There are currently 1.86 million people in the UK with a visual impairment and it is estimated to exceed 2.25 million by 2020.
User needs vary depending on the nature and severity of the visual impairment and when the sight loss occurred. Increasing levels of sight loss generally lead to added challenges in accessing educational resources - the subjects being studied have a significant influence in determining the level and nature of these challenges.
Non expert provision
There are a number of schools and colleges that offer specialist provision for learners with vision impairment. However there are an estimated 40,000 people under the age of 25 with a severe impairment - the majority of these will have some sight. This means many will attend mainstream organisations that don't have the expertise to support these learners.
Choices and challenges
Courses with a high visual content can be particularly challenging. This includes science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses. It is important that learners have support in their subject of choice as they have valuable contributions to make to these fields.
Non academic skills
Learners with more severe visual impairments often need additional skills to access the curriculum. For example, they may need advanced braille or screenreader expertise. At all levels, they may need additional mobility and independence training so they can take part in fieldwork or work placements.
Inaccessible systems and resources
Websites, intranets, VLE's and e-book platforms must be designed and tested for accessibility. If not, they are likely to create barriers.
Visual resources can be of great benefit to many learners. Images, mindmaps, flow diagrams and videos can still be used as long as they are annotated, described and transcribed appropriately.
What organisations can do
Provide appropriate staff development
They will need training on producing accessible learning resources. This includes:
- Accessible documents and presentations
- Delivering accessible digital learning.
They must be aware of built in accessibility features in operating systems and ensure they are enabled. There is a lot of free and open source software that may be useful to visually impaired learners which IT staff should also be aware of.
It is likely that visually impaired learners will need books in an electronic format; library staff need to know how to obtain these.
Disability staff should be aware of accessibility features in Windows, Mac OS or in mobile devices like phones and tablets. They may also find it useful to know about free and open source assistive technologies.
Support the use of assistive technology
No two learners with visual impairments have the same issues so there is no simple solution that will suit everyone. However, there are a number of basic enabling technologies that are useful and should be made available, for example text-to-speech tools and the accessibility tools built into Windows and Mac OS.
Learners who require screen readers will have access to their own commercial application but it is worth making a free screen reader tool available. NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA) can run from a memory stick and is popular with many screenreader users. Window-Eyes is also free for Office 2010.
Mainstream technologies from VLEs to e-book platforms may also offer accessibility options.
Many users can benefit from the range of apps on tablets and phones – for example magnification tools, colour identification and object identification.
Magnifiers are helpful. These may include CCTV, handheld electronic devices and low tech magnifying sheets or lenses.
Scanning and reading devices allow visually impaired people to read physical copies of textbooks and magazines. Key features to look for include:
- Audio feedback during operation
- Accuracy of the optical character recognition (OCR)
- The ability for displayed text to reflow when magnified
- The ability to output to synthetic speech audio including saving to MP3 format.
Some apps on tablet devices can now compete with bespoke hardware tools and learners may prefer to use a mainstream device like an iPad, rather than having additional equipment to carry around.
Tools that identify or describe objects can be invaluable in labs, workshops, kitchens or salons. These include optical identification (OID) and radio frequency identification (RFID) devices. Small tactile markers can be assigned an audio message and attached to the object. When the user scans the marker with a receiver they get the message played back to them.
Hardware focused on tactile senses includes refreshable braille devices for writing or reading on a laptop or phone, a talking tactile tablet or the low tech alternatives of bump ons with braille labels. Wikki Stix and plastic embossing film (German film) allow tutors to create instant tactile diagrams.
Other tools for different areas of the curriculum include talking thermometers for science or talking scales in food technology.
The choice of browser installed on the network can make a difference. Browser plug-ins like Spreed can help people with limited visual field read much more quickly. Other plug-ins enable the user to change the contrast or speak out loud text content.
Where your organisation subscribes to e-book systems or other e-content, the procurement policy can make a substantial difference. Ensuring that the organisation subscribes to an accessible platform can provide substantial savings on additional support costs.
What tutors and teachers can do
It is important that tutors and learners work together on the most appropriate adjustments. The right adjustments can significantly reduce the need for additional support and will benefit other learners. Talk to the learner about their preferred way of accessing content and find out how compatible that is with your existing teaching resources.
Tutors may need to adapt their usual practices to maximise learner independence. For example, if your organisation's VLE is difficult to access, or your learner’s preferred technology is not a Windows-based PC, then it may be more effective to share files through cloud based services such as Dropbox or Google Drive.
- Giving learners access to the lesson resources in digital format before the lesson
- Considering how visually impaired students will access interactive whiteboard content
- Involving the learner with testing online - accessibility can vary with the assistive technology used and the learner’s degree of skill.
