How Schools Can Help Visually Impaired Students

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Section One: Creating an Accessible Environment

Concept of an Accessible Environment

An accessible environment refers to the elimination of various tangible and intangible barriers existing within the campus, enabling visually impaired students to access various educational resources and receive appropriate education, thereby achieving personalized teaching objectives. In other words, it involves improving school buildings, enhancing equipment and facilities, adjusting teaching materials and methods flexibly, and changing the attitudes of teachers and students to provide an environment conducive to the education of visually impaired students, allowing them to fully unleash their potential.

Currently, in regular schools, both the hardware environment and software devices, as well as teaching materials and methods, are primarily designed to cater to the needs of sighted students. Sighted students rarely encounter inconveniences in such a campus environment. However, when students with disabilities enroll, they face various difficulties. If these challenges cannot be addressed, it creates what is known as “campus barriers” for them. These barriers encompass the difficulties faced by the students themselves as well as those arising from the environment. For visually impaired students, since their own disabilities cannot be changed, efforts should be directed towards improving the campus environment to reduce the inconveniences and challenges they encounter in their learning lives.

Campus Environment

Hardware Aspects

1. Campus Planning

When planning the campus, the needs of visually impaired students should be fully considered. This includes:

  • Installing differently colored tactile paving bricks to create tactile paths and guide visually impaired or low vision students safely into the campus and enable them to move freely within the campus;
  • Placing tactile campus maps along the blind paths inside the school gates;
  • Reducing the number of steps within the campus and providing more ramps;
  • Ensuring that all ditches within the campus are covered;
  • Trimming the branches of plants and trees along walkways;
  • Repairing uneven road surfaces;
  • Ensuring there are no gaps in staircases and adding an extra step for stairs that are too high;
  • When there is construction within the campus, adding guardrails and informing visually impaired students in advance;
  • Keeping corridors and walkways clear of obstacles;
  • Designating fixed locations for bicycles, cars, and other vehicles.

2. School Auxiliary Facilities

To assist visually impaired students in navigating the campus, facilities and equipment should be provided in places they frequently pass through or visit to help them identify their surroundings. This includes:

  • Installing tactile paving bricks with Braille markings, tactile campus models, or voice systems for orientation;
  • Using tactile paving bricks or rough surfaces along important routes within the school;
  • Placing Braille and enlarged font signage at appropriate locations near building entrances to indicate the names and purposes of each floor;
  • Adding Braille and enlarged font signage at important building entrances such as auditoriums, libraries, offices, restrooms, etc;
  • Using Braille on stairs, with standardized specifications and labeling to aid visually impaired students;
  • Equipping elevators with voice guidance.

Software Aspects

1. Providing Assistance:

Assign one or a group of students to take turns guiding visually impaired students to familiarize them with the campus environment. Explain the layout and functions of buildings within the campus in detail. For frequently used locations such as classrooms, restrooms, libraries, offices, shops, and cafeterias, guide them multiple times. If there are any changes in the placement of furniture in familiar environments, it’s best to inform them in advance.

2. Teaching:

  • When writing on the chalkboard or whiteboard, teachers should verbally convey the content;
  • While reading, inform visually impaired students about the content being read, allowing them time to locate the corresponding materials;
  • Provide auditory and tactile learning materials;
  • Instruct visually impaired students to record lectures for later review.

3. Classroom Environment:

  • Teachers should arrange for visually impaired students to sit in the front row of the classroom, facilitating clear listening to teacher explanations and recording. It’s also helpful to have another student sit beside the visually impaired student for assistance when needed;
  • Provide larger desks for visually impaired students using Braille machines or Braille boards;
  • Ensure adequate lighting in the classroom;
  • Avoid seating visually sensitive students in positions where they are exposed to intense sunlight through windows;
  • Classrooms should be located away from noisy areas to avoid auditory distractions for visually impaired students;
  • Keep the teacher’s belongings organized, and if any changes are made, inform visually impaired students clearly;
  • Classroom doors and windows should be fully opened or closed to prevent injuries to visually impaired students;
  • Avoid placing objects in the aisles, and remind classmates not to extend their feet into the aisles to prevent tripping hazards for visually impaired students;
  • During laboratory classes or field trips, designate classmates to provide assistance as needed.

