College Guide for Students with Visual Impairments

According to the latest statistics from the National Federation for the Blind, roughly 1.3 million Americans are legally blind or visually impaired. Although 40.2% of blind or visually impaired individuals are in the workforce, less than 15% earn a bachelor’s degree at an accredited higher learning institution. In contrast, more than a quarter do not finish high school. Data also suggests that as many as 30% of people who are blind or visually impaired currently live below the poverty line.

Although 40.2% of blind or visually impaired individuals are in the workforce, less than 15% earn a bachelor’s degree at an accredited higher learning institution… more than a quarter do not finish high school.

Individuals who are blind or visually impaired face unique challenges in the classroom. Instructors can ease these struggles by offering different accommodations for students with visual disabilities and structuring courses around these learners. Our guide for students with visual impairments explores the different accommodations and teaching strategies that allow these learners to receive a proper education and enter the job market as qualified professionals.

First, let’s discuss some fundamental terminology. Most individuals with a visual disability fall under one of three categories:

Visually Impaired

The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) defines vision impairment as “a visual acuity of 20/70 or worse in the better eye with best correction, or a total field loss of 140 degrees.” Visual impairment may also be affected by limited ability to adapt to light or darkness, as well as sensitivity to light, light/dark contrasts or glare. Vision that falls between 20/200 and 20/400 is defined as severely impaired, while vision from 20/500 to 20/1000 is categorized as profoundly impaired.

The Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children notes that visual impairment most commonly affects visual acuity, or the sharpness or clarity of vision, as well as visual range and color perception. Possible causes of impairment include genetic conditions, in utero infections, birth complications, disease, trauma and old age. Visual impairment is also known as ‘low vision’.

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Legally Blind

Technically, legal blindness refers to any level of vision loss that qualifies an individual for specialized education, job training, accommodating devices, disability benefits and tax exemption. Individuals who are legally blind can typically use their vision to some extent.

According to the AFB, “the clinical diagnosis refers to a central visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better eye with the best possible correction, and/or a visual field of 20 degrees or less.” Visual acuity is one’s ability to distinguish objects from a certain distance, and is measured using a Snellen Eye Chart; the smallest letter visible from 20 feet away to someone with 20/200 vision is discernible from 200 feet away to an individual with average vision. Visual field is the total area (in degrees) visible to an individual when facing forward without moving their eyes from side to side.

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Total Blindness

AFB defines total blindness as the “inability to see anything with either eye.” This condition is normally caused by diseases of the eye, such as glaucoma, cataracts, Late-Onset Retinal Degeneration (L-ORD) and/or Stargardt’s Disease. Advanced diabetes may also contribute to total blindness. Due to the total lack of light perception, totally blind individuals may also develop Non-24, a disorder that affects daily circadian rhythm and causes them to fall asleep during the day.

Recent statistics suggest that 50 million people worldwide are classified as totally blind. Approximately 80% of these individuals are 50 or older.

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60,393 U.S. students attended elementary or primary school in 2014 and qualified for Braille, large-print or audio-based learning materials. Of these:

Additionally, a 2013 survey found there were 6,846,000 blind or visually impaired individuals in the U.S. between the ages of 16 and 75 who are classified as ‘non-institutionalized’. Of these:

Among all blind or visually impaired individuals in the U.S. between the ages of 21 and 64 who are classified as ‘non-institutionalized’:

Source: National Federation for the Blind

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Statistics for blind/visually impaired individuals
in the U.S. 21-64 who are non-institutionalized:

  • The median annual income is $35,300
  • 30% (1,098,100) live below the poverty line
  • 40.2% (1,474,000) are employed in some capacity
  • 968,600 are employed full-time

Transition planning is an important step for students who are classified as blind or visually impaired. According to Carmen Williams, a teacher of visually impaired students, most students with a visual disability are generally expected to be relatively independent learners by their senior year of high school. Those who use assistive technology should be able to operate and maintain their equipment without help from their instructor or other students in the classroom.

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Ideally, the student will meet with a career counselor during this phase to develop an Individual Plan for Employment, or an IPE. A primary goal of the IPE is to explore different ‘post-school activities’ related to the individual’s career plans; these activities commonly include:

  • A college degree program at an accredited postsecondary institution
  • Job training
  • Integrated and/or supported employment
  • Adult services
  • Independent learning services, usually through a non-profit community organization

Most IPEs call for at least some college education. The Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act require college campuses to offer learning facilities that are accessible to all students (regardless of disability) and educational devices designed to accommodate students with different disabilities. However, the quality and availability of these facilities and materials will vary from school to school. A recent article from Inside Higher Ed examined a 2013 lawsuit against Louisiana Tech University after the school was accused of providing materials that limited accessibility for blind or visually impaired students.

