Sensory: Blind and Low Vision
Students who are blind or visually impaired exhibit a functional loss of vision and generally are unable to see or read standard print-based materials. In most cases, these students need the same content used by sighted students provided in specialized formats (such as braille, large print, audio, and digital text) in order to access the information it contains.
Students who are blind or who have low vision are often identified as needing special education and related services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The following definition of visual impairment is excerpted from IDEA:
Visual impairment including blindness means an impairment in vision that, even with correction, adversely affects a child's educational performance. The term includes both partial sight and blindness. (34 C.F.R. §300.8(c)(13).)
In some instances, students with visual impairments are served under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. It is the responsibility of individual education program (IEP) teams (or, if applicable, 504 teams) to determine the best means for a student to develop literacy skills in order to access information, work efficiently and independently, and participate in educational activities. Decisions about education are based on a systematic and objective evaluation process which includes information from a variety of sources (such as a clinical low vision evaluation, a functional vision assessment, a learning media assessment, and student progress in their educational program). A student's IEP or decision-making team analyzes and considers available information in a variety of contexts, including a student’s current and future needs, and makes decisions based on the unique needs of each student.
When a team has identified important factors of a student's situation—environments where access to print is needed, tasks they are expected to accomplish, and specific print materials in the curriculum—their team will select needed specialized formats. Students may need one primary specialized format for many tasks, but a variety of factors—including environments and tasks—may indicate a need for more than one specialized format. For example, a student may be learning braille and using it in one subject area while using large print to study another. This student may also need a digital format for other subject areas (for example, for use with a computer with a refreshable braille display or a screen reader) or may use an audio file occasionally (for example, in order to listen to a novel while traveling).
Braille is a tactile system of reading and writing made up of raised-dot patterns for letters, numbers, and punctuation marks. Braille may be either embossed (a permanent printed document) or refreshable (electronically generated and accessible via a braille display device).
Large print is generally defined as print that is larger than print sizes commonly used by the general population (8 to 12 point in size). Some use a guideline for defining large print as a font size of 18 point or larger. A document rendered in large print format usually has more white space and may or may not look like the original document yet contains the same information. Large print may be printed on pages that are the same size as a standard textbook page or on pages of a larger size.
Audio formats deliver content as speech to which a student listens via a computer or other devices, and the output is recorded human voice or synthesized electronic speech. There are many ways in which audio output can be adjusted, whether it is recorded human voice or synthesized speech. Adjustments can be made in the pitch, the volume, and the speed at which speech is presented. Although natural human speech may sound better, many users prefer the flexibility of synthesized speech for some tasks. Both recorded human voice and synthetic-voice text-to-speech may be set to faster or slower playback.
Digital text format is an electronic format that can be delivered via a computer or another device. Digital text is malleable and can be easily transformed in many different ways depending upon student needs and the technology being used to display content. To accommodate the needs and preferences of a user, various features of technology which controls how content is presented can be manipulated such as text size, fonts, colors, contrast, highlighting, and use of text-to-speech. The digital text format may contain both audio and visual output depending upon the way the content is developed and the technology that is being used to access it. Software that incorporates text-to-speech and additional learning supports is often referred to as supported reading software and may be beneficial for some students.
Once a decision-making team has selected the format(s) that a student will need, team members can then match the identified student needs to the features of various technology tools that can be used to deliver the specialized format(s). For students who are blind or visually impaired, there is a wide array of assistive technology tools available for use with the provision of accessible formats. Next, a team determines what support services; training for the student, educator(s), and family; instructional teaching strategies; and accommodations may be required for successful use of accessible materials.
For detailed information about specialized formats and a student-centered decision-making process, refer to the AIM Navigator. The AIM Navigator is an interactive, online tool that facilitates the process of decision-making around accessible instructional materials for an individual student. The four major decision points in the process include 1) determination of need, 2) selection of format(s), 3) acquisition of format(s), and 4) selection of supports for use. The AIM Navigator also includes a robust set of guiding questions and useful references and resources specifically related to each decision point. Different levels of support scaffolds are built-in so that teams can access information at the level needed to assist them in making informed, accurate decisions.
Blind and Low Vision Resources
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National Organizations and Resources
American Council of the Blind (ACB) is a national organization of blind, visually impaired, and sighted individuals whose purpose is to work toward independence, security, equality of opportunity, and improved quality of life for all blind and visually impaired people.
American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) is a national nonprofit with priorities that include broadening access to technology, elevating quality of information and tools for professionals who serve people with vision loss, and promoting independent and healthy living for people with vision loss by providing them and their families with relevant and timely resources.
Instructional Resource Centers for the Blind and Visually Impaired (IRCBVI) are nonprofit organizations or governmental agencies that have a primary mission to provide specialized services relating to training, education, or adaptive reading or information access needs of blind or other persons with disabilities in local school districts or special school settings. Many of these centers and their respective representatives are considered authorized entities by the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) for the production and delivery of textbooks and instructional materials in alternate formats to students who are blind or who have low vision.
National Federation of the Blind (NFB) is a membership organization of blind people that strives to improve lives through advocacy, education, research, technology, and programs encouraging independence and self-confidence.
WebAIM Visual Disabilities is an online article by WebAIM that provides information about web accessibility for people with visual impairments.