Assessing an institution for students with visual impairments

In the previous installment, physical disabilities were defined not only as motor impairments, but also impairments in vision and hearing. A visual impairment includes low vision, partially sighted, legal blindness, and total blindness (NICHCY, 2013).

According to the University of Washington, individuals are classified as having low vision if they possess either myopic vision ('nearsighted') if they are unable to clearly see objects from a distance, or hyperopic vision ('far sighted') if they are unable to see up close objects clearly. 


'Partially sighted' refers to individuals in an educational setting who can use large print books, Closed Circuit TV or other  magnification devices (University of Washington, 2013). Other accommodations can include the use of audio recorded textbooks, the use of readers, raised line drawings etc. Legally blind students, on the other hand, are defined as having less than 20/200 vision or in other words, less than 20% of their field of vision is operational. These students will have some useful or functional vision. "Totally Blind individuals need Braille, raised-line drawings, audio recordings, and/or other non-visual media as an accommodation for accessing the content of visually presented materials" (University of Washington, 2013). 

By the time a child with a visual impairment is ready to go to university, he or she has been through the special educational system. Individualized Education Programmes (IEPs) have provided a blue print for the types of accommodations the child needed in the classroom and types of skills he or she needed to learn before transitioning to post-secondary education.

"Children with visual impairments need to learn the same subjects and academic skills as their sighted peers, although they will probably do so in adapted ways. They must also learn an expanded set of skills that are distinctly vision-related, including learning how to:

  • move about safely and independently, which is known as orientation and mobility (O&M)
  • use assistive technologies designed for children with visual impairments
  • use what residual vision they have effectively and efficiently
  • read and write in Braille, if determined appropriate by the IEP team of the child after a thorough evaluation" (NICHCY, 2013)

Accessability legislation in the USA

Once a student with a visual impairment reaches college age, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) generally ends all the educational protections and safe guards. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 comes into play.

Students with visual impairments are entitled to reasonable accommodations under the ADA which can include such things as the ability to record lectures, audio textbooks, readers, magnifying machines, and optical reading devices such as a Kurzweil Readerâ„¢.

Assessing an institution for visually impaired students

Check out the Disability Student Services Office web site at the college you are interested in attending. How extensive is their section on services to students with visual impairments?

The student will need to assess whether the reasonable accommodations the university is willing to provide adequately matches his or her needs vis-a-vis his or her type of visual impairment.

Further, the prospective student with a visual impairment should visit the campus, talk to the office of disability student services to see what type of supports are available aside from the accommodations provided by that office:

  • How many students with visual impairments attend that school?
  • Is there a community of students with visual impairments? 
  • Is there a recognized student government group of individuals with visual impairments?
  • Are there curb cuts as one approaches a corner?
  • What are the conditions of the side-walks?
  • At the cross walks, do the crossing lights have audible beeps, count down timers, and tell the pedestrian which direction he or she may travel?
  • For those students who are partially sighted, is there sufficient lighting at night, in hallways and stairwells so they can walk around safely? 

Taking a tour will give the prospective student a sense of how easy or how difficult it will be to navigate around campus.

When counselling a student with a visual impairment about transitioning to college, the goodness of fit must include aspects of orientation and mobility, assistive technology, and the use of residual vision when appropriate. These are additional considerations to the general transitional issues facing all students about to head off to college. These additional considerations can help assure the best fit between the student with a visual impairment and the college of his or her choice.

Ernst VanBergeijk is the Associate Dean and Executive Director, at New York Institute of Technology Vocational Independence Program (VIP). The Vocational Independence Program is a US Department of Education approved Comprehensive Transition and Postsecondary (CTP) program. Dr. VanBergeijk also administers Introduction to Independence (I to I), a seven week summer college preview program for students ages 16 and up.