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Characteristics of Visual Difficulties Impacting on Learning and Teaching
Receiving Information During Lectures
Students who are reliant on taping lectures as a way of receiving information will need a translation of visual material into an auditory form. Some thought needs to be given as to the best way of conveying information from diagrams, graphs, chars and other complicated visual material.
Students with a range of impairments, such as those with a visual impairment, may want to record information by taping or Brailing. Referring students to a website will be useful if the information there is designed to be visually accessible, and if the student has the appropriate equipment or software for reading it. Some lecturers are happy to provide students with a disk or hard copy of lecture material, or copies of overheads. Provision of these can enable students with language and comprehension difficulties to devote more attention to listening.
Taping lectures is not always an unqualified success, unless the student develops a system for retrieving information from the tapes, perhaps by tone indexing the tapes, and keeping a record of the main ideas of the lecture. Taking home tapes of lectures for transcribing at a later stage can be very time-consuming, and students who do this may benefit from advice from lecturers about whether this is likely to be a successful strategy for study.
Participating in Seminars/Tutorials
Students who have visual difficulties that affect their ability to access text may be excluded when there is some reading to do in the tutorial. They may also experience difficulties with face to face communication if they are unable to read facial expressions or body language. It can take time for students to get used to the voices of other students in their seminar and it may be helpful for speakers to say their name prior to speaking. It is helpful to provide any textual material, in an accessible format, in advance of the tutorial, even if this is not the tutor's usual practice.
There are some fairly straightforward and low-tech ways of modifying or adapting equipment or activities to allow students with visual impairments to participate in practical classes. Examples include: auditory displays of visual information (such as talking thermometers), tactical displays of visual information (such as beakers with raised markings), clamps and other devices for holding items of equipment, and hand held, illuminated magnifiers. Examples of such innovations are likely to multiply as more people who develop impairments while in employment are maintained and supported in their employment.
Students with visual difficulties working in laboratories can also experience problems with textual materials as well as equipment. In these circumstances, alternative formats, verbalising text or interfacing lab equipment with computer with large print or speech output can all be useful adjustments.
Students with visual difficulties can also experience problems with laboratory layout and may require extra assistance to help them familiarise themselves with layout and location of equipment.
Work Placements, Study Abroad and Field Trips
Departments organising placements, field trips or study abroad for students with impairments will need to consider, ideally alongside the students themselves, the differences between the new context and environment and the more usual, and often more structured, context of study. Sometimes, the use of equipment, arrangements or personal assistance could, with a little planning, transfer to a different context.
Some equipment or educational support may not be so easily transferable. Taping lectures may be acceptable in a way that taping interviews with clients in a setting requiring confidentiality may not be. Portability may also be a factor to be considered for field trips and study abroad. Some non-medical, personal help, such as communication support for lectures, could be regarded as obtrusive during one-to-one work involving clients. A laptop with speech synthesis linked to a data projector could allow a blind trainee tutor to do the functional equivalent of writing on a chalkboard. This latter arrangement could clearly have uses in other work contexts involving presentations.
The fact that funding may need to be found to purchase additional equipment for placements, field trips or study abroad, underlines the necessity to plan and prepare long before the placement start date.
Students with impairments are positive assets on courses, where a reminder of the diversity of human experience is important. It can be instructive to be reminded of substantial gains for all students from organising placements in such a way that students with impairments are safely included, and not to think exclusively about problems.
For students who have impairments of various kinds, the usual assessment format may need to be modified to achieve the assessment objectives. Clarity about the latter will be very helpful in determining acceptable modifications, which will be different for different types of assessment, or for different parts of the assessment, e.g. a student may be considerably disadvantaged by part of an exam paper with a heavy concentration of text, such as multiple choice questions, but have no additional difficulty in reading and understanding brief essay titles.
Students with visual difficulties may require examination papers in formats such as Braille, tape or enlarged print. Alternative, the questions or titles of the assignment could be provided on disk, if appropriate access technology is available. Or they could be read to the student.
