Helping Students With Visual Impairments
Students with low vision and blindness face many accessibility challenges when obtaining a higher education. Colleges offer accommodations, resources, assistive technology, and specific scholarships to support these students academically.
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Students with visual disabilities face a number of additional challenges in college. Their impairments may impede processes like note taking, accessing course materials, and ultimately, completing assignments.
Many colleges have started to offer resources to help visually impaired students overcome everyday academic barriers. Services for students may include inclusive programs, learning tools, assistive technology, and scholarships.
In this guide:
- Tools to assist students with visual disabilities
- How schools assist students with visual impairments
- Scholarships for students with visual impairments
- Other resources for students with visual impairment
Tools to assist students with visual disabilities
A visual disability is measured by a person’s visual acuity—their ability to see details and shapes at their smallest point from a specified distance. An example of this measure is the standard eye test chart you’ve likely seen in doctor’s offices. According to the National Eye Institute, someone with visual impairment cannot see better than 20/40 with corrective lenses. People with visual impairments fall into one of three categories: low vision/visually impaired, legally blind, or totally blind.
|Low vision/visually impaired||Persons with a best-corrected visual acuity of 20/40 to 20/160 are considered to have low vision.|
|Legally blind||Persons with a best-corrected visual acuity of 20/200 or worse, or a visual field of 20 degrees or less, are considered legally blind.|
|Totally blind||Persons who have no light perception are considered totally blind.|
These classifications help educators determine the level of services and tools needed to accommodate students.
- Accessible calculator: Sometimes called a talking calculator, these have enlarged displays and speech output. Devices range in size, functionality (standard, graphing, scientific), and price ($25 to $600) depending upon the model.
- Pocket magnifier: Pocket magnifiers are portable, handheld magnifying lenses used to enlarge small print. Some come with multiple lenses, LEDs, and cases.
- Screen magnification: This software allows students with low vision to magnify text or graphics on screen using a mouse or keyboard commands. There are free and paid versions available.
- Adaptive keyboard: These modified keyboards serve all students on the visual disability spectrum. They can have large or colored keys, locator dots on important keys, or customized overlays that attach to standard keyboards.
- Portable note-taker: Also called a braille notetaker, these small and portable devices allow visually impaired students to take notes using a braille or QWERTY keyboard. Functionality and price (generally $1,000 to $10,000) depend upon the device, but many can be used to record lectures, write assignments, read books, and even listen to podcasts. Some can connect to smartphones and tablets via Bluetooth or WiFi.
- Mac computer: Apple has included assistive technology on every machine to support people who are blind or have low vision. Features include Hover Text, Voice Over, Audio Descriptions, DarkMode, Dictation and Zoom Display. Prices range from $1,000 to $5,000.
- CCTV/Video magnifier: A closed-circuit television magnifies an image (text or graphics) and projects it onto a monitor using a handheld or mounted camera. Prices range from $200 to $3,000.
- Braille translation software: Braille translation software, used in tandem with a braille printer, converts electronic text into tactile braille. There are free open-source versions and paid versions ranging from $200 to $800.
- Optical character recognition (OCR) system: An OCR system scans printed text and then converts it into digital text that can be read aloud, edited, or searched. Users need a flatbed scanner, a computer with a compatible sound card, and an OCR software program. Specialized OCR software can cost around $1,000.
- Braille printer/embosser: A braille printer attaches to a computer and prints/embosses documents in braille. It usually requires heavyweight paper and braille translation software. Small-volume braille printers cost $1,800 to $5,000.
- Screen readers: This device reads text on a computer screen by using a speech synthesizer or braille display. The cost ranges from free to $1,200.
- Refreshable braille display: These electro-mechanical devices convert text from a computer screen onto a braille display in real-time. The braille cells refresh whenever the computer page changes. Some devices can display up to 80 braille cells. It’s similar to a braille notetaker, but with less functionality. Prices range from $3,500 to 15,000.
