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Many resources, tools, and technology can help support students with low vision who pursue an education online.

Students with visual impairments face unique challenges in college. Fortunately, they can use resources and technology to help make online college more accessible. This guide provides information about tools and resources designed to support learners with visual impairments in the virtual classroom.

Accommodations and Resources Through Your School

Public schools are required to provide accommodations and resources for students with disabilities, and many private schools do, too. While you can start by reaching out to your school's disability resource center, remember that the university library and tutor center can also provide help. Virtual classrooms have also begun to incorporate learning aids for students with visual impairments, such as audio description services for visual materials.

The following list covers some common accommodations and resources provided by most colleges and universities.

Nearly all colleges and universities have a disability resource center. These facilities allow learners to socialize with a broader community, receive help with school-related issues, and temporarily access or borrow expensive equipment for coursework, such as braille printers and OCR systems. Many schools now use special video player formats that support audio descriptions to narrate the visual aspects of assigned viewing materials. This narration can help convey a sense of the visual information in video materials and help students connect with recorded lectures. Institutions commonly provide texts and other forms of media in machine-readable formats, such as PDFs and ePUB files. In classrooms where instructors provide scanned copies of resources, students can often acquire machine-readable versions directly from professors or through the library. Many schools allot extra time to students with visual impairments when completing assignments, tests, and message board posts, especially if they need to use speech-to-text software, screen readers, or magnifiers. The student resource center can help enrollees advocate for these accommodations. If a school does not provide materials optimized to a learner's abilities, they commonly offer alternate completion options. For example, courses may replace a text-based or visual presentation requirement with an oral presentation or audio upload. Online library services provide special file formats for assigned texts, audiobooks, or alternate formats, such as braille. Some libraries also offer services like telephone reader programs. Most schools have shifted their tutoring services to combine in-person and virtual offerings. Students interact with tutors online or through phone conferencing, making personalized support increasingly convenient.

Assistive and Adaptive Technology

To successfully process assignments from their online classrooms, students might need to use tools like apps for scanning QR codes and recognizing images, screen reader software, and large print keyboards.

Many schools make the following tools available to learners with visual impairments, recognizing them as instrumental to a student's academic success.

Computer Assistance
  • Large Print Keyboards: Large print keyboards make it easier to see the keys and learn to touch type. Reliable large print keyboards, such as the AbleNet Large Print USB Computer Keyboard or the Nuklz Large Print Computer Keyboard, typically cost $30-$50.
  • Braille Displays: These hardware devices display refreshable braille cells on their surfaces, allowing visually impaired readers to advance through text output from a computer. Reliable braille displays, such as those offered by Boundless or Freedom Scientific, often cost at least $1,000.
  • Braille Keyboards: These keyboards use raised braille rather than printed Arabic letters and numerals. Since blind learners generally use standard keyboards with added braille stickers, keyboards designed specifically for braille, such as those made by Logickeyboard, are uncommon. However, Google recently debuted a virtual braille keyboard for Android, so they may become more common.
  • Braille Keyboard Stickers: Individuals with low vision can place these stickers on keyboards to help identify the characters on each key by touch. Offered by MaxiAids and LS&S, these braille keyboard covers typically cost about $20.
  • Braille Printer: These specialized devices print long documents in braille, making them readable by touch. A braille printer usually costs around $2,000-$5,000, and Braillo and IRIE make some of the most reliable models.
  • Fonts: Fonts such as APHont and Bebas Neue use heavier letters or all capital letters, which are easier for individuals with low vision to read.
  • Screen Readers: These software applications synthesize text into speech, helping visually impaired students quickly process shorter documents or web pages in virtual classrooms. Costs range from the free Apple screen reader VoiceOver to $1,000 for high-end programs like Jaws.
  • Magnifier Apps: Visually impaired learners can use magnifier apps to make text easier to read on their phones. Most of these apps, such as SRC Magnifier or Lumin, are free or cost less than $10.
Math Assistance
  • Graphic Tablets: Graphic tablets, such as those from XP-Pen and Wacom, can render shapes, math problems, and other non-written information in tactile form, making them popular among visually impaired math majors. These tablets generally cost around $40-$60.
  • Talking Calculators: Talking calculators, such as those developed by Assistech and MaxiAids, read numbers, symbols, and operations out loud, helping users enter information correctly. They generally cost around $20.
Productivity and Organization Tools
  • Email Assistance Apps: These apps synthesize text into speech, tailoring their experiences to people with low vision. Most of them are free or cost less than $3. Two popular options are Speaking Email and Boomerang.
  • Image Recognition Apps: Image recognition apps can identify objects in photos and convert them into descriptions. Students with visual impairments use these apps to make sense of image-heavy documents. TapTapSee and BlindTool are free image recognition apps.
  • Money Reader Apps: These apps scan and verbally read out physical money, which helps blind and visually impaired people identify and count out bills quickly without relying on another person. Free money reader apps include NantMobile Money Reader and Cash Reader.
  • Productivity Apps: Free productivity apps, such as TickTick and Wunderlist, can help with organization.
  • QR Code Readers: Many QR code readers tailor their experiences to blind and visually impaired users.
Reading Assistance
  • Audiobooks: This format helps students with visual impairments complete required readings. Websites such as Librivox and Open Culture offer free access to thousands of downloadable audiobooks, as do many libraries.
  • Magnifiers: Magnifiers allow people with visual impairments to enlarge text on a printed physical surface for greater ease of reading. Along with physical magnifiers, some visually impaired learners also use digital magnifiers, such as those from Eyoyo and Koolerton.
  • Optical Character Recognition Software: OCR software converts printed text into synthetic speech. OCR systems such as ClearReader and Eye-Pal, which can cost up to $3,000, come in handy for learners with visual impairments, allowing them to quickly convert text into a listenable format.
  • Text-to-Speech: This tech converts text into synthesized speech for people with visual impairments. Students encounter text-to-speech in free apps, computer software, or text-to-speech pens, which typically cost around $200.
Speech Recognition Software

Speech recognition software types words as you speak them into a microphone. For many students with visual impairments, it greatly simplifies creating written documents by removing the need to touch a keyboard.

