Disability Services for Students

302 Memorial Union Univeristy of Rhode Island Kingston, RI 02881


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Visual Disabilities

(Includes definition, how disability affects participation, helpful strategies, and courtesy rules of blindness.)


The legislative definition of visual disability describes visual acuity and field of vision as the two criteria which determine blindness and eligibility for support services. Visual acuity refers to the distance that an individual can recognize an object; field of vision refers to the angle at which a person can see.

“Vision loss may be classified according to the anatomical site of the problem. Anatomical disorders include impairment to the refractive structures of the eye, muscle anomalies in the visual system, and problems of the receptive structures of the eye. Visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better eye with the use of corrective lenses is the marker for legal blindness” (Hardman, 1996).

Asch (1995) states that this definition may not encompass all persons whose visual impairment may substantially hinder such daily activities as reading, working, or traveling. Of those persons considered “legally blind” or low-vision, 5% are under age 20; 21% are ages 20-64 (Asch, 1995).

How Visual Disabilities may affect student participation:

With the use of adaptive technology and supports, students with visual disabilities can be as capable and efficient as their peers who rely on sight.

There may be a time delay in obtaining  adapted textbooks.

The student may take more time to read in-class handouts and may need assistive technology to do so.

The student may attend class accompanied by a service dog, e.g. seeing-eye dog.

The student may not be able to make use of projected images/slides or the blackboard, thus requiring an accommodation, such as paper copies of slides for close viewing.

The student may be able to do written in-class exercises if the material provided is in accessible format and with the use of electronic devices such as computer or IPad.

The student may need to view the work closely in order to read handouts or transparencies. Large print may be required.

The student may rely on JAWS (or Kurzweil) screen-reading software in order to review handouts, syllabi, etc.  These documents should be provided in electronic format.

Helpful strategies for instructing students:

Assume that the student has adequate social skills and rapport building techniques that will enable the student to be as effective, confident and competent as his or her peers.

Try to limit external and internal noise by closing doors and/or windows.

Oral reading is encouraged over silent reading.

While using projected slides or a writing easel, verbally describe what is being presented. Also, consider using colored chalk on a clean chalkboard for increased contrast.

Try to include the student in class discussions. A suggestion is for students to raise hands and be recognized by name.

When calling on the student with visual impairment, always use the student’s name.

Seating toward the front of the classroom is recommended.

Try to avoid lecturing in front of bright windows as it tends to be distracting.

Provide reading lists as soon as possible.

In office situations it may be appropriate to describe the position of chairs/doorways to help orient the student.

In order to make field site records accessible, provide private space where the student can make use of adaptive technology to view records.

From a student with a vision impairment, Spring 1997:

“The most helpful thing a teacher did for me was to allow me to use the print enlarger in the library and to give me copies of overheads.”

Courtesy Rules of Blindness:

When you meet me don’t be ill at ease. It will help both of us if you remember these simple points of courtesy:

  1. I’m an ordinary person, just blind. You don’t need to raise your voice or address me as if I were a child. Don’t ask my spouse what I want–“Cream in the coffee?”–ask me.
  2. I may use a long white cane or a guide dog to walk independently; or I may ask to take your arm. Let me decide, and please don’t grab my arm; let me take yours. I’ll keep a half-step behind to anticipate curbs and steps.
  3. I want to know who’s in the room with me. Speak when you enter. Introduce me to the others including children, and tell me if there’s a cat or dog.
  4. The door to a room or cabinet or to a car that is left partially open is a hazard to me.
  5. At dinner I will not have trouble with ordinary table skills.
  6. Don’t avoid words like “see.” I use them too. I’m always glad to see you.
  7. I don’t want pity, but don’t talk about the “wonderful compensations” of blindness. My sense of smell, taste, touch or hearing did not improve when I became blind, I rely on them more and, therefore, may get more information through those senses than you do–that’s all.
  8. If I’m your houseguest, show me the bathroom, closet, dresser, window–the light switch too. I like to know whether the lights are on or off.
  9. I’ll discuss blindness with you if you’re curious, but it’s an old story to me. I have as many other interests as you do.
  10. Don’t think of me as just a blind person. I’m just a person who happens to be blind.
  11. You don’t need to remember some “politically correct” term, “visually impaired”, “sight challenged” etc. Keep it simple and honest, just say blind.

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