How schools assist students with visual impairments
In 2016, more than 7.6 million Americans reported having a visual disability. Of those reported, less than half pursued any form of higher education.
The Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act require post-secondary institutions—public and private colleges, vocational schools, and community colleges—to provide equal access to programs and courses for students with disabilities.
Over the years, many colleges and universities have improved policies, increased accessibility, and implemented learning technology to assist students with visual impairments. Here are some examples of accommodations higher-education institutions may offer to students with visual disabilities:
- Staff training: Colleges may offer disability training for staff and instructors so that they’re better able to assist students with visual impairments and provide a productive learning environment. Some may craft a curriculum unique to a visually impaired student’s needs.
- Reserved seating: Arrangements can be made for reserved front-of-the-class seating, as well as a designated space for visually impaired students who use a cane or guide dog.
- Recorded lectures: Instructors may allow visually impaired students to record lectures. This helps students review course material and transcribe lectures into braille if needed.
- Test adaptation and alternative formats: Visually impaired students may have difficulty taking tests, giving presentations, and completing coursework in the same format as sighted students, so alternative formats or adaptations must be provided. Options can include oral exams, large-font presentations and tests, audio formats, braille editions of books, or the use of teacher’s assistants who can administer tests and provide in-class support.
- Assistive technology: Sometimes provided in an on-campus resource center, assistive technology consists of tools (mentioned in the section above) that enable visually impaired students to access course material and complete assignments. The category includes adaptive and optical devices, computer adaptations, braille readers and printers, talking calculators, specialized software, and CCTV.
- Notetakers and readers: College disability offices can assign student volunteers to take notes for or read to visually impaired students. The notes can be converted into large print or braille. Readers can read directly to blind students or be recorded for later use.
- Extra time to complete assignments and exams: Instructors should allow additional time for visually impaired students to complete assignments and exams, as the processes of accessing information, reading, and studying, may take longer for these students.
- Resource centers: Many colleges have disability resource centers that provide services for visually impaired students. Some offer onsite counselors, training, and volunteer assistants.
Scholarships for students with visual impairments
Visually impaired students may face academic and financial challenges when obtaining a higher education. Scholarships for students with visual impairments can offset expenses and allow students to focus on their studies. Here are some recurring scholarships that are specifically for students with visual impairments:
Alfred and Gloria Camp Memorial Scholarship
- Amount: up to $1,000
- Scholarships available: Multiple
- Sponsor: Georgia Council of the Blind
- Eligibility requirements: Applicants must be legally blind, or a sighted student financially dependent on a legally blind parent(s); be a legal resident of Georgia; submit supporting paperwork, including letters of recommendation, proof of blindness, and transcripts; and be accepted into a vocational or training school, college, or a graduate program at an accredited university.
- Website: https://www.georgiacounciloftheblind.org/scholarship.aspx
American Council for the Blind scholarship
- Amount: $2,000 to $7,500
- Scholarships available: Multiple
- Sponsor: American Council for the Blind and American Foundation for the Blind
- Eligibility requirements: Applicants must be legally blind; maintain a 3.0 GPA; be a full-time undergraduate or graduate student, or work 32 hours or more a week and attend college part-time, and be involved in the school or local community.
- Website: https://acb.org/scholarships
Anne Lowe Scholarship
- Amount: Varies
- Scholarships available: Varies
- Sponsor: The Christian Record Services for the Blind
- Eligibility requirements: Applicants must have proof of U.S. citizenship; have a minimum 3.0 GPA; provide a doctor’s note verifying blindness; submit supporting paperwork, including letters of recommendation, an essay, and financial budget; and currently be registered as a full-time undergraduate student at an accredited U.S. college or university.
- Website: https://christianrecord.org/member-services/scholarship/anne-lowe-scholarship.html
Brother Kearney Scholarship Program
- Amount: up to $15,000
- Scholarships available: Varies
- Sponsor: Lavelle Fund for the Blind
- Eligibility requirements: Applicants must be legally blind or have a severe visual impairment; be a legal resident of the U.S.; have a financial need; attend one of 12 participating colleges and universities in the Tri-State New York area.