Some students may rely on equipment for the demonstration of assessed achievements, whether in a formal examination environment, or the less formal setting in which assignments are prepared for continuous assessment. A tape recorder, computer, or amanuensis or assistant, may be needed to enable a student to complete an assignment. There is a need for clarity over the role and involvement of equipment or assistant, so that arrangements are identified which ensure that the student maintains control over producing what it is that is to be assessed.
An amanuensis can be regarded as an efficient writing machine, responsive to instructions and free from the mechanical complexities of keyboards or tape-recorders. It is usually necessary for the amanuensis to be literate in the subject s/he is scribing. This is particularly true of subjects with terminology and symbols unfamiliar to most people.
Working with an amanuensis takes practice, for both parties, as decisions have to be taken about such matters as spelling, punctuation, and, especially in a timed examination setting, the speed of dictation. Negotiations may also need to take place regarding how visual material is to be conveyed to and from a student who is unable to see or produce it. Where the assessment is carried out may affect how it is carried out. Students relying, in a formal examination setting, on either speech-to-text software or an amanuensis, will obviously have to be accommodated in a room separate from other candidates.
Many departments mark anonymously. Where students produce assignments in an alternative way, departments may have to consider whether the goals of anonymous marking can be achieved in some other way. If departments regard anonymous marking as a protection against marker bias, then it may be possible to achieve this end by some other way of monitoring standards in marking.
These strategies are suggestions for inclusive teaching. This list should not be considered exhaustive and it is important to remember that all students are individuals and good practice for one student may not necessarily be good practice for another. You may also like to contact the Disability Specialist in your institution for further information. If you have any good practice that you would like to add to this list, please email your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org
- Organise orientation sessions for individuals, to assist navigation around the building(s), materials and learning resources.
- Ask partially sighted students what helps them most, because the support they require may be very different.
- Adjust lighting for individuals. Generally good lighting is helpful, but for some students too much light can be a hindrance, and glare from shiny surfaces can be very distracting. Many students who are partially sighted are photophobic - they cannot tolerate bright light.
- Speakers should ensure they stand in a well-lit place, facing people, but not directly in front of a window, as the face is then in shadow.
- Produce materials in advance if they need to be put into Braille, modified print or onto tape.
- Written materials are easier to decipher if they are clear and simple, on non-glossy paper and with strong contrast in colour and tone. A sans serif font such as Arial at 14 point size is a good starting point for clarity. Black print on yellow or white paper is usually clear, although students may have individual preferences.
- An uncluttered layout without too much on one page is helpful.
- Avoid placing text over a background illustration or pattern.
- Some people find it easier to use a tape recorder, as it may be the most efficient way for them to review materials and ideas.
- Eliminate background noises as much as possible and speak clearly.
- Ask speakers to introduce themselves by name in group discussions.Prepare handouts in advance so that people who are blind or partially sighted have diagrams, etc. to hand.
- Always read out what is written when using a whiteboard, overhead transparency or PowerPoint presentation, and explain fully any diagrams, illustrations, acronyms or videos you use.
- Blind and partially sighted people may need particular assessment or examination arrangements such as a separate room, extra time, readers or scribes for written tests.
- Explore with the student techniques that help to compensate for perceptual difficulties. For example, discuss ways of isolating lines or blocks of information, possibly using windows cut out of card.
- Use a frame or ruler to identify the line of text and to help move the eye to the next line.
- When preparing handouts, pay attention to how easy they are to read and consider using more accessible, sans serif, fonts.
- Use colour and imagery to highlight key points or important details.
- Offer a range of lined coloured paper for students to write on (this may have to be photocopied or specially ordered). If students have a colour preference, ensure all handouts are printed on it for them.
- Recording lectures and tutorials can be very helpful for those who need to re-listen to what has been said in order to make accurate notes and to discuss the content with others at a later date.