Have you ever thought about what it means to be visually impaired and how it impacts student learning?

Meet Jessica. Since her early teens, her vision has been slowly deteriorating. As a high-achieving student, Jessica didn’t want anyone to know there was an issue, so she worked to find her own way through the impacts of her diminishing vision. She used handheld magnifiers or attached them to her personal computer screen. She asked her classmates their opinions on the subject matter in content she wasn’t able to read. She managed.

Last year, Jessica was diagnosed with Usher Syndrome – a multi-symptom condition that includes an eye disorder called retinitis pigmentosa. Jessica’s vision will continue to deteriorate. Over the last year, she has adopted more technology to help her succeed, but she is still working to enable her own success. Her courses are not exactly inclusive of the visually impaired.

Jessica’s story is not an uncommon one. Visual impairment is an umbrella term used to cover a wide range of medical conditions impacting the eye. How visual impairments impact an individual’s ability to learn depends on several factors such as age of onset, severity of condition, and type of condition.

Many of the things that impacted Jessica impact most students with vision impairments. People born blind, or who lose their vision at an early age, often struggle the most to adapt to traditional methods of learning. Without the memory of vision, they will find it challenging to grasp abstract concepts that depend on visuals. Many of these students develop sensory compensation for their vision loss and can be very successful when encouraged to adopt other learning methods.

Vision impairments are certainly not a limiting factor in intelligence. Rather, the limitations these learners face are the barriers within education that prevent them from consuming the content independently. Today, only 15% of the 93,000 students in the U.S. with a vision impairment will graduate with a 4-year degree. [1]

By adopting the concepts of inclusive education, we can accommodate people like Jessica and remove these barriers completely. All it takes is a small shift in mind set to create a better experience for everyone.

Visual content best practices

Here are a few things you can start to do today to create a more inclusive experience for the students in your course who struggle with vision impairments:

  1. What image-based and multi-media content is in your course? Many students with visual impairments cannot see these images clearly, or at all. Do you have textual equivalents or alternative text for all of this content? Having textual equivalents can also help students who learn better with words rather than pictures. If you’re using infographics or diagrams in your course, make sure that you’ve provided all of the knowledge in a more readable format.
  2. How do you use color in your course? Does it have enough contrast to be clearly printed in black and white or read on any screen? Do you use color to convey meaning? For example, using red text to indicate important information excludes color blind students. Anyone who uses a screen reader won’t be able to identify the color, or the meaning attached to it. Instead, add text labels like “IMPORTANT” to draw attention to the content.
  3. Did you assess the structure of your PDF, Word, and PowerPoint content and make sure they are properly formatted for accessibility? Use headings, formatting, default templates and styles properly and make sure PDFs specifically are tagged for screen reader usage. This ensures your materials are accessible, and easily shared across devices.

The concepts behind inclusive education are not limited to helping people with disabilities. When you think more broadly about the students in your course, you create experiences that meet the many diverse learning needs in your classroom. Over the coming weeks we’ll be sharing more of these learner profiles and how small changes in thinking can remove barriers and have a big impact on the success of all students.

[1] 2009 report from the American Foundation for the Blind

Case study: online learning course quality and compliance with accessibility standards

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