Traditional learning activities like dialogue, discussion and questioning can work well with learners with sight impairment. Remember that screenreader users rely on audio feedback through headphones to both read and write. This makes it harder to read or write when discussions are going on. When working with visually impaired learners, you should:
- Allow adequate time and adapt tasks if necessary
- Provide as many resources as possible in digital format
- Make resources available before the lesson - reading with magnification or screenreader software takes longer and learners struggle to access everything at the same time
- Where learners have some functional sight, make use of cameras or interactive whiteboards to record transient information
- Make use of existing technologies ie, free tools that synchronise a learner's laptop with an interactive whiteboard/tutor PC for accessing content with magnification software
- Be aware of mobility issues. Changing the desk layout for different lessons might be a good idea for most learners but could disorientate a blind learner
- Anticipate hazards in practical, workshop or outdoor activities but let the learner grow in confidence by encouraging independence
- Try to anticipate which parts of your lesson may create conceptual barriers to people who, for example, have never seen a colour or whose experience of a tree is tactile not visual
- When setting group tasks play to the strengths of the visually impaired student. Are they better researchers or presenters?
- Liaise with the learner and support staff to anticipate barriers in planned activities. The Web2Access site includes accessibility tests and scores for a variety of online tools
- Ensure assessments are accessible to screenreaders and, where necessary, consider how they could be adapted to minimise barriers
- Where learners study subjects involving maths, ensure the learner can access additional support where appropriate. This might involve extra tuition in braille Maths or, for those accessing via screenreader, getting specialist guidance in creating and using MathML
Documents and presentations
Visually impaired people may need to work with text at much higher magnification levels. This makes any resource they are working with more difficult to navigate. If tutors use the inbuilt heading styles when creating documents, the navigation pane makes it simpler for magnification or screen reader users to rapidly move around the document.
Presentations tend to be very visual and may be inaccessible for visually impaired learners. If you are making them available to learners:
- Save them in PowerPoint presentation (.ppt or .pptx) format rather than PowerPoint show (.pps or .ppsx). Learners with a visual impairment cannot easily zoom in on slides in presentation format
- Include notes in the notes field so that you can import text as a Word document and read in the user’s chosen way
- See the video resource for guidance on checking and improving your PowerPoint presentation's accessibility
Here are some of the issues to consider with audio and video and how to address them.
- Adding accessibility at the start of a multimedia resource than afterwards
- Checking that screenreader software can access the media controls - if you can control video using only keystrokes like 'Tab', 'Spacebar' and 'Enter', it is likely to work for a blind user
- Checking that the media content is accessible to the user. If you are using video that contains important visual content that isn’t explicitly described, learners with a sight impairment will be disadvantaged.
Making multimedia accessible to people with sight impairments. This depends on:
- Where the audio strand does not convey all of the information in the pictures and text
- Where the video quality creates a difficulty for someone with limited vision. A video taken on (or viewed on) a phone may create difficulties; a video with good lighting, better image resolution and displayed on a plasma screen may be ok.
- Audio description (an additional voice track describing the scene or the action)
- Separate notes describing the visual content or one-to-one mentor support to describe the visual content
The best solution will be dependent on the local context. In many cases, describing the gaps to a learner is the most appropriate adjustment, allowing the learner to ask questions for clarification where needed. Audio description is worth considering for resources that will be used a lot or for a long time. Other learners can also benefit from the extra explanations.
Redundant material that can often be ignored includes:
- The colour and style of clothes of participants (usually irrelevant to the content of their dialogue)
- Most background activity
- Maps, diagrams and text captions (they usually just reinforce the audio track).
However, multimedia will need additional explanation in circumstances where the visual content is delivering relevant additional information, for example where:
- Body language or facial reaction are significant to the message
- Images convey emotional content such as irony or suffering
- Key information is conveyed by vision alone – for example
- Action happening on the screen -“he is creeping up behind her”
- On screen text – scribbled notes, signs, name captions, locations, telephone numbers etc.
Range of adjustments
Different reasonable adjustments relate to differing contexts, for example whether the materials:
- Form a major or minor element of a course
- Will be used for repeated independent use or one-off supported use
- Are available commercially (eg, video of a mainstream film)
- Are created by in-house experts or by modestly skilled teaching staff
In almost all cases, verbal description (either one-to-one or in the class setting) or summary notes to support the use of multimedia is adequate.
Technical and production issues
If you're producing multimedia resources but you're not a specialist, the best adjustment is to ensure the narrative, video and supporting text (eg, subtitles, text summaries, etc.) mutually reinforce the key learning objectives.
