, having good colour and contrast which supports independence by helping us easily distinguish between foreground and background which in turn may facilitate identifying places, items and people. Thirdly, our safety in the educational environment by ensuring that the furniture and fixtures are always in their original place after use and that the VI learners are made aware of any changes in the layout of the environment; and finally, good acoustics, as well as suitable surfaces and objects, to help us to compensate for our lack of sight. It is crucial therefore that sounds are clear, background noises are kept to a minimum, and activities are made tangible where suitable and whenever possible.
What skills are most helpful for VI learners to master?
Mastering mobility and orientation skills supports the independence of VI learners in education and in society at large. Mobility aids may vary. It may include using a long cane, a symbol cane or a guide cane, while other people would benefit from an adult assistant to get around, still many others may be able to walk independently. Acquiring IT skills may help many VI learners to take notes and to access information independently. Having good communication skills helps VI learners to build friendships and form social networks that all support their inclusion.
What do teachers need to know and do to facilitate the inclusion of all their learners including those with a visual impairment?
For teachers to provide a meaningful education for VI learners, they should make the teaching and learning environment active and engaging. This can happen when the teaching content reflects the needs of VI learners, if participation, communication and involvement are built-in, and if VI learners are given help in forming friendships. Additional issues to consider include the planning and presenting of teaching, resource availability and pace of delivery, and assessment of progress. As for the curriculum, the needs of each learner must be considered in every aspect, in both the short and long-term.
How could all of the above be identified?
An assessor should study the educational needs of each VI learner separately. This is to identify what this learner would need to have in place to help them have equal access to the educational environment as their peers; what teachers would need to do to include the learner in their educational sessions and what the educational institution needs to provide to allow equal access to everyone including the VI learner. Recommendations should be shared with the educational institutions, teachers and learners, so that all can understand what changes would be most helpful if put in place.
Hints and tips
- Do not think that VI learners have the same needs just because they share a sight problem.
- Do not think that all VI people cannot see anything at all. Instead try to understand how they may be able to see things and encourage them to make the most of their remaining sight.
- Do not think that all VI learners access information through the medium of Braille. The majority of them do not.
- Do not enlarge documents for your VI learners without asking them about the font size that they prefer. Ultimately, enlarge the font size and not the size of the sheets.
- Don’t take the “easy” route of simply removing parts of the curriculum you may assume that it would be too difficult for your VI learners to access; instead, find alternative ways to make it accessible.
Maha Khochen is a qualified teacher for the visually impaired; she researches, trains and lectures on issues related to inclusion, disability and visual impairment.