Students who are blind or visually impaired face unique social challenges at higher learning institutions, as well. A 2015 article from USA Today profiled legally blind college students across the U.S. who described awkward conversations with academic peers inside and outside the classroom. Mickey Damelio, a teacher for visually impaired students at Florida State University, emphasized the need for dedicated advocates for students with visual disabilities. “If vision teachers have done their job right, visually impaired students are going to experience the same things in college as sighted kids,” he noted. “They’ll be offered drugs and sex, and have the necessary skills to make the right choices, and not become a victim.”

HOW SCHOOLS ACCOMMODATE STUDENTS WITH A VISUAL DISABILITY

Most academic experts agree that Universal Design of Learning (UDL) is key for integrating blind and visually impaired students into the college classroom dynamic. UDL seeks to address and modify course curricula that exclude any student, particularly those with a disability that affects their ability to learn and/or receive instruction in a class setting. In order to create universally accessible courses, postsecondary institutions must take the following steps to ensure their classes and campuses are completely inclusive:

  • Modify course instruction to meet the needs of every individual learner. For blind and visually impaired students, this means the availability of auditory software, large-font presentations and/or Braille materials.
  • Allow students with special needs to complete coursework, give presentations and take exams using alternative formats.
  • Work with students with specific needs to gain access to adaptive software and technology that helps them learn effectively.
  • Appoint individuals who can assist these students as note-takers, readers, scribes or other essential roles.
  • Offer students with special needs additional time for assignments and tests, as well as getting to class.
  • Ensure all classrooms, dormitories, dining halls and other facilities are completely accessible to every student, regardless of disability.
  • Guide students with disabilities to specialized counselors, resource centers and other on-campus services dedicated to assisting these individuals.

Specialized software, devices and other forms of technology have removed many academic barriers and allowed students with disabilities to receive a proper education. As mentioned above, postsecondary institutions are required by federal law to offer accommodations to all students with disabilities; most campuses maintain assistive technology centers where these learners can acquire the necessary equipment and materials.

Some of the most common forms of adaptive technology for students who are blind or visually impaired include the following:

Screen Reader

These devices enable blind or visually impaired students to read onscreen text using a speech synthesizer. The user operates the screen reader by inputting different letter combinations on a keyboard or Braille display, and this causes the speech synthesizer to read what is printed; the display will also ‘speak’ when changes occur on the screen. Other capabilities include a ‘find’ function, spell-check and cell reading for spreadsheets.

Screen Magnification

This application automatically zooms in on text and graphics in order to assist students with low or limited vision. Users operate magnification using a mouse or keyboard commands. This system also presents written materials in a smooth, easy-to-read font.

Video Magnifier

Also known as a closed-circuit television system (CCTV), this device projects magnified text and graphics on a screen using a mounted or handheld camera. Magnification and focus level is usually determined after a the camera has been positioned at a reasonable distance for the user, but some video magnifiers are designed to automatically focus.

Adaptive Keyboard

Most blind and visually impaired students are able to operate standard keyboards. For those who are not, specialized keyboards come with locator dots on important keys. Embossed, removable Braille overlays for keyboards are also available.

Portable Note-Taker

These pocket-sized devices are designed to assist blind and visually impaired students with Braille-friendly buttons and/or a standard QWERTY keyboard. In addition to recording lectures, a note-taker may also be used to read books, compose assignments and find directions.

Optical Character Recognition

This form of technology is engineered to scan text and then either repeat the text aloud using a speech synthesizer or save the data. OCR devices are usually programmed to detect and call out misspelled words. Some allow users to store data on the device using a memory card, as well as download it to a PC hard drive. According to the AFB, there are few devices on the market that are able to interpret graphs, photos, videos and other non-text media; additionally, these devices aren’t yet able to interpret handwritten text.

Braille Embosser

Braille embossers can be attached to printers in order to print documents in Braille. Generally, these embossers require thick paper and will only print on one side of a given document. Braille translation software (see below) is also required for most embossers.

Braille Display

Refreshable Braille displays use pins to transcribe on-screen text into tactile Braille the user can feel with their fingertips. These devices are usually attached to the keyboard and/or connected to the PC with a cable. Most translate Braille one line of printed text at a time, but faster versions are available for advanced readers.