Where educational organisations create multimedia in-house using a specialist team, they should note the relevant web accessibility guidelines. The options available may depend on software used in production, the hardware used in playback or the expertise available in the team.
If you are providing audio description, it must be carefully scripted so that it fits conveniently into the gaps between speech in the original product.
Explore other media
There are thousands of educationally focused podcasts that may suit your learners. Consider creating your own audio summaries or get the learners to create their own audio files to support their learning.
Tables can be difficult to navigate when viewed at large magnification and even more difficult if accessed by a screenreader.
- Only using tables where appropriate, for example, for displaying data but not for formatting and layout of pages
- Splitting tables up into smaller subsets of data, if they include lots of rows and columns. For example, instead of a big table of economic data for 50 countries, use separate tables for European countries, Asian countries etc
- Lay out the rows and columns so that screenreader users can explore the data they need
- Where possible provide a text summary of the key teaching points to accompany the table.
Tables can be difficult to navigate when viewed at large magnification and even more difficult if accessed by a screenreader. Screenreader users have to interpret the data from left to right, one line at a time. Their only way of comparing data on different rows is by remembering the first item, navigating to the right place in the next row(s), listening to the new value and comparing it (by memory) to the one they had previously remembered.
Problems with tables arise from the following factors:
Size - tables that are too large for a page of braille or print. The largest piece of braille paper used in standard braille writers and embossers contains 40 characters width. Using magnified text can also create additional problems - by the time detailed tables have been enlarged, the table is too big to successfully navigate, the user is disoriented and cannot see line or column headings.
Layout – screenreaders read a table from left to right and top to bottom. This provides a limited and restricted view, unlike that of a sighted person who can easily scan by columns or rows depending on the question asked. The two tables below show identical data with two different layouts.
|Day||Temperature (C)||Rainfall (mm)||Wind direction|
In the first layout it’s easy for a screenreader user to answer the question 'which was the best day for hiking?' because all the information for the day is read in one go. This is much harder to answer using the second table because the information for each day is disaggregated across separate rows.
The second layout is better for answering questions like 'how did temperature vary through time?'
Range of adjustments
Tables rarely constitute such a proportion of course material that they provide an obstacle to success (although great care must be taken before proceeding in such courses as economics and statistics). They do however frequently present an unexpected obstacle in a wide variety of courses. Typical ways of dealing with tables are as follows:
Description - this can be the most efficient way of enabling a learner to access a table as it gives the learner the immediate option of choosing between horizontal or vertical axis
Paragraphing - it is generally not recommended to render tables in braille. Tables can be written in paragraph form with each cell separated from the next by a semicolon. This can be difficult to interpret, though, because they have to mentally 'translate back' into spatial information from the paragraph form
Enlargement - this is the most common method of providing tables for people with limited vision, but the enlargement required for reading might compromise navigation and the ease with which they can grasp overall trends.
Graphs and images
If a graph or image supplements or summarises a text description then it may not need any further work. If it replaces a text description or conveys significant information then an alternative text description should be made available.
If learners are required to demonstrate specific skills in interpreting visual media like graphs, maps or flow diagrams, a tactile version might be more appropriate. You can create these to some extent using high tech tools like the talking tactile tablet, or low tech solutions such as plastic embossing film, swell paper or WikkiStix.
What others can do
IT and network staff
These staff members have a crucial role in ensuring barriers are minimised in mainstream installations. This includes accessibility testing on the VLE and support with assistive technology solutions.
They have a critical role in liaising with publishers, teaching staff and support staff to ensure the learners have access to accessible digital copies of textbooks.
They have a crucial role to play. Success may depend more on their braille skills, screenreader skills and mobility skills than native abilities in a subject. A willingness to try new formats (eg, DAISY, EPUB) and new tools helps to:
- Find more efficient ways of working
- Encourage flexibility in the face of difficulties
- Develop more independence as a learner.
This series of case studies show how learners with visual impairments use various apps and assistive technology to aid their learning:
Matt’s story – using apps to help with printed text
Jake’s story - changing accessibility settings
"My name is Jake and my story tells you about changing computer accessibility settings, talking watch and mobile phone accessibility settings.
"I can go on the computer when I am at home and at college. I can get to college on time and know what time to come back after a break by using my watch. I keep in touch with my family when I am out using my mobile phone."
Jim’s story – using magnification and audio
"About four years ago I was introduced to Anne Aust and Julie Duffy (Portsmouth Central Library). I explained that I had never used a typewriter or a computer and as I could not see to read the words on television, I doubted I would be able to see to use a computer.
