Rosie Eachus gives an overview of what visual impairment really means and suggests practical ways to support young people in their learning environment.
- Around 60% of blind and visually-impaired pupils are educated in mainstream classes.
- Ideally, specialist teachers will help SENCOs and teachers learn about their pupils’ vision.
- Visually-impaired pupils need extra time to process information effectively.
- Most visually-impaired pupils will benefit from extra support to navigate the school environment.
Around 250,000 blind or visually-impaired children need some specialist support in school. Over half of these children will have cognitive and other physical skills in the same range as their sighted peers; others have additional needs to varying degrees. Around 60% of blind and visually-impaired pupils are educated in mainstream classes.
According to the Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) Code of Practice (2015), all classrooms need to be accessible to people with disabilities, whether or not the child has their needs documented in an education, health and care plan (EHCP). The Royal National Institute of Blind people (RNIB) suggests that the right support is essential. Without it, even a moderate visual impairment can delay development and impact significantly on a child’s learning – from their academic to their social skills. The impact varies depending on the type of visual loss, whether the child has ever had any functional vision and the support available.
A functionally blind pupil needs to rely on other senses to learn, for example they may be Braille users. However, most visually-impaired pupils actually have some functional vision. Some will still need Braille, but many can learn with normal print, especially if print is adapted for their particular needs and they can use assistive technology to read text aloud, for example.
Some pupils have blurred vision (low ‘acuity’) but can make out shapes; some may struggle to perceive different colours or pick out visual information against different backgrounds. Some pupils may have reasonable acuity and useful vision very close-up: they may see quite small print but struggle to see at any distance. Others may be able to see a whiteboard but struggle to see a page in front of them. Some pupils struggle to control eye movements in order to see clearly or track a line of print.
Each child has their own unique pattern of strengths and difficulties. Ideally, specialist teachers for visually-impaired pupils will help SENCOs and teachers learn as much as possible about their pupil’s vision so they can adapt the classroom environment and teaching to support curriculum access.
The impact of different types of visual impairment
Peripheral vision loss
If a pupil has some vision, albeit just in the centre of their visual field, they can usually work well, so long as detail in material is presented centrally. They may need guidelines for recording their work and can be encouraged to scan a page to counteract the peripheral vision loss. Enlarging font size may be unhelpful here. Peripheral vision loss can lead to difficulties navigating a busy playground or classroom, so it is important to make sure there are clear pathways through a classroom and to keep materials accessible and in the same place.
Central vision loss
Some pupils may have relatively better vision at the edge of their visual field. Depending on the degree of vision loss, it is possible that pupils with this type of difficulty may move around the classroom relatively easily, but since the central part of the visual field is usually associated with detecting fine detail, they are likely to need particular support with reading, writing and close observation.
Some pupils have irregular patches in their field of vision. They may only pick up fragments of the things they look at – perhaps the top or bottom of letters, or every couple of letters, for example. They will need to be encouraged to consciously scan objects and pages in order to see and recognise them. This will be time consuming and extra tiring, so teachers need to be aware of a pupil’s need to take extra breaks.
Low contrast sensitivity
Pupils with low contrast sensitivity need schools to pay attention to classroom lighting and the colour schemes of the classroom and school environment. Steps, for example, need to be marked with a contrasting coloured line to help a pupil distinguish where one step ends. The background colours on white boards or paper and fonts need to be selected to maximise the way information stands out in order for pupils to make the most effective use of the vision they have. A specialist teacher should provide advice, or a teacher can experiment with different backgrounds and font colours to find ones which their pupil can see most easily.
Many visually-impaired pupils struggle more when light is too bright. Others may find their vision seems to deteriorate for a while when they move between dimly- and brightly-lit areas and they need to have extra time to adjust. Schools should assess their lighting to make sure pupils are not walking from bright areas into dimly-lit areas, and try to keep lighting at a constant, comfortable level as much as possible. Overhead fluorescent lighting can be perceived as flickering and painful and should be replaced if a child has particular light sensitivity.
Eight ways to adapt the learning environment
- Most visually-impaired pupils will benefit from extra support to navigate the school environment. A peer-buddy system or teaching assistant will be very helpful in teaching pupils how to find their way around the physical environment.
- Ensure the environment and teaching resources are as multi-sensory as possible, so that visually-impaired pupils can use their touch and hearing senses to help learn and to navigate their classroom and school. Shelves, and doorways to classrooms, can be labelled with different types of material (such as Velcro, felt, sandpaper and satin) to help a student locate different learning equipment and rooms.
- Use assistive technology. Encourage pupils to use audio books and computer text to speech facilities for example. Teach pupils in a structured way how to use assistive technology.
- Some fonts are more accessible than others. Arial, at least size 14, is considered the most generally accessible. It may be more important to use a bold font rather than a larger font size.
- Save resources electronically so that size, colour and font of print can be adapted and individualised for a visually-impaired child.
- Allow visually-impaired pupils extra time to process information effectively, and extra time to rest after periods of intense concentration.
- Adapting resources for Braille users is a skilled and time-consuming task. Braille users need more time to access information via Braille. Diagrams and pictures can be made tactile to support curriculum access. A specialist teacher will usually advise and support if this is necessary.
- Support a child socially. Their visual difficulties may make it difficult for them to see and interpret facial expressions and body language which can impact on the social skills.
Use the following items in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:
- Handout – Visual impairment classroom review18.20 KB
- Form – Visual impairment classroom review16.83 KB
About the author
Rosie Eachus has been a qualified speech and language therapist for 26 years. She has run storytelling groups in mainstream primary schools and is currently working at a senior school supporting pupils with dyslexia, dyspraxia and mild ASD.