4. Examination:

  • Provide appropriate examination methods, such as Braille papers, audio tapes, large-font papers, computer-based tests, and a system designed for visually impaired students;
  • Extend the examination time for visually impaired students by a general duration of 30 minutes. If computer-based exams are used, the duration can be extended to up to 1 hour, depending on the student’s computer proficiency and typing speed. Due to the auditory identification of words in the word bank when using a computer for writing, there may be typographical errors. The error rate varies depending on the subject, and each teacher should understand this pattern accordingly.

5. Counseling:

  • Teachers should interact with visually impaired students with a neutral mindset, avoiding favoritism, overprotection, condescension, or underestimation. Set appropriate expectations and encourage students to strive toward their goals to the best of their abilities;
  • Keep an eye on the academic and personal situation of visually impaired students, and provide assistance and guidance promptly when needed;
  • Encourage students to be good companions to visually impaired students, offering assistance and services when necessary;
  • Select students with good language skills as narrators to vividly describe what they see to visually impaired students;
  • Encourage visually impaired students to actively participate in class and school activities, and proactively engage in training to enhance their motor skills;
  • Remind visually impaired students to maintain cleanliness in their appearance and clothing and correct any undesirable habits or gestures;
  • Regularly monitor the visual condition of visually impaired students and maintain contact with relevant personnel to provide necessary assistance when required.

6. Providing Special Teaching Assistive Devices:

Various assistive devices can be provided for visually impaired students, including Braille writing boards, portable Braille displays, Braille embossers, Perkins Braillers, EHG Braille machines, electric Braille machines, ordinary eyeglass magnifiers, flashlight-style illuminated magnifiers, portable illuminated magnifiers, adjustable magnifiers, disc-shaped illuminated magnifiers, illuminated magnifiers, monocular telescopes, eyeglass-mounted telescopes, desk lamps with illumination, illuminated pens, reading stands, reinforcing frames, desktop video magnifiers, portable video magnifiers, color CCTV systems, tactile-to-speech converters, Braille word processors, refreshable Braille displays, tape recorders, digital voice recorders, and specialized computers for the visually impaired, among others.

7. Provision of Teaching Aids:

Vision is one of the most important senses for individuals, providing most of the perceptual information about the external world. Visual impairment means that individuals cannot perceive information through the visual channel as sighted individuals do. They can only perceive partial visual information or information that is not very clear, resulting in a lack or incomplete experience of visual perception. It can be challenging for them to form complete visual representations.

Some other senses, such as hearing, touch, and smell, can partially compensate for the loss of vision. Their hearing abilities are often enhanced, and they must rely on their sense of hearing to compensate for visual information that sighted individuals easily obtain through vision. This makes visually impaired children’s auditory abilities more sensitive compared to sighted children.

They also adapt to “using their hands as their eyes” and actively use their hands to obtain information about the external world. Their tactile sensitivity is somewhat higher than that of sighted individuals. Because visually impaired children have partially or completely lost their visual functions, touch plays an important and special role in visual impairment education. Auditory perception and tactile perception play a dominant role in the perceptual system of visually impaired children.

Teaching Aids for Visually Impaired Students

Teaching visually impaired students requires the use of various teaching aids, including general teaching aids, special teaching aids, and instructional materials.

General Teaching Aids:

Many teaching aids used in the education of sighted students can be adapted for use in teaching visually impaired students. These adaptable teaching aids are referred to as general teaching aids. For example, materials used in subjects like language, English, history, which rely on auditory input, can be used without modification. Teaching aids used in music and physical education are often directly applicable as well. In other subjects, there are numerous tactile-perceptible teaching aids, such as solid geometric shapes in mathematics. Although these tactile materials may not play a significant role in mainstream education, they are sufficient to help visually impaired children develop concrete representations and correct concepts.

It’s important to note that while many teaching aids in mainstream education rely on visual input, not all of them are effective for visually impaired students, especially those with complex details and low contrast.

