Navigating the World of Higher Education as a Blind or Visually Impaired Student: Unequal Opportunities for Academic Success

By Roqayah Ajaj

Have you ever wondered how students who are blind navigate the materials, system, and people in college settings? Have you wondered what students who are blind and visually impaired have to do in order to be successful in higher education? Faculty and staff in higher education: what are you doing to ensure that students who are blind and visually impaired are integrated into your universities and classrooms? In this article, I will speak from my own experience and then, supported by some academic materials, about the continuous challenges that we as students who are blind and visually impaired have to overcome in the higher education journey.

Every semester, I must inform my new professors that I am blind and request the syllabus from them at least a month prior to the semester. Having syllabi is essential to my success during the semester because I have to get all my reading materials in advance and check if they are accessible; if they are not accessible, I have to send them to get converted to Word documents, which often takes at least two weeks. I must also communicate with each professor about my accommodations regarding what they have to do to include me in the class and how I can best learn in their course. The accommodations that I request from professors include verbalizing their actions, describing visuals during the lecture, verbalizing what they are writing on the board, asking the students to say their names when they answer so I know who is with me in the course, and sending me any class materials (e.g. handouts, PowerPoints) in electronic format at least two days in advance so I can review them and engage with the rest of the class.

In addition to communicating with the professors in advance, I have to communicate with the disability service providers at the university to inform them about my accommodations and what I need for each class. For example, if I am taking a statistics course or a highly visual course, I have to inform the Disability Resource Center and the instructor that they have to work closely together and figure out a way for me to understand the visual material and stay on track with the rest of the class. If there is a required visual course, I often register for the class far in advance and inform the Disability Resource Center because I know that this is stressful for everyone.

As a student, I feel like I have to think ahead, be proactive, and give everyone specific guidelines of how to support me so I do not fall behind. This is not an easy task, especially because I have to repeat the process every single semester, and sometimes multiple times in a semester. Despite all of my efforts, I often feel excluded and not completely integrated into the system since most of the time I have to articulate why I need a specific accommodation versus a different accommodation to multiple people during the same semester. I also may have to explain why I need to have the same learning opportunities as my sighted peers, even though it might be challenging for some courses.  Often instructors or other support providers take the easiest path and try to lower the bar for me, which makes me feel frustrated.

Even as I self-advocate, I do not always get what I need for many reasons. Some of these reasons include:

  • instructors have never had a student who is blind before and are unwilling to adjust their course
  • instructors do not plan ahead for their courses
  • instructors have not had training on how to interact with people who are blind and make their courses accessible
  • a lack of collaboration between instructors and disability centers
  • a lack of creative solutions to integrate me into the course
  • hiring under-qualified support staff
  • underestimating my abilities
  • misunderstanding my needs
  • unclear policies and expectations

Before I started doing academic searches for “inclusion for students who are blind in higher education,” I thought that I was an awkward student and that my requests were not reasonable. I began searching, hoping to find practical tips and studies covering this topic. I was surprised by the limited number of studies about social integration for students who were blind and visually impaired. Those studies that I was able to find emphasized the numerous challenges that students around the globe who are blind and visually impaired face in higher education. These challenges can adversely affect the education of students who are blind and visually impaired and potentially lead to attrition. The studies helped me realize that my scenario is a typical scenario for students who are blind and visually impaired in higher education. Students who are blind and visually impaired have to repeatedly overcome multiple obstacles during their journeys to get their degrees — in addition to the everyday academic challenges that all students face in the college setting.