- Website: https://lavellefund.org/scholarship-program/
Chicago Lighthouse Scholarship Program
- Amount: Varies
- Scholarships available: Multiple
- Sponsor: The Chicago Lighthouse
- Eligibility requirements: Applicants must have a visual disability; be an Illinois resident attending any post-secondary school, or from another state attending a school in Illinois; have a minimum 2.5 GPA; and submit a personal essay, financial statement of need, eye report, official transcript, and two letters of recommendation.
- Website: https://chicagolighthouse.org/program/lighthouse-scholarship/
College Bound Scholarship
- Amount: Varies
- Scholarships available: Up to 17 for high school seniors; and one for a graduate student.
- Sponsor: Lighthouse Guild
- Eligibility requirements: Applicants must be legally blind; a U.S citizen or legal resident; provide three letters of recommendation, write a personal essay; and attend an accredited college or university. Awards are merit-based.
- Website: https://www.lighthouseguild.org/patients-families/scholarships/
Fred Scheigert Scholarship
- Amount: $3,000
- Scholarships available: 3
- Sponsor: Council of Citizens with Low Vision International
- Eligibility requirements: Applicants must verify a low vision of at least 20/70; have a minimum 3.2 GPA; and be registered full-time—for either 12 undergraduate or 9 graduate credits—at a college, trade school, or vocational school.
- Website: https://www.cclvi.org/scheigert-scholarship
Kathern F. Gruber and Thomas H. Miller Scholarship Programs
- Amount: $1,000 to $2,000
- Scholarships available: Six $2,000 scholarships; one $1,000 scholarship
- Sponsor: The Blinded Veterans Association
- Eligibility requirements: Applicants must be dependent children, grandchildren, or spouses of blinded veterans or active duty service members of the U.S. Armed Forces, and should already be enrolled, or have been accepted, as full-time students at accredited colleges or business, secretarial, or vocational training schools.
- Website: https://www.bva.org/blinded-veterans-scholarships-awards/
Mary P. Oenslager Scholastic Achievement Award
- Amount: $3,000 to $6,000
- Scholarships available: $6,000 for the top three winners and $3,000 for special honors
- Sponsor: Learning Ally
- Eligibility requirements: Applicants must be blind or visually impaired; be a current member of Learning Ally; be pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree; submit supporting documents including a letter of recommendation, a transcript, and a personal narrative.
- Website: https://learningally.org/NAA/Application
National Federation of the Blind Scholarship Programs
- Amount: $3,000 to $12,000
- Scholarships available: 30 merit-based scholarships
- Sponsor: National Federation of the Blind
- Eligibility requirements: Applicants must be legally blind in both eyes; reside in the U.S., including the District of Columbia or Puerto Rico; enrolled or planning to enroll full-time at a post-secondary U.S. institution, or work full-time and attend school part-time; participate in the NFB National Convention and scholarship activities.
- Website: https://www.nfb.org/programs-services/scholarships-and-awards/scholarship-program
Other resources for students with visual impairment
The list below includes links to nonprofit organizations and resources dedicated to helping students with visual impairments. Each offers information, services, and support that can aid college students in academic success.
- American Council for the Blind
- American Foundation for the Blind
- American Printing House for the Blind
- Associated Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired
- Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired
- Association for Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD)
- Blinded Veterans Association
- Center for Parent Information and Resources
- Chicago Lighthouse
- Council of Schools for the Blind
- HEATH Resource Center at the National Youth Transitions Center
- Helen Keller Services for the Blind
- Learning Ally
- Lighthouse Guild
- National Association of Blind Students
- National Braille Association
- National Eye Institute
- National Federation of the Blind
- National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
- National Science Teachers Association
- Perkins Scout
- The Carroll Center for the Blind
- The Hadley School for the Blind
- United States Association of Blind Athletes
Author: Stephanie Sasseen