Auditory teaching aids commonly used in mainstream education can be directly used for visually impaired students. Visually impaired students require auditory teaching aids used in mainstream education, and some students may also need auditory teaching aids converted from visual teaching aids. Audiobooks recorded specifically for visually impaired students also fall into the category of auditory teaching aids.

Special Teaching Aids:

Special teaching aids are those that are needed in the education of visually impaired students but cannot be borrowed directly from mainstream education. These include teaching aids in mainstream education that are tactile-perceptible but do not provide enough tactile information to achieve the same cognitive objectives. For example, a typical globe, although it has raised regions, may not provide sufficient tactile information. Many teaching contents that sighted students do not require teaching aids may necessitate specific teaching aids for visually impaired students. Some teaching aids may not be necessary for sighted individuals, and if teachers cannot adapt to the students’ perspective and the tactile approach, they may overlook the necessity of these teaching aids, leading to superficial and ineffective teaching. Over time, this may foster poor learning habits in students, such as blindly accepting information without seeking deeper understanding.

Since mainstream education rarely focuses on tactile teaching aids, the emphasis in tactile education for visually impaired students should be on tactile teaching aids. This includes real objects, specimens, models, images, and more. The principle for selecting special teaching aids is to prioritize the use of real objects, followed by specimens, models, and images.

1. Real Objects:

Real objects, as teaching aids, refer to objects that are the ultimate teaching goal themselves, rather than a means of learning about other things. For example, when teaching about “toys,” a toy car is a real object teaching aid. When wound up or equipped with batteries, it can actually move. However, if the teaching goal is to learn about practical real cars, then the toy car would not be considered a real object teaching aid. Real objects are 100% genuine and offer the most intuitive experience. In the education of visually impaired students, it’s best to use real objects for teaching new concepts. Teachers can bring real objects into the classroom, such as a live rooster or have students explore a real object like a small car. Whenever possible, real objects should be used as teaching aids. However, limitations in school conditions or the nature of the subject matter (e.g., objects that are too large, too small, dangerous, or toxic) may require considering the next level of teaching aids.

2. Specimens:

In this context, specimens are strictly related to biology. Specimens retain the tactile realism of the organisms they represent in terms of size, shape, and texture. Typically, specimens do not retain the dynamic characteristics, smell, temperature, or other features of the original organisms. Specimens of animals like tigers, lions, snakes, sharks, butterflies, etc., are effective teaching aids for visually impaired children to develop sensory understanding and concrete representations of these animals. However, there may be cases where teachers cannot obtain desired specimens due to objective constraints or where the tactile realism of some specimens is limited, such as mosquito specimens. In such cases, the next level of teaching aids must be considered.

3. Models:

Models are not limited to living organisms; non-living objects can also have models. These models can represent things like mountains, buildings, the Great Wall, bridges, and more. Models only require that they maintain a fixed proportional relationship in size to the object they represent. If the proportions are not fixed, it cannot be considered a model and, at most, is a conceptual representation. While models are tactile-perceptible and offer an intuitive teaching aid, their tactile realism is limited. They only maintain the shape of the object but may differ in size, texture, and other aspects from the actual object. Models have the advantage of being adjustable in size, allowing students to enlarge a mosquito, shrink a building, and navigate around it, touch it inside and out, and move up and down its layers. Although this provides a cognitive experience that is close to a real object, it may not be sufficient for visually impaired children to form a complete sense of the entire building.

4. Tactile Graphics:

Tactile graphics refer to flat images that are made tactilely perceptible through various means. There are various types of tactile graphics, including raised-line graphics, raised-dot graphics, and embossed graphics, among others. Tactile graphics can effectively represent flat shapes such as rectangles, triangles, circles, and can also represent two-dimensional objects with primary features (one dimension is significantly less prominent and is subconsciously ignored), such as rectangles representing tabletops or circles representing wheels. However, tactile flat graphics are almost unable to intuitively represent three-dimensional objects. Despite their limitations when representing real objects, tactile flat graphics are effective when representing abstract concepts such as parabolas, sine curves, and more.

