Inclusion isn’t too challenging; you can be creative and proactive to meet individual needs.
By Roqayah Ajaj
To promote inclusion for students who are blind and visually impaired in higher education settings, everyone must collaborate to work toward that goal: the university system at large, the staff, the students, and the faculty. Here are some quick, easy tips that staff, faculty, and classmates of students who are blind and visually impaired can follow to promote inclusion.
1. Useful background information:
In my Blind Culture article, I talked about the differences among blind individuals. Keep in mind the vast diversity within the blind community, and ask about how to best support each student based on their needs.
- Using “blind,” “visually impaired,” and “low vision” are usually accepted; however, the way you use them might make a difference for the person you are talking about. For example, it is generally preferred if you use person-first language. For me, “Roqayah, who is blind, is a graduate student” is okay, but not, “Roqayah is a blind graduate student.”
- In any situation, it is recommended that you ask the individual how they would like you to refer to them.
When talking to a person who is blind or visually impaired who has an assistant, you can refer to my previous article on the subject.
2. Prior to the semester:
- When designing lectures, keep in mind universal design and specifically the needs of students who are blind or visually impaired.
- Share a completed syllabus with all students at least two weeks before the semester. This will help students who are blind or visually impaired pick reading materials, have them converted, and be ready to start a strong semester.
- Provide links to online versions of textbooks.
- When sending students information before the semester, it would be very appreciated if you include information on class location and where it is within the building.
- Make sure that your online platform (e.g., Canvas, Moodle, Blackboard, etc.) is accessible and screen reader-friendly. Much of the time, the most accessible portal will not be the prettiest one. The point here is that everyone should be able to access information.
- In planning for any class activities, have multiple plans to ensure that you can change the plan if you learn that there is a student who is blind or visually impaired in your course. Remember, they should have the same opportunities to enjoy and learn in your course. Not enabling the student to participate in an activity because of their disability is not inclusion.
- Get to know your students ahead of time by sending an email inviting them to share any specific needs or concerns before the semester begins. This will reduce pressure on students who are blind or visually impaired, as well as on those who have other needs.
- If you learn that there is a student who is blind registered for your course and you don’t know how to support them, communicate with the disability office at your university for guidance and support.
- Check with your students throughout the semester to ensure that you are meeting their needs and to see if there is anything you can do to improve.
3. During the semester, inside the classroom:
3.1. If you are a professor, have your materials prepared and accessible:
- Prepare your lectures in advance and share them with students at least two days before class — this allows time for the activities to be transcribed prior to class, which allows the student to complete the activity or read content at the same time as the other students, not later.
- Provide handouts in accessible formats (e.g., Word documents, which can be read aloud by screen readers).
3.2. These are helpful ways to handle graphics in class:
- Verbalize the graphics that you are talking about instead of just pointing to the picture, graph, etc.
- Have a brief description under the graphic to make it easier for everyone to understand the main point of the graphic.
- If a PowerPoint is dense with graphics, send it to the students who are blind or visually impaired ahead of time and ask if they can review it and have someone describe it to them (if they don’t have someone to help them with this, offer to help them with this during your office hours); this way, all students can be on the same page during class.
3.3. You can use similar techniques with videos:
- Describe silent videos as they are playing or send the videos to the students ahead of time (follow similar guidelines to those regarding Powerpoints above).
- For other videos, describe visuals that are relevant to the course as the video is playing.
3.4. During lectures and demonstrations on the board:
- Read as you write on the board; this will actually benefit all students, not only those who are blind, as the board/screen might not be clearly visible to everyone.
- Be mindful when you are explaining things, and watch students to see whether they are understanding the verbal input or not.
- Ask your students about helpful ways to verify information with them; if other students speak quietly or have accents, for example, it is helpful if you repeat or paraphrase what the other students have said.
- Be precise by specifying what you mean when you say, “this,” “that,” “over there,” and “over here.”
- Verbalize all written material displayed on boards, overhead projectors, and in PowerPoint presentations.
- Students who are blind or visually impaired usually rely on the professor’s voice to get their information — keep in mind the pleasantness of your voice, your speed and volume, and your pitch.
- Avoid nonverbal communication.
3.5. While moderating discussions:
- Ask students to introduce themselves before answering questions.
- When asking any student a question, say their name so students who are blind or visually impaired know who is being addressed.
3.6. During in-class activities and assessments:
- Allow assignments and tests to be completed on a computer.
- Give students enough time to read the materials (or have the materials read to them) if you haven’t sent them before class, so that they can fully participate.
- Remind students to share their names at the beginning of group activities.
4. If you are the classmate of a student who is blind or visually impaired:
- Introduce yourself when you are talking with them directly.
- When answering questions or participating in class discussion, state your name when you start speaking so that the student who is blind or visually impaired knows who is talking.
- Similarly, when you are in a small group discussion, before beginning to work, have each student introduce themselves and their name; this will help the student who is blind or visually impaired not only know who is in their group, but also where those peers are located in relation to them.
- Keep your belongings under the table, so a student who is blind or visually impaired does not trip over them.
5. During the semester, outside the classroom:
Outside the classroom, you may wonder when to offer help to someone who is blind or visually impaired and how to do that. For more tips on how to provide navigation guidance, read my other post on this subject.
I hope these ideas are of help to you. Please add in the comments below any others that you would suggest! It might seem challenging to change the delivery of your course content, but it will get easier over time, and is similar to developing a teaching plan in the first place – just take the first step, and it will begin to build on itself.
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