Thursday, October 19, 2006

Accommodating visually impaired students in Higher Education

Defining ‘special needs’ including visual impairment, specific difficulties such as dyslexia, and autism, and such mental health issues such as schizophrenia and the psychiatrically vulnerable, is difficult; the term is a “fairly loose” one covering a panoply of conditions.

The assistance modern universities can offer should and usually does include access - in multiple formats, specific learning support: technological support and practical and physical support that is required but may be often overlooked. Basically, universities should be prepared and ready to receive students whose needs are different; the word ‘abnormal’ is not helpful here.

Adapting teaching strategies and the learning environment includes simple and effective measures such as not moving furniture, providing material in advance, giving thought to verbal and non verbal communication, and allowing visually impaired students more time to complete tasks, and allowing them to tape lectures.

Specific advice to teachers includes explaining visuals, speaking loudly and clearly, getting to know students – remembering every student’s needs vary – and promoting independent learning, which students actively seek.

Simple, effective, practical measures when making information accessible include using fonts that are clear and large enough (14 minimum), regular spacing of words, contrasting dark against light, but avoiding word wrapping or word art or anything that will impede students’ ability to interact with materials.

Ensuring that every student has an email address, while providing text equivalents in more visual ways, is also important, as well as taking care with file names and subject lines of email messages.

Technical support such as programmes that read on-screen text verbally (JAWS, HAL) are useful for visually impaired students and there are organizations that can provide such help: NATTIQ based in Sharjah. There are other means of support: talking mobile phones, Braille notepads, and low-tech solutions such as magnifying glasses, and well lit and brightly decorated classrooms, even students designated as blind benefit from this last measure.

Lastly, and dealing with examinations for visually impaired students in particular, although international examining boards do not allow the use of screen readers, provision of enlarged print in exam texts, tapes and Braille readers can be accommodated, and additional time allowed to complete tests and exams.

All educationalists should appreciate, however, that a student given 100% extra time must find such lengthy exams extremely tiring; empathy and understanding, rather than pity should be our watchword when teaching students have needs that differ from other students in our classrooms.

Useful sources
Powell, S ed (2003) Special Teaching in Higher Education Kogan Page London
Hutchinson, J et al (1998) Breaking Down Barriers: Access to Further and Higher Education for Visually Impaired Learners Stanley Thomas/RNIB Cheltenham UAE based training centre Association in UK help for students

Robert L. Fielding


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