5. Courseware:

With the widespread use of information technology, courseware has increasingly entered the classroom as a teaching aid. Although courseware is often referred to as multimedia technology, in practice, there are currently only two media (mediums): primarily visual and secondary auditory, with no place for tactile information. Blind students can only access auditory information, and crucial elements such as animations and graphic transformations cannot be perceived. Students with residual vision can, in principle, access information through both visual and auditory channels, but it’s essential to consider factors like the student’s field of vision, visual sensitivity, sensitivity to colors, and more.

Courseware created by teachers or borrowed by schools can be beneficial for individual students, and their efforts are worthwhile. However, if a student cannot satisfactorily access the information, the effort should not stop. Visually impaired students lack sensory understanding of objects, and in this regard, “modern” computers are powerless. When using courseware to aid in teaching, it’s important to avoid turning tasks that students can physically engage with into tasks that are unmanageable. For example, attempting to simulate a chemistry experiment or “nailing” buttons into a computer is not advisable. The idea of creating virtual machines or growing crops within a computer would be a tragic outcome of modernized teaching.

6. Other Considerations:

  • When communicating with visually impaired students, use less body language and instead use verbal expressions or physical contact, such as patting on the shoulder, touching their head, or shaking hands.
  • When speaking to visually impaired students, face them and call them by their name.
  • When providing directions, use clear and specific indications such as left or right, up or down the stairs.
  • When guiding a visually impaired student to sit down, guide their hand to the backrest or armrest of the chair so that they know the location and height of the seat.
  • When walking with a visually impaired student, allow them to hold onto your arm and walk naturally with them, rather than supporting or pulling them.
  • In conversations or when guiding a visually impaired person’s hand to examine something, you can use phrases like “take a look” as needed.
  • If there are visually impaired individuals in a room, it’s best to inform them when entering or leaving the room.
  • When a visually impaired person asks you to read a book, letter, or document to them, read slowly and clearly. Unless they ask questions, avoid interrupting and adding your own opinions.

Section Two: Changing Teaching and Interaction Strategies

Teacher Preparation

1. Thoroughly understand the situation of visually impaired students in the class

Teachers should be aware of the degree of visual impairment of visually impaired students, their daily life self-care abilities, orientation skills, and their learning status.

2. Determine appropriate teaching objectives

Based on the requirements of the curriculum, teachers should set teaching objectives that cater to both the entire class of students, ensuring that the basic goals outlined in the curriculum are met, and take into account the special needs of visually impaired students by adjusting teaching objectives accordingly.

3. Prepare teaching aids and supplementary materials for visually impaired students

Before the class, prepare Braille assignments or larger font exercises for visually impaired students, label tactile teaching aids with Braille characters, arrange seating, and if some visually impaired students have residual vision, provide suitable seating for them.

Classroom Teaching

  • When writing on the board, read aloud the content;
  • While reading, inform visually impaired students about the content being read, and give them some time to locate the corresponding material;
  • Provide auditory and tactile learning materials;
  • Record the class for visually impaired students for later review;
  • Ensure full participation opportunities for visually impaired students throughout the class;
  • Combine explanation with visual demonstrations and language expression with physical gestures in teaching methods
  • Teachers should learn how to use special equipment and tools used by blind or visually impaired students, including Braille;
  • If visually impaired students drop items, allow them sufficient time to retrieve them on their own, and provide assistance when necessary;
  • Encourage students to develop good behavior and conduct, avoiding the appearance of “blind mannerisms”;
  • Unless ophthalmologists advise against it, teachers should encourage visually impaired students to use their residual vision as much as possible.

Section Three: Assisting Visually Impaired Students in Learning

Meeting the Needs of Different Visually Impaired Students for Teaching Facilities

1. Needs of blind students for teaching facilities

For blind students, in addition to providing basic learning materials such as Braille books, Braille pens, and Braille slates, it is essential to provide special teaching equipment and living facilities whenever possible. This includes providing tape recorders, talking calculators, computers, and especially audio materials for extracurricular reading. In teaching, it is important to provide tangible teaching aids such as objects, models, and instruments with Braille symbols. With the advancement of science and technology, gradually equip the classroom with devices such as screen readers, Braille displays, and four-track tape recorders for the visually impaired. To ensure the sensitivity and accuracy of blind students’ tactile senses, measures should be taken to control the room temperature in both summer and winter and install heating and cooling equipment. Additionally, necessary tools and equipment should be provided for their mobility and activities. This includes standard white canes and other advanced mobility aids. Gradually provide teaching materials, tools, sports and recreational equipment that are easy for blind students to touch and identify, enrich their extracurricular activities, and enhance their mobility.

