Resource Guide for Students With Visual Impairments

What is visual impairment? Learn more about useful visual accommodations and resources for students with visual impairments.

portrait of Whitney Sandoval
by Whitney Sandoval

Published on October 27, 2020 · Updated on May 12, 2022

Reviewed by Michelle N. Wolf

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Resource Guide for Students With Visual Impairments
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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), visual impairment is listed as one of the top 10 disabilities among adults.

Vision disabilities are also one of the most predominant conditions among kids, including cortical visual impairment. In 2019, the American Community Survey estimated that over 547,000 U.S. children have difficulty with their vision.

Students with visual impairments can face distinct barriers to learning, especially around access to materials. Understanding each student's unique visual needs can create an accessible education.

Students with a visual impairment — which is classified from low vision to total blindness — should understand what resources and technologies are available to them.

Types of Visual Impairments

Visual impairments exist on a spectrum. Total blindness, or complete vision loss, is when someone sees complete darkness and does not experience any light perception.

People can experience different types of vision loss. For example, someone may be extremely nearsighted or farsighted, even with a prescription. A person who has field loss would also be considered visually impaired. People with retinitis pigmentosa lose areas of vision that may be unrelated to their visual acuities.

Legal blindness is a federal definition of vision loss that regulates whether someone qualifies for government services, like Social Security disability benefits or vocational rehabilitation. If your vision cannot be corrected past 20/200 acuity or you have a restricted visual field of 20 degrees or less, you may qualify as legally blind.

The Transition to Higher Education for Students With Visual Impairments

When students with visual impairments begin college, they may experience challenges.

During their elementary and secondary school years, they had access to an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and teachers to help navigate their visual accommodations.

The student's IEP does not transition to college. Instead, students work with a vocational rehabilitation counselor to create plans like an Individual Plan for Employment (IPE) for postsecondary and future employment needs. Or they get assistance from a disability specialist who works with the student to create a plan and set up accommodations.

Students with visual impairments also have to learn to safely navigate college campuses. They may need help learning how to live on their own in a dorm.

Accessing the curriculum can be challenging for students with visual impairments. Professors need to follow set accommodations and modifications. And students must advocate for themselves.

Challenges may include finding digital textbooks or receiving Braille materials, having access to assistive technology like screen-reading software or magnification devices, and receiving notes or other accommodations in time.

Oscar Gonzalez, interim accessibility resources senior director at Minnesota State University, Mankato, encourages students to tour the campus and meet with an advisor in the disability resource office as soon as possible.

How Do Colleges Accommodate Students With Visual Impairments?

When choosing a college, consider reaching out to the college's office of disability services. You'll want to get an in-depth understanding of how each college accommodates students with disabilities.

In general, colleges can accommodate students with visual impairments in many ways. These include:

At Minnesota State University, Mankato, the Office of Accessibility Resources has an interactive process designed to build rapport and provide customized support to each student who seeks accommodations.

"The goal of the first meeting is to identify which accommodations will best suit that individual student's needs," Gonzalez said. "Once a student establishes accommodations, the collaboration can start immediately and last up until graduation."

Some of the tools and accommodations he says his students with visual impairments use the most include:

What Assistive Technology Is Available for Students With Visual Impairments?

Accessibility is becoming a higher priority for many technology companies. Our smartphones and many other devices come with accessibility features built in. Students with visual impairments have several assistive technology tools available for accessing college.

Mobile Apps for Students With Visual Impairments

Accessibility apps are available on iOS and Android devices. They can help make the transition to college easier for many students with visual impairments.

Resources for Students With Visual Impairments

A variety of agencies are designed to help students with visual impairments live independent, successful lives. Students can find resources from nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and private companies. Check with your state to see what local organizations exist in your area.

Frequently Asked Questions About Students With Visual Impairments

How many college students are blind? true

The exact number of blind students who are enrolled in college is unknown. In 2015-2016, approximately 19% of students who were seeking a postsecondary degree had a disability.

According to the CDC, over 1 million people were identified as blind in 2015, and millions more also qualified as having a visual impairment. Many students with visual impairments go to college every year.

Can you go to college if you're blind? true

Yes, you can go to college with a visual impairment. There can be obstacles to navigating an unfamiliar environment, and accessing materials may require extra work. However, many students with visual impairments do graduate from college.

If you have a visual impairment and are trying to choose a college, contact the office of disability services at each school you are considering. Learn more about what services they offer and how they can accommodate your needs.

How do blind students learn?

How blind students learn depends on what their eye condition is and what level of vision they have.

A totally blind student will most likely need Braille and auditory accommodations to access college materials. A low-vision student may need copies of lecture notes and magnification devices.

Students with visual impairments have primary learning modes and learning strategies that work best for them — just like students without visual impairments.

Is being blind a disability?

If you are considered legally blind, you can receive disability benefits. The legal definition of blindness means any vision that cannot be corrected past 20/200 acuity or if you have a restricted visual field of 20 degrees or less.

With Advice From:

Portrait of Oscar Gonzalez, M.S.

Oscar Gonzalez, M.S.

Oscar Gonzalez, MS, has served in higher education leadership roles for the past 10 years and is completing his Ed.D. in higher education administration at St. Cloud State University. He currently serves as the interim accessibility resources senior director at Minnesota State University, Mankato and is part of the President's Commission of Diversity. In addition, he is the chair of the university's ADA Advisory Committee, which serves in an advisory capacity to the ADA coordinator regarding persons with disabilities, and ensures input from various students, faculty, and administrative organizations. Gonzalez is a member of the Minnesota AHEAD and National AHEAD.