Braille Translation Software

There are numerous options for software that converts written text into tactile Braille. Some of the most popular platforms include Duxbury Braille Translator, Braille2000 and Index Braille.

Common Accessibility Apps

Ariadne copyAriadne GPS ($5.99)

This app features fingertip-accessible maps to help guide people with visual disabilities wherever they travel (as long as the area is covered by Google Maps). Special alerts indicate crosswalks, bus stops and other important landmarks.

Looktel copyLooktel Money Reader ($9.99)

This app is designed to scan U.S. currency paper bills and determine the denomination, since the value of individual bills is not immediately discernible to many individuals who are blind or visually impaired.

Voice_BriefVoice Brief ($2.99)

This audio app will read aloud emails, text messages, social media content and other written content on the user’s smart device.

List_Recorder copyList Recorder ($0.99)

This app allows users to record and store lists in an audio or text format. They may then play, sort, delete or email individual lists. List Recorder is integrated with both VoiceOver and a Braille display in order to best accommodate blind and visually impaired users.

Dragon copyDragon Dictation (free)

This app is ideal for students who don’t have the latest smartphone model, this app will record and transcribe audio messages with full punctuation. Recorded messages may be stored in the app, as well.

We interviewed Robert Sabwami of Wright State University about his experience as a visually impaired student attending college, and his advice for other students.

What are some key factors in choosing the right school?Robert_Sabwami

The number one factor to consider would be whether or not the school has an active office of disability services. It is my assumption that many schools have services for people with disabilities; however, the nature of services provided divides apples from oranges. Some institutions provide quality services, whereas others only offer generic services.

Another factor would be the number of people with disabilities attending the school. It is almost certain that schools with very few students with disabilities (or ones with none at all) will have basic to no services available. Indeed, it would be quite odd to find oneself as the only one with a disability out of an entire campus. Accessibility is yet another crucial factor to be considered while hunting for a school. Essentially, accessibility determines students’ participation and success in a wide array of areas.

How is the accommodation process when working with professors/disability services?

In my experience, the process of communicating accommodation requests has been quite smooth. Most professors are cognizant of the needs of students with disabilities. I’ve only had a few incidents where professors appeared oblivious to the unique needs of students, or they decided to blatantly ignore them. Consequently, it’s best if the Office of Disability Services also focuses on providing official communication regarding accommodations to faculty on campus on top of communicating with the students themselves.

What are key factors in your studies that make you successful?

In terms of success, my achievements squarely hinge on the services provided by the Office of Disability Services. Not only do reasonable accommodations count, the quality of the relationship between the student and staff means a lot. Of course self-determination, commitment, and the need to work hard cannot be over-stated as important to my success.

You’re the student, can you offer any additional advice to students?

First and foremost, my counsel would be to embrace patience as a virtue. I understand some of our concerns can be frustrating; however, the manner in which we present ourselves while
waiting for services or intervention determines the kind of responses we get. It would be irrational to brush officials the wrong way while expecting quality services.

Another point is being proactive. As we expect services to come our way, it is important to take full responsibility of our education. This aspect has a direct bearing on grades. If, for whatever reason, something had to be done, and it wasn’t, it should never turn out that it is because of our own negligence. Let it be that someone slept on their job and not you. I have always reminded myself that grades are permanent.

I cannot sign off without mentioning the importance of networking. I have come to appreciate the feeling of camaraderie, especially when faced with tough times in the college experience. It is very important to establish meaningful relationships that we carry on even after completing college. We ought not to be limited just to our close friends, we need to reach out to faculty and other professionals as well.

Summary & Wellness Strategies

Integration and inclusion are key to a successful college experience for any student who is blind or visually impaired. While federal regulations are in place to ensure accessibility and accommodation for all disabled students, college applicants should carefully research all of their prospective academic destinations in order to learn about campus services, dedicated personnel, available accommodations and other resources that will be at their disposal. Once a choice has been made and an offer of acceptance has been granted, the student should immediately contact the school’s office for disabled students (if he/she has not done so already). Depending on the institution, the student may be able to chat with his/her future disability counselor ahead of on-campus relocation.