2. Needs of low vision students for teaching facilities

Low vision students should have necessary visual aids, appropriate lighting, and an external environment suitable for visual tasks. Visual aids can be categorized into optical and non-optical aids. To facilitate low vision students’ viewing of the chalkboard and reading books, each student should be provided with suitable near-vision and distance-vision aids. If possible, closed-circuit television (CCTV) devices can be provided, allowing students to adjust font sizes as needed, which can help visually impaired students read more comfortably. Classrooms can also be equipped with closed-circuit televisions, cameras, projectors, and large-screen computers to make it easier for them to see what is typically not visible or clear, such as chalkboards, teaching materials, and experiments. Additionally, suitable textbooks and workbooks, including large-print textbooks and workbooks with bold lines, should be provided. Classrooms for low vision students should have good natural lighting. To meet different lighting needs, each student’s seat should be equipped with an adjustable desk lamp with a light arm.

Furthermore, reading stands or height-adjustable desks should be provided to prevent low vision students from getting too close to books while reading or writing, which can lead to back curvature and developmental issues. The classroom environment and equipment should have contrasting and noticeable colors. The placement and size of objects should be appropriate and easily recognizable for low vision students.

Providing Assistance in Learning

1. Efforts to provide visually impaired students with suitable reading materials, textbooks, and relevant study materials

Since visually impaired students often face difficulties finding suitable textbooks and books to read upon enrollment, the school should organize sighted students to establish a volunteer reading team, promoting a spirit of mutual assistance and friendship. This team can help visually impaired students record the necessary books as audio materials. This allows visually impaired students to learn and perceive the content of textbooks through auditory means, in conjunction with classroom listening and recorded lectures. This approach helps them understand the subject’s system, structure, and develop analytical and thinking skills.

  1. Classroom Learning: Assist in taking class notes, regardless of how messy they may be. Even if only a small amount is recorded, the understanding and memory effects are far better than not taking any notes;
  2. Post-Class Review: Help visually impaired students reorganize their notes after class. Combine their own notes, notes taken by classmates who assisted them, and recorded lectures to assist in note organization;
  3. Extracurricular Homework: Teachers may assign extracurricular assignments, often involving researching materials for a specific question or writing a short essay. Assist visually impaired students in researching materials and recording them to facilitate their writing;
  4. Extracurricular Reading: Help visually impaired students read literature, art, philosophy, and other books that they enjoy;
  5. English and Computer Studies: These are two essential tool subjects. For English classes, assist visually impaired students in transcribing or recording each lesson’s text and vocabulary in large fonts. In computer courses, there is screen reading software designed for the visually impaired, which can help students learn computer courses conveniently once they learn to use this software.

2. Provide tutoring and professional teachers to give appropriate guidance

Visually impaired students primarily rely on auditory information. If these teachers can provide regular guidance to them, it will be of significant importance for their growth and progress.

3. Provide a specific learning space for visually impaired students

Since visually impaired students mainly learn through listening, reading Braille, and writing Braille notes, and often spend a lot of time organizing classroom recordings and notes after class, they need a dedicated space for studying that doesn’t disturb others and is free from distractions.

4. Design an equitable and appropriate examination method for visually impaired students

Develop various examination methods suitable for visually impaired students, such as oral exams, utilizing exam systems, etc., to narrow the gap between visually impaired students and sighted students caused by their disabilities.

5. Provide audio computers for visually impaired students

If possible, offer modern learning tools for visually impaired students, such as providing audio computers that they can use for reading, writing in Braille, and accessing information on the internet. Alternatively, develop learning software tailored for visually impaired students, allowing them to choose relevant courses, engage in independent learning, practice, self-assessment, and motivate their enthusiasm for learning.

6. Assist visually impaired students in completing social activities

Organize volunteers to help visually impaired students complete social activities and facilitate job placement.