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Ensuring provision for students with a visual impairment using technology

Sally Cain and Richard Orme, Royal National Institute for the Blind, UK


We are encouraged to gain academic and vocational qualifications throughout our lives, either as a route to meaningful and fulfilling employment, or for personal satisfaction and a contribution to the growth of our knowledge of the world. For blind and partially sighted students, access to courses in higher education is dependent on technology and an effective outcome relies on the support that the student receives from the educational institution.

How can technology be used?

Technology can be used by visually impaired students to take advantage of learning opportunities in higher education. The use of adaptations on Personal Computer's (PC's) for information retrieval and communications, as well as for written output and examination, and portable devices for taking and retrieving notes, have reduced the barriers to learning for blind and partially sighted students. Many students with a visual impairment may use technology without specialist adaptations, by increasing the zoom in a word processor, for example, or changing the colours to white text on a black background.

Others students will make use of software and hardware adaptations, often called 'access technology'. These adaptations may take the form of speech output and electronic Braille displays for a blind student or screen enlargement for a partially sighted student. Teaching staff can also use the flexibility that technology offers to produce materials in a range of formats to suit the needs of visually impaired learners.

A wealth of information that is provided by technology has exploded upon us with the growth of the World Wide Web. For many, using information presented in digital form through a computer in a location of our choosing is far easier than using print-based archives. This has opened up enormous opportunities for visually impaired students who have been denied access up to now to the vast majority of information in a format they can use effectively.

Opportunities and threats of e-learning

Colleges of Higher and Further Education are now implementing Virtual Learning Environments, where all or parts of courses can be delivered through technology, offering the student online learning materials, tests, tutoring individually or in groups, chat and email. Essays and assignment material can be submitted electronically. These systems provide great opportunities for students with a visual impairment. Access technology enables these students to participate in this learning community on an equal footing, as long as their needs are not overlooked in the hot pursuit of progress.

It all too easy to develop products and interfaces without considering the needs of people with physical or sensory impairments. Unless this is drawn to the attention of the predominantly young, dynamic, able-bodied programmers and software designers, inaccessibility of these systems will be perpetuated and accessibility only achieved retrospectively and imperfectly.

When purchasing or developing e-learning systems and content, consideration must be given to the access issues for students with disabilities. Advice and guidance is available from organisations such as RNIB or from TechDis, a service funded by JISC.

Case Study - Carl

Carl has been diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP). Although he has some useful vision he is unable to access printed materials as quickly as his sighted counterparts. To help him with his studies, Carl uses a combination of access technology, which includes a screen magnification package and a scanner which was recommended as the result of an assessment.

Carl is currently studying for his Diploma in Management Studies. This takes place once a week and covers two modules per semester. It is absolutely essential to take notes in these lectures and more importantly to be able to interact with the class which requires participating in group discussions, case studies and short presentations. As Carl uses a laptop with screen magnification, this method of recording information gives him an advantage over his peers as he does not have to type up his notes after the class, he merely needs to have them proof read and edited.

Carl says "Using screen magnification software is a godsend as I would not be able to use a laptop without it".

Within the screen enlargement package that Carl uses there is also the option to use speech output. This allows Carl to have documents read out via the laptop, so when his eyes get tired he can use the speech and not rely on the magnification. For Carl it is extremely important to get used to using speech output as his eye condition is degenerative and he may eventually experience total sight loss. Having the combination of speech and magnification allows Carl to maintain his independence and to make use of the vision he currently has.

Carl says "When using this technology the lecturers found it fascinating at first. They could not believe how technology was able to magnify characters."

In order to get through the sheer volume of reading that has to be done as part of the course Carl has extremely supportive tutors who are able to provide enlarged handouts. The lecturers also give Carl accurate sign posting in terms of reading materials. Carl then gets the printed texts scanned into the computer and then is able to read them using speech or by printing out certain sections in a larger font.

Materials are also sent to Carl using email. For example during the summer vacation this year Carl went to meet with his lecturers and they agreed to send him some materials for the Finance module in advance so that Carl could make a start. The college have emailed him course information and sent hard copies of materials, which were not available in an electronic format. Carl has taken the hard copies and used his scanner and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software in order to convert this information into an electronic format. This now allows Carl to edit the text and enlarge the fonts so that he can have a print copy in class sessions.

Funding and the importance of assessment

Within all areas of education and employment, assessment and training are the building blocks by which appropriate access to technology is facilitated. Before embarking on a decision to purchase a particular device or application, it is necessary to determine the user's needs within the learning environment. This is completed by way of a technology assessment and should accurately identify the most appropriate technology solution for that individual within their environment.

An assessment usually includes:

  • A discussion of study methods and requirements for appropriate learning support/technology needs.
  • Hands on trials of equipment.
  • Evaluation of the effectiveness of technology to match the students requirements.
  • Research to ensure the equipment recommended is appropriate to the student's course and place of study.
  • A report to submit to the relevant authority, including specifications, prices and suppliers of equipment.

Technology often fails to deliver results due to lack of training, so training is vital to the successful introduction of technology. This should always be taken into consideration at the stage of assessment, so the training requirement is built into the process and the training needs budgeted for. Training should be needs-based rather than system based and it should focus on meeting the particular needs of the individual rather than introducing the user to the whole range of technical features of the device. If learning needs have been properly assessed, then the technology will have a specific role to play and the training programme should address these issues.

Students in Higher Education are usually eligible to apply for a Disabled Students' Allowance (DSA). Local Education Authorities (LEAs), Education and Library Board (ELB) of Northern Ireland and the Students Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS) award the DSA. This funding helps students pay for extra costs that they may incur in attending a course as a result of their disability. This allowance, among other things, can help pay for assessment and items of specialist equipment. Students with disabilities entering full-time higher education may be required to have an assessment report from an approved centre before claims for equipment and additional support are considered. As well as the university itself, centres that provide these assessments include RNIB Regional Centres and the National Federation of Access Centres (NFAC).

What support should the Higher Education Institution (HEI) offer?

As a result of the Disability Discrimination Act all HE institutions must produce and publish disability statements, detailing their policies and provision for disabled students.

Most HEI's have a Student Adviser whose responsibility is disability and this member of staff is available to support students with disabilities. They can help to arrange assessment and work with the education authority to ensure students that qualify get their DSA. They also are responsible for ensuring access to the course for students with disabilities, whether this is technology related or not. This might be arranging a personal reader or making sure that the student has mobility training at the campus, so they can find their way around.

The role of Disability Student Advisor is essential and without this support many students can feel excluded from the learning experience.


It is clear that the importance of technology must not be overlooked by any education institution when offering support to disabled students. Technology gives independence and enables the student to participate fully in the higher education experience by supporting them in their learning and facilitating social communication and interaction. Technology can offer opportunities and breaks down the barriers that have long excluded visually impaired people from being included in a rapidly growing technological and online community of learners.


"Financial assistance for blind and partially sighted students"
For this factsheet and information about your RNIB Regional Centre
contact the RNIB Helpline: 0845 766 9999

National Federation of Access Centres (NFAC)
Tel: 01752 232278

RNIB Student Website

RNIB Technology Information Service
Tel: 0870 013 9555

Skill: National Bureau for Students with Disabilities
Tel: 0800 328 5050

TechDis (Technology for Disabilities Information Service)

The Case Study in this article was taken from the RNIB publication 'Accessing Technology' which will be published in November 2001.

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