Resource Guide for Students With Visual Impairments

What is visual impairment? Learn more about useful visual accommodations and resources for students with visual impairments.
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  • Legal blindness is a federal definition of impaired vision that qualifies as a disability.
  • With planning, students with visual impairments can transition to college successfully.
  • Colleges must meet and accommodate the needs of students with visual impairments.
  • Assistive technology and mobile apps can make college more accessible.

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.

If you're going into college as a student with a visual impairment — which is classified from low vision to total blindness — you should understand what resources and technologies are available to you.

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:

  • Providing accessible materials: If students need materials in an alternative format, such as Braille, the college needs to provide them. Students should have access to materials at the same time as their peers. This means professors must provide materials ahead of time so the disability office can produce them.
  • Extended time: Students with visual impairments who need additional time to complete assignments or tests must be given that extended time. Some students may experience eye fatigue and need breaks while others may need time to access tactile charts and graphs. Extended time may also be granted for traveling to class.
  • Access to technology: Depending on the student's eye condition, they may need additional technology to access materials. Possible accommodations may include screen readers, text-to-speech applications, Braille materials, or video magnification.
  • Copy of lectures: Because students may not be able to visually access a PowerPoint or other lecture visuals, copies of those should be provided to students or the disability services office beforehand. The materials should be given in whichever format is the student's primary mode of preference. This can be Braille or even a digital copy that students can access and enlarge on their own device during the lecture. Some students may have permission to record lectures as well.
  • Live readers: When they are unable to access a textbook, students with visual impairments may be able to use a live reader. Live readers are sighted people who read materials aloud for blind or low vision students. For example, if a textbook is not available in Braille or if there is not a digital copy that the student can utilize with a screen reader, or if there are complicated diagrams or charts, a live reader will be used in place of assistive technology.

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:

  • Alternate format texts using Read&Write
  • Alternative testing
  • Audio recordings using Glean
  • Early registration and priority seating
  • Housing accommodations

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.

  • Screen magnification: Screen magnifiers allow the user to zoom in and out on their device in a variety of ways. Some screen magnifiers will also allow the user to change color contrast or font for ease of access.
  • Screen reader: Screen readers use a computerized voice to read the text on a screen. Screen readers employ keyboard shortcuts that allow the user to jump throughout the text on the window.
  • Braille notetaker: Some students with visual impairments prefer using a Braille notetaker in some settings. Instead of a keyboard, the notetaker has the three Braille keys. The document shows up on a computer or tablet in print. Some notetakers will include a Braille display that allows users to read the print on the device's screen in Braille.
  • Video magnifier: Students can place materials under a video magnifier and zoom in to better read the font or study the graphics. Some video magnifiers allow the user to change color contrasts, such as white font on a black background. Other video magnifiers come with a distance-viewing option that allows the user to turn the camera at something farther away and zoom in, such as a white board or lecture slide.

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.

  • Dragon Speech Recognition: This free speech-to-text app allows users to quickly create text documents through oral dictation.
  • KNFB Reader: KNFB Reader converts typed text into speech, which can provide the user with quick access to printed text.
  • Talking Scientific Calculator: This calculator app works with VoiceOver, a screen reader available with iOS devices, to provide an accessible digital calculator.
  • Seeing AI: Seeing AI uses the camera to provide audible descriptions of text and objects, including documents, product labels, handwriting, and even colors.
  • AccessNote: AccessNote is an accessible note-taking app that is compatible with VoiceOver and can be used with a traditional keyboard or a refreshable Braille display.
  • BlindSquare:BlindSquare is a GPS app for travelers with visual impairments that was designed to be accessible with screen readers.
  • Be My Eyes: Students with visual impairments can use Be My Eyes to receive virtual assistance from volunteers who can describe the scene around the user or answer user questions.
Learn more about how accessibility removes barriers for success at college and work.

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.

  • American Foundation for the Blind: AFB is a national nonprofit organization that seeks to provide equality and accessibility to people with visual impairments. AFB conducts research around blindness and visual impairments and partners with companies to create accessible websites and products.
  • National Federation of the Blind: NFB is a national organization with representation in every state. NFB seeks to create a community in each chapter. Many local chapters hold social events, facilitate training opportunities and resources, and provide classes and workshops. NFB advocates for accessibility.
  • American Council of the Blind: With many state affiliates and local chapters, ACB provides legal advocacy, partners with state rehabilitation agencies, and advocates nationally for equal access for people with visual impairments. They offer scholarships and host events and training opportunities.
  • Hadley: A nonprofit organization, Hadley offers free accessible training opportunities and education courses to help people with visual impairments. These courses cover topics like daily living, adjusting to vision loss, and working.
  • American Printing House for the Blind: Along with providing large print and Braille materials, APH also sells different products, like magnification devices and talking thermometers, for people with visual impairments. APH also hosts training options and has a library of research.
  • Local vocational rehabilitation organizations: Depending on your state's services, you may be able to receive assistance from your vocational rehabilitation department even while in college. Vocational rehabilitation agencies can help you find needed assistive technology, provide orientation and mobility services, and aid in job placement.

Frequently Asked Questions About Students With Visual Impairments

How many college students are blind?

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?

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.