"I was shown how to use ZoomText, which magnifies letters and numbers and allows me to read the screen whilst sitting away from the computer and reducing the glare.
"I also use earphones to listen to what has been written on the screen. There are also attachments which can magnify photographs and pages in magazines.
"With these aids I have learned to explore the internet for information and have discovered that I can write short stories which some people seem to like. I am happy that I have shared my stories which other people can enjoy.
"I have found these aids have helped me to experience a much broader and fuller life."
Irene’s story - using a PC and MP3 player
"Since learning to use a computer 14 years ago I can write my own letters, correspond with friends via email and read magazines and newspapers, which I was unable to do before, being totally blind.
"I am also able to catch up with radio and TV programmes if I haven’t been able to hear or watch them when they were broadcast or shown.
"Having an MP3 player means I am able to listen to books and magazines and listen to music wherever I am."
Rosie's story - making documents easier to read
Fran’s story – communicating through SMS using VoiceOver
Fran is studying NVQ administration at Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford. In this video, Fran demonstrates her iPhone and VoiceOver, and shows us how she uses it to write text messages.
Saleh’s Story – staying social
June’s story - using magnification software to facilitate laptop use
"For many years before I was diagnosed and treated for macular degeneration, I struggled to read the menus on my computer. Following my diagnosis I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop for partially sighted people where I was told about weekly meetings for people interested in using computer programmes which magnified the text and, if you would like it, an encouraging voice tells you what you have written so if necessary you can correct it.
"This sounded great to me, just what I had been searching for, so I started to go to the Wednesday meetings organised by Julie Duffy and her guide dog Marble.
"Over a few sessions Julie showed me some of the details of a talking and magnification programme called Dolphin Guide and I realised that this programme was what I required to enable me to continue using my laptop. So I obtained a copy of Dolphin Guide and since it was installed, I have enjoyed dealing unaided each day with my emails, scanning and storing photographs, and sending these as attachments to some of my emails.
"I appreciate that Dolphin Guide will enable me to independently do other computer skills in time and I am looking forward to the challenge.
"I now look forward to using my laptop whereas before Dolphin Guide, I made so many errors I felt frustrated and gave up using it. I love trying my luck and feel my confidence is returning due not only to the Dolphin Guide programme but because of Julie’s weekly help, and also because I know if something goes wrong with Dolphin Guide and the laptop, I have a telephone number for Dolphin Guide for help."
David’s story – learning to use a computer
"I lost my eye sight about three years ago. After this I contacted the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) for some help and support. They thought it would be a good idea to get some new apparatus to help me to get my life back on track.
"The first thing I decided to do was to get a guide dog so I could get out and about again. The dog was a must for me and it well and truly changed my life. They then suggested I try to learn to use a talking computer, a talking phone and have a go at learning braille.
"The computer and phone were the scariest thing I had to learn, I had never used a computer in my life. As I had a lot of time on my hands I gave it a go. So off I went to the city library where I met Julie Duffy who worked with blind people on computers and taught braille. After four or five lessons I was surprised at how much I had learnt.
"I then purchased a new laptop and bought Dolphin Guide and away I went. I then had a few more lessons and practiced at home.
"A year down the line I can write a letter, send emails, search the web and have set up an address book. This has exceeded my expectations of what I thought would be possible for somebody like me to do.
"I then purchased a talking phone. After a few more lessons with Julie in the library I was back in touch with the world and have never looked back. I’m now taking braille lessons.
"What I have learnt in the past three years has exceeded all expectations. If you told me three years ago that I would be able to use a talking computer, a talking phone, have a guide dog and be learning braille I wouldn’t have believed you but now I can do it all.
Sarah’s story - using technology to function independently
"Modern technology has made a positive impact upon my life. I am able to perform basic tasks on a computer with support from speech synthesis such as JAWS. I felt a great sense of achievement when I learned to boot up a computer, listen to menus, read letters, access some sites on the internet, send and receive emails and access information stored on other devices.
"I currently use my tablet, which has the excellent Google voice actions to access my information. I have found that using the touch screen in conjunction with the keyboard gives me much better access to screen functions. My tablet currently stores all of my books and music.
"Lastly I have an iPhone 4S which is invaluable and it’s the best piece of inclusive technology that I have experienced to date. My phone enables me to make calls, store contacts, send and receive messages as well as allowing me to browse emails and download media such as BBC iPlayer. I also use my phone as an alarm, reminder and as a diary.
"Modern technology has improved my life because I can communicate with others, perform tasks and function independently with others in a way that was not previously possible. If you have partial vision or, like me, no vision, these facilities are extremely important so that we can be part of the community and have as much independence and control over our lives as possible.