One of the most significant challenges is timing. Since many academic materials are not automatically available in an accessible format, students who are blind or visually impaired have to request these materials to be converted (Fichten et al., 2009; Lee, 2014). Many studies have pointed out that students who are blind or visually impaired often do not receive their alternative formats in a timely manner, yet they are expected to submit their assignments at the scheduled time like their sighted peers, which affects their academic performance (Antonelli et al, 2018; Monson, 2015; Reed and Curtis, 2012; Ostrowski, 2016). Additionally, students who are blind or visually impaired face a problem with in-class assignments, as it takes twice the time for them to finish the required reading, which hinders their participation and integration (Antonelli et al., 2018). In my experience, I have felt embarrassed when my materials weren’t ready before class, because I felt like I wasn’t prepared and was therefore hesitant to engage in discussion with other students. While an extension for assignments is an option that is provided for students who are blind or visually impaired, it creates another barrier, as it pushes the students to be continually behind, not only during the semester, but possibly also extending to the following semester (Lourens and Swartz, 2016; Seyama, 2009). An extension can also affect the well-being of students who are blind or visually impaired because there is no time to take a break and relax like other students. This is why students need the class materials in advance. Accessing the materials on time and being able to comprehend them on time is a significant challenge for us as college students who are blind or visually impaired.

Image of cartoon person sitting atop a stack of large books, holding a palette with paint and brush.

Another challenge that students who are blind or visually impaired face is the implementation of the accommodations by faculty.  Different studies revealed that students who are blind or visually impaired often receive inconsistent accommodations from their professors (Reed and Curtis, 2012, Antonelli et al, 2018; Ostrowski, 2016).  For example, Reed and Curtis (2012) found that some students’ “accommodations were denied by teaching staff” (p. 420).  Even if students who are blind or visually impaired state their needs in advance to their professors, many professors forget to prepare their lectures to meet their needs or to provide the materials to them in advance, which makes the students feel excluded and unwelcome in the class (Lourens, 2015; Seyama, 2009). When I read these articles, I remembered that in one of my classes, the professor always forgot to send me his documents in advance. I spoke with him and reiterated my needs: sending the class materials to me two days in advance and describing the visuals verbally as much as he could so I could understand the subject. The professor came to the class after I spoke with him and started describing the visuals (which he had not sent to me) in a very funny way. He realized that he wasn’t making much sense, so he turned to the students and said, “You know, I am trying to describe the visuals because we have this young lady here…” He pointed to me and started laughing. Although he was a kind professor in general, I felt like he wasn’t ready to have me in his course, and he was obviously trying but was not adequately prepared. I felt really uncomfortable and embarrassed, even though the situation wasn’t my fault. When my professors have not provided materials for me ahead of time, or they changed the plan last-minute, they often realized this during the class and apologized to me. While it was kind of them to apologize, it did not help me as a student. It’s clear that, even when they have the best intentions, most professors are not accustomed to having accessible materials as an integral part of their teaching process; it is treated as an extra responsibility that may or may not be accomplished.

Not ensuring that we are included in every aspect of the class communicates to the other students that students who are blind or visually impaired are a ‘burden,’ that it is not the professor’s responsibility to ensure that we are being included and welcomed, or that the professor does not care.

Beyond the classroom, a further challenge for students who are blind or visually impaired is the lack of accessibility of university libraries. Most libraries lack Braille books/labels, screen readers, and large print (Dodamani and Dodamani, 2018; Monson, 2015; Singh and Moirangthem, 2010; Zia and Fatima, 2011). Interacting with the library staff to ask for support or help can be challenging because many staff do not know how to assist someone who is blind or visually impaired (Singh and Moirangthem, 2010). Furthermore, technology staff often lack knowledge about assistive technology, which hinders their ability to assist students who are blind or visually impaired (Antonelli et al., 2018; Ostrowski, 2016). Whenever I have issues with my laptop or need tech support, my only choice is to reach out to the disability office, because the staff at the IT desk often are not trained in troubleshooting problems with assistive technology.