Students with visual disabilities should also make time to speak one-on-one with each professor at the beginning of every semester/quarter. These private conversations allow the student to ask questions, share concerns and inform the instructor about all of their specific classroom needs. These chats also open the door for further discussions about assistive technology and learning accommodations. Any blind or visually impaired student that enrolls in a class taught by an instructor who refuses to offer the required accommodations should immediately contact his/her disability counselor and/or the school’s office for disabled students.

Life outside the classroom is just as crucial for college students. Those who are blind or visually impaired are urged to frequently visit their school’s disabled students center to learn about gatherings, trips and other upcoming events designed to incorporate individuals with visual disabilities. Disability counselors can also assist these students with any personal or social issues that arise throughout their degree program.

Below you’ll find a list of academic scholarships for blind and visually impaired students, as well some additional organizations dedicated to assisting visually disabled individuals and promoting their inclusion.

Al Camp Memorial Scholarship

Offered through the Georgia Council of the Blind (GCB), this one-time $1,000 award is available to college-bound men and women who are legally blind. Only Georgia residents may apply for the scholarship, but they may use the funds at any accredited school in the U.S.

View Scholarship

American Council for the Blind

The ACB offers several one-time scholarships every year. The amounts typically vary between $1,000 and $3,000 per recipient; the rolling annual deadline is March 1.

View Scholarship

American Foundation for the Blind

The AFB offers a handful of scholarships for legally blind students. These one-time awards typically vary between $500 and $2,500 per recipient. Applications are usually available in mid-December, and the rolling deadline for all AFB scholarships is April 1.

View Scholarship

Blinded Veterans Association

The BVA offers multiple scholarships intended for military veterans who have been legally blinded in the course of their service, as well as their spouses, children and grandchildren. These one-time awards vary between $1,000 and $2,000 per recipient; the money must be used to cover tuition and other postsecondary education expenses.

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Jewish Guild for the Blind Scholarship

College-bound students with a visual disability may receive up to $15,000 through this one-time scholarship program. Proof of legal blindness and U.S. citizenship are required.

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Lavelle Fund for the Blind

This award is available to any legally blind college student or applicant who plans to attend one of 11 pre-approved institutions in New York and New Jersey. The award is need-based and recurrent up to four years; recipients will be given up to $15,000 per academic year for up to four years of study.

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Lighthouse Guild

This organization offers an annual, one-time award of $10,000 to one legally blind college-bound student. Applicants must submit three letters of recommendation, an official school transcript, SAT/ACT records and a personal statement. The rolling deadline for this award is March 31.

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Mary P. Oenslager Scholastic Achievement Award

This award is available to any blind or visually impaired individual who is both a current member of Learning Ally and enrolled or planning to enroll in an accredited college program. Three top-tier award winners receive $6,000 for the academic year, and another three receive a ‘special honors’ award of $2,000 for the year.

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National Federation for the Blind

The NFB offers scholarship awards to up to 30 legally blind candidates on an annual basis. The award varies from $3,000 to $12,000 per recipient; final amounts are determined based on financial need. Recipients must also attend the NFB Annual Convention, which relocates to a different city each year (the 2016 gathering will be held in Orlando).

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Arthur E. and Helen Copeland Scholarships

These two scholarships are available for current members of the United States Association of Blind Athletes. Current USABA members can choose from two annual, one-time scholarships. One male and one female receive one-time awards of $500 each; only legally blind applicants will be considered for either category.

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The American Foundation for the Blind – The AFB seeks to fight stigma and promote inclusion of Americans who identify as blind or visually impaired. The AFB was founded in 1921, and came to prominence when notable blindness advocate Helen Keller began to work with the organization in 1924.

The National Federation of the Blind – The NFB seeks to eliminate society’s reduced standards and low expectations of blind and visually impaired individuals in order for them to reach their full potential. The NFB was founded in 1940 and today boasts 50,000 members, making it the largest organization in the country dedicated to visually disabled individuals.

The American Council of the Blind – Founded in 1961, the ACB strives to recognize the strengths of blind and visually impaired individuals nationwide. The organization has historically played a prominent role in promoting disability legislation (including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act) and advocating for changes in social security that benefit individuals with visual disabilities.

Lighthouse Guild – Founded in 1905, this organization provides a comprehensive database of healthcare providers and facilities that specialize in treating patients with visual disabilities. Health plans are also offered to qualifying individuals.

United States Association of Blind Athletes – The USABA supports blind and visually impaired athletes of all ages. The organization is affiliated with the U.S. Olympic Committee and offers programs in a wide range of well-known Olympic sports, including goalball, a team sport designed for participants with visual disabilities.