What are visual impairments/blindness?
Blindness and visual impairments directly affect over 12 million people in the United States, and many college students with disabilities have one of these types of disabilities. Visual impairments may be present from birth or the result of an illness or accident; however, not all visually impaired people are considered blind. There are varying degrees of blindness, and very few legally blind individuals lack all sight completely.
It is important to consider that even though an individual may use a white cane, he or she may still have some vision. Some people may have sensitivity to light or the ability to make out large shapes and objects, but be unable to read a book or see writing on a blackboard. A lack of peripheral vision and extreme near- or far-sightedness are also considered visual impairments and may require accommodation in an educational setting.
What should I take into consideration when teaching a blind or visually impaired student?
Each student is different, and there are a variety of accommodations that may need to be arranged; one individual may use a cane or a guide dog, while another may need enlarged-print copies of course materials and have to sit at the front of the classroom in order to see the professor. For this reason, blind and visually impaired students are encouraged to submit documentation to Student Disability Services as early as possible and to remain in close contact with the office so that their individual needs can be assessed. Once this has occurred, the appropriate reasonable accommodations will be made.
What types of accommodations are available to blind and visually impaired students?
Not all blind people read Braille, and some conditions (such as diabetes, which can cause both vision loss and numbing of the extremities) even preclude this. Braille materials are also expensive to procure and limited in their availability. The New School does have a Braille embosser available for any individual who wishes to make use of it. For more complex jobs and to ensure accuracy, we can outsource the creation of Braille materials to professional organizations. If a student uses Braille regularly, it is likely he or she will own a refreshable Braille display which will allow them to read electronic documents and also take notes or write papers.
Increasingly, blind and visually impaired people are making use of adaptive technology. They may make use of devices such as talking calculators, computer programs with speech output such as JAWS or Kurzweil, and adapted electronic writing tablets with speech output that make taking notes easier. Some students may also use a scribe in class, usually a fellow student who takes particularly detailed notes or types his or her notes on a laptop. In some cases, a reader may retype or scan handwritten notes so the student can use screen-reading software and listen to the notes through a computer.
What kind of technology is commonly used by students who are blind or visually impaired?
As mentioned above, blind and visually impaired students use a variety of software to assist them in the completion of their assignments. JAWS is a very common software for blind students: it reads the content of the computer screen aloud by using optical character recognition (OCR) and synthesized speech output. JAWS is increasingly compatible with more programs and websites, especially as more Web designers take a more accessible approach to building their Web-based content. JAWS can also be configured to work with a refreshable Braille display, which is essentially a Braille keyboard that can display the information on screen for the student to read in Braille format.
Kurzweil 1000 is also widely used by blind and visually impaired students for its invaluable scanning capabilities. A student can get access to printed materials by scanning them via Kurzweil 1000, which uses OCR to determine the content and then display it on the screen. Kurzweil 1000 also has speech output like JAWS, and thus can read on-screen content to the user.
Zoomtext is another useful program for individuals who have low or limited vision. As the name of the product suggests, Zoomtext increases the size of on-screen content up to 24 times. Combined with the use of a large monitor, Zoomtext can be an invaluable tool for students with visual impairments.
What technology is available at The New School for students who are blind or visually impaired?
There are workstations in the some of the university computer labs reserved for use for students with disabilities. They are equipped with the latest version of JAWS and Kurzweil 1000. There is also a flatbed scanner available for use if students need to scan materials for JAWS or Kurzweil 1000 to read aloud. Other software is installed as needed. Student Disability Services also has workstations with this software in our Testing Room (80 Fifth Avenue, third floor, room 324), which doubles as a lab when no exams are being administered.
The programs and equipment for students with disabilities can also be installed on designated computers at the university as needed.
All PCs and Macs come equipped with basic accessibility features in the operating systems that usually consist of a basic magnifying program and sometimes a screen-reading program. This built-in accessibility ensures a certain baseline level of access even if more specialized software is not available for use.
Do I need to do anything special for the student if I use a lot of handouts or put a lot of material online?
If you use handouts in your class, it would be extremely helpful to contact SDS about getting the materials in advance so that they can then be translated into Braille or audio format. Keep in mind that if a blind student comes to class and the instructor has decided spontaneously to give a handout, that student will not have access to this information during class.
When dealing with posting material on websites, it would be best to have multiple versions of the files that are being used to ensure the highest level of accessibility. Blind students will most likely be using screen-reading software that can access the website, but the program might not be able to read the material posted, depending on the file type. If the student couldn't access the file, emailing an electronic (Word or accessible PDF) file to the student could help.
What is a "reader"?
Some blind and visually impaired students will have another student assisting them with important tasks such as picking up books from the library, scanning course materials, and editing written work for errors in punctuation and formatting. These assistants are called "readers" because before the advent of speech-output computer technology, the reader would actually be making recordings of themselves reading books aloud. Nowadays, most readers spend a lot of time organizing books and articles and scanning them into a computer equipped with speech-output software. A blind student enrolled full-time will often need more than one reader because of the volume of work involved with this process.
The readers are students with a federal work-study award who are hired by Student Disability Services, which oversees their progress and facilitates communication between the readers, students, and instructors.
What is the role of SDS in providing accommodations?
SDS works with students who are blind or have vision-based disabilities on a case-by-case basis to ensure they receive all reasonable accommodations necessary. As mentioned above, each student will have his or her own abilities, strategies, and skills, and because of this, he or she is encouraged to remain in close contact with our office. In cases where the student desires to work with readers, SDS arranges this and monitors their progress. If a student requires particular adaptive technology programs or hardware, SDS can evaluate the request and procure the needed items.
What are some helpful strategies for working with blind and visually impaired students?
Most blind and visually impaired students have their own strategies for learning, but professors can help in many ways. If a student is working with a reader to get course materials scanned into a speech-output or text-enlargement equipped computer, it is extremely helpful if the professor provides a reading list and course packet several weeks before the semester begins. Similarly, if there are going to be any classroom hand-outs or last minute additions to the coursework, a student who relies on readers will need some time to prepare. For situations such as tests, field trips, and study abroad, the student and professor may need to make special arrangements, and these should be discussed with the SDS office on a case-by-case basis.
Courses with a strong visual component, such as film studies or art history, are not immediately out of the question for a student with a visual impairment, as there are many ways to appreciate the visual arts and to learn about their history. In fact, a blind or visually impaired student may open up our perspective on subjects such as art appreciation, film making, etc. SDS can also reach out to other universities for additional techniques on working with this student population and visually oriented classes.
Additionally, instructors who have blind or visually impaired students in their classes are encouraged to consult with SDS regarding implementation of accommodations whenever there is uncertainly about an accommodation, or other more general questions. Students can also be very helpful in determining how best to make something accessible because frequently they have a high level of knowledge about their condition. Accommodations typically work best when SDS, students, and faculty work in concert to ensure access to all academic materials.
Student Disability Services is available to answer any questions you may have about blindness and visual impairments, how to work with blind and visually impaired students, and any other issues that may arise.