Hubert’s story - using the TuneIn radio app
Michael’s story - using technology to adapt to unexpected sight loss
Michael lost his sight unexpectedly. The optician told him to see his GP as a matter of urgency and two years later he was registered blind. Michael had never used a computer before but the Portsmouth City Council visual impairment (VI) advisor put him in touch with Julie Duffy, the vision impairment officer at Portsmouth Central library. Julie introduced Michael to the library’s computer facilities and helped him get to grips with the accessibility features.
“I wanted to research my family tree but my sight wouldn’t handle the normal text sizes on menus and pages. ZoomText made a great difference enabling me to increase the size of the text on the monitor screen to a much larger size.
It does have disadvantages because the monitor does not increase in size so on you are only able to see parts of the web page and you have to navigate with the mouse around the page to see it all. This can be a bit difficult and some people feel quite seasick at first but with practice you soon get to it. Although expensive it enables you to carry on using a computer.”
In addition to using the library for family tree research, Michael was a keen user of the library’s audio books. However, most libraries can only stock a limited range of audiobooks. Michael came across the Calibre service and suddenly found over 8,500 audiobooks available to him.
“You can go through the catalogue picking titles that appeal to you – they are sent by a free nationwide postal and Internet service. I personally have found this a very good service as I can once again read lots of books like I used to do.”
Although Calibre is mainly used by people like Michael with age-related sight loss, there is a special Young Calibre service providing books aimed at a younger audience.
Michael’s adventures in technology extend beyond research and reading. For day-to-day living he recommends his Alcatel One Touch Mobile.
“This is a relatively cheap mobile phone which is most helpful for visually impaired people as it has talking numbers which also light up so that you know what number you have pressed. It has a very clear screen with large display plus many other features including FM radio, alarm clock, torch and calculator.
It also has a SOS key which you can pre-program with any numbers that you may require in an emergency situation. I have found it a very useful and convenient mobile phone.”
David’s story – using an iPhone to write scripts
David is a student at the Royal College for the Blind and plans to study for a degree in creative writing. In this video he explains why he finds it easier to write his scripts on his iPhone rather than on his personal computer.
Allan's story - using a flexible keyboard app to support communication
Meet Allan, a student at the Royal National College for the Blind.
In this video, he demonstrates the Fleksy app which replaces the on-screen keyboard of his mobile phone, and explains why he finds it easier to use than the default keyboard.
Derek's story - using a portable device to aid reading
"I am registered partially sighted. I have a field of vision problem called Homonymous Hemianopsia which was caused by a brain tumour in 1968 when I was seven years old. I have no left field of vision in both eyes so my field of vision is about 90 degrees (normal field of vision 180 degrees). I have always found the mechanics of reading a book tiring, and getting in the way of a good read.
"So the bit of technology which has changed how I read a book is a Daisy player by Humanware called the Victor Reader Stratus, the device is about eight inches by eight inches and about two inches thick.
"The Victor Reader is very easy to use it can play Daisy Books, music, podcast and can even convert text files into speech. It runs off the mains and also via a built in rechargeable battery.
"The audio reproduction is very good you can alter the speed of the speech to make it go faster and slower, you can effortlessly go from one chapter to another chapter using the navigation keys in the middle of the player. And the most important thing for reading a book is the ability to book mark the precise place in the book where you stopped.
"In combination with the Victor Stratus I have joined the RNIB talking books service. The only bit of technology not on the Victor Stratus is some sort of sensor which will detect when I fall asleep and either stop the book or wake me up."
Kieren's story - using a braille display with an iPhone
"Hi, my name is Kieran. I am studying for a BTEC in information and music technology at the Royal College for the Blind in Hereford. I am a confident braille user and I also like using technology.
"I regularly use a braille display with my iPhone. This is a small device that converts the text on my phone to braille so I can read it easily.
"The phone and the braille display are linked together via Bluetooth. You use the text-to-speech voice over (on mute so nobody else hears it) to read the text and whatever is being said comes up on the braille display. It works both ways so I can use commands on the braille display to navigate around my iPhone and use its different features. It's really useful in a classroom or lecture because I can search for and read up on things that the tutor mentions.
"The best thing about it is how discreet it is. I can have my iPhone in my pocket and my braille display on the desk in front of me. Nobody knows if I am working or texting my friends! It is a really nice piece of kit (but it isn’t cheap)."
David's story - creating comic strips
David is currently studying performing arts at the Royal College for the Blind and is into all things creative. In this clip, David explains how he uses a variety of applications to create comic strips.
Rosie's story - using VoiceOver to aid reading
In this video, Rosie explains how she uses VoiceOver to help her read when she is tired or has a lot of text to get through.