A reliable speech recognition application, such as Dragon Professional, Sonix, or Voci, typically costs around $100-$200 for home use.

Note-Taking and Study Assistance
  • Braille Note-Takers: These devices allow blind learners to take and save notes through a braille display or speech synthesizer. Quality braille note-takers, such as the BrailleSense Polaris or the BrailleNote Touch 32, make live note-taking vastly easier for blind students, but they can run up to $5,000.
  • Smartpen: Smartpens, which can record written notes and audio, make it easier for learners with visual impairments to record lectures and recall written notes. A good smartpen, like the ECHO or Livescribe, typically costs around $150.
  • Mind Mapping Apps: Free mind mapping apps, such as MindNode and ClickUp, create a highly organized visual mapping system for brainstorming that can make working on assignments less mentally taxing and more organized, which is easier to parse for learners with visual impairments.
Writing Assistance
  • Predictive Text Software: Predictive text software, often built into free applications like OpenOffice, allows learners with visual impairments to type more quickly by selecting word completion options. Specialized predictive text apps, such as Keeble, cost around $25.
  • Proofreading Software: Students with visual impairments often need help proofreading longer documents, as they are sometimes less likely to notice typing mistakes. Free proofreading software applications, such as Voice Writer and Voice Dream, offer text-to-speech phonetic proofreading that helps students with visual impairments independently proofread entire documents quickly and thoroughly.

Online Learning and the Legal Rights of the Visually Impaired

There are a variety of legal protections that help blind and visually impaired students access accommodations for online learning. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1991 prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities within public entities and places of public accommodation, including colleges and universities.

The Rehabilitation of Act of 1973 prohibited discrimination again people with disabilities within federal organizations and assistance programs. Section 504 specifically prohibits this discrimination in organizations that receive federal funding, which includes schools that participate in federal financial aid programs. Section 508 also requires electronic communication materials from these organizations to provide accommodation for people with disabilities.

The law requires colleges, universities, and professors to make online learning accessible to the visually impaired, and this can mean providing communication and learning aids in the virtual classroom. These protections encompass both public and private colleges; privately owned schools are considered places of public accommodation and often receive federal grant money.

Title III of the ADA — Purpose

The purpose of this part is to implement title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (42 U.S.C. 12181), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by public accommodations and requires places of public accommodation and commercial facilities to be designed, constructed, and altered in compliance with the accessibility standards established by this part.

Source: ADA.gov

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act — Nondiscrimination Under Federal Grants and Programs

No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States… shall, solely by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance or under any program or activity conducted by any Executive agency or by the United States Postal Service.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor (DOL)

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act — Development, Procurement, Maintenance, or Use of Electronic and Information Technology

... each Federal department or agency, including the United States Postal Service, shall ensure, unless an undue burden would be imposed on the department or agency, that the electronic and information technology allows, regardless of the type of medium of the technology -

  • individuals with disabilities who are Federal employees to have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to the access to and use of the information and data by Federal employees who are not individuals with disabilities; and
  • individuals with disabilities who are members of the public seeking information or services from a Federal department or agency to have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to the access to and use of the information and data by such members of the public who are not individuals with disabilities.

Source: DOL

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 provides a roadmap for designing online materials to make them accessible to people with disabilities. Compliance with Sections 504 and 508 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act effectively requires colleges and universities to implement this document's guidelines, as it is the most intuitive route to compliance. The White House website cites WCAG 2.1 as the gold standard.

WCAG clarifies how to best serve learners with visual impairments. For instance, it stipulates that web content must provide visually impaired students with text alternatives, such as large text, speech, or braille.

If you or someone you know needs support or assistance in ensuring success in the classroom — online or otherwise — the following list of resources and organizations may help.

National Resources and Organizations

Since 2009, the AccessText Network has served as a go-between for learners with visual impairments and thousands of publishers and schools. Learners can use the service to request textbook files in accessible formats. ACB advocates for quality of life and independence for all blind and visually impaired people. The organization's site maintains an exhaustive listing of vendors for assistive technology for learners with visual impairments. AFB works toward the advancement of blind and visually impaired people through research and political advocacy. The organization recently hosted a series of free webinars on online education for visually impaired students. APH, a nonprofit based in Louisville, Kentucky, provides products and services for learners with visual impairments and other disabilities. Innovative technology from APH includes braille keyboards and specialized braille displays. The DO-IT Center promotes accessible instruction design for learners with low vision, specifically in STEM-related majors. The organization also offers student groups and scholarships for learners with visual impairments. NCDAE monitors and promotes accessibility for people with disabilities in online postsecondary education. Its website includes a list of "cheat sheets" for maximizing the accessibility of different learning applications.

Matthew Sweeney received his Bachelor of Arts in English with a specialization in English literature from Portland State. His writings on music and culture have appeared in the publications Eleven PDX Magazine and Secret Decoder. In his free time he enjoys reading, cinema, hiking, and cooking.

Header Image Credit: Yue_ | Getty Images

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