Other challenges present themselves outside the academic arena. Given the fact that we as blind or visually impaired students cannot see our surroundings, the college environment can feel hostile for us. Many university settings do not follow universal design infrastructure guidelines (e.g. tactile and sound cues), which makes the college environment unwelcoming and can affect the self-esteem of students who are blind or visually impaired (Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, n.d.). Wide-open areas, crowded spaces, construction, and changes in the environment can create a navigation challenge and anxiety for the individual (Kizilaslan and Kisilaslan, 2018; Lourens and Swartz, 2016; Scott, 2009).

Other challenges in the college experience that are not as well-documented are found in social activities. Most of these activities, workshops, and orientations are not designed to include blind students, which can inhibit our sense of belonging. Many times, I attended workshops where the lecturers did not describe the visuals or provide any alternative format for the materials. Other times, when I attended student networking events, the icebreakers were not designed to include blind individuals, as they often required vision to participate in them. In one of these team-building activities, participants were asked to silently cross a line together, based on things they have in common (e.g., birthdays, sports teams, life experiences, etc.). Or lecturers asked participants to respond to a picture without describing it first. These activities automatically exclude students who are blind. Social activities and events are as important as academic experiences in a college student’s life and contribute to our overall well-being and self-esteem.

Students who are blind attend college to learn and prepare for our dream careers like any other students. The higher education promise is to provide us an equal opportunity for quality education and provide us support from enrollment to graduation. The ongoing obstacles that students who are blind face are an indication that we are not receiving equal opportunities to those of our sighted peers. If you are an instructor or a university leader reading this article, I would ask you to be very thoughtful that your policy and practice match your promise of an equal opportunity to education for students who are blind or visually impaired.

I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback about this article in the comments!


Antonelli, K., Steverson, A., & O’Mally, J. (2018). College graduates with visual impairments: A report on seeking and finding employment. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 112(1), 33–45. Https://×1811200104

Centre for Excellence in Universal Design. (n.d.). Building for everyone: A universal design spproach. Retrieved July 31, 2020, from

Dodamani, A., & Dodamani, S. (2018). Library services for the people with visual impairment in higher education: a review of literature. Library Progress (International), 38(1), 123. Https://

Fichten, C. S., Ferraro, V., Asuncion, J. V, Chwojka, C., Barile, M., Nguyen, M. N., Klomp, R., & Wolforth, J. (2009). Disabilities and e-learning problems and solutions: An exploratory study. In Educational Technology & Society (Vol. 12, Issue 4).

Lee, B. A. (2014). Students with disabilities: Opportunities and challenges for colleges and universities. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 46(1), 40–45. Https://

Lourens, H., & Swartz, L. (2016). Experiences of visually impaired students in higher education: bodily perspectives on inclusive education. Disability and Society, 31(2), 240–251. Https://

Monson, M. (2015). Literature review of transition to college or university for students who are blind or visually impaired prepared for the American Printing House for the Blind.

Ostrowski, C. P. (2016). Improving access to accommodations: Reducing political and institutional barriers for Canadian postsecondary students with visual impairments. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 110(1), 15–25. Https://×1611000103

Reed, M., & Curtis, K. (2012). Experiences of students with visual impairments in Canadian higher education. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 106(7), 414–425. Https://×1210600704

Seyama, L. G. (2004). Information seeking behaviour of students with visual impairment [Master’s Thesis, University of KwaZulu Natal].

Singh, K. P., & Moirangthem, E. (2010). Are Indian libraries VIP-friendly? Information use and information seeking behaviour of visually impaired people in Delhi libraries. Library Philosophy and Practice, 2010(MAY), 1–14.

Zia, M. W., & Fatima, F. (2011). Digital library services for visually impaired students: A study of the University of Karachi. Pakistan Journal of Library and Information Science, 12(12).

3 thoughts on “Navigating the World of Higher Education as a Blind or Visually Impaired Student: Unequal Opportunities for Academic Success

  1. Congratulations. An excellent clear description of the situation which resonates for me, a Disability Support worker on the other side of the world. I will be passing on this and your blog. John Lambert, Auckland University of Technology.

    Liked by 1 person

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