There are between one and a half and two million visually impaired people in the UK. The term ‘visual impairment’ refers to people with irretrievable sight loss and this simple definition covers a wide spectrum of different impairments. It does not include those whose sight problems can be corrected by spectacles or contact lenses, though it does include those whose sight might be improved by medical intervention. If you are short sighted or long sighted, but you can see normally when you put your glasses on or wear your contact lenses, you are not visually impaired.
Only about one in five registered blind people can be described as seeing nothing at all: many technically blind people have some useful perception of light and shape. The level of a person’s visual impairment may vary according to lighting conditions and from one day to the next. It may be an unchanging condition or it could be one that is gradually deteriorating. So if you are teaching a visually impaired student it is important to check periodically that the support strategies in place are still appropriate.
The appearance of a person’s eyes may suggest to you that a student has a sight loss, or a student may have a guide dog or use a white cane or stick. But many visually impaired students are not easily identified as such – visual impairment may be a ‘hidden disability’. It is almost impossible to tell anything about type of sight loss and the learning support needs of a student simply by appearance.
The way in which a student’s visual impairment affects their access needs can be influenced by
People with different types of visual impairment may have very different needs as students. Try to develop your understanding of sight loss and how it affects learning so you can teach more effectively. Visually impaired students are likely to have developed their own study skills strategies and you need to support and maximise these. You should not make assumptions about what a visually impaired student can do or what they might need, based on your experience of another student with a similar impairment.
Remember, the only person who can say what a visually impaired person can and cannot see is that person, and the only way to identify a student’s support needs is to consult them. It is difficult to convey an impression of what a blind or partially sighted student can see but the Vision Simulator may give you an idea of how some eye conditions can affect vision over time.
The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) provides statistical and other useful information.