Information for staff teaching blind and visually impaired students

Visual impairment or blindness

The majority of people with visual impairment have some useful vision even if it is just perception of light. People with visual impairment experience varying degrees of sight loss as a result of a wide range of conditions.  Some students will have total loss of vision, but most will have some useful sight. The amount of light (night versus bright sun) can significantly affect levels of vision in some eye conditions and have implications for study.

The best guide to the student's condition and how it affects them is the student him/herself. Some visually impaired students may not appear any different from other students, others may use a cane or a guide dog.

Not all visually impaired students have difficulties with orientation on campus, but if there are problems with this, anxiety caused by being lost in a new environment cannot be underestimated. Learning routes on campus, particularly at the start of the year, is a time-consuming task, which other students do not have.

How might visual impairment affect the student's work?

All students have to manage their work load as effectively as they can, but for visually impaired students this can be much more time consuming and requires good organizational skills.


A student with a visual impairment may need longer to read printed material than other students and may not be able to read at all without using special computer software or equipment. Many blind students prefer material in an electronic format and use a screen reader such as JAWS.  This is also available on computers in the AccessAbility Centre.  Some students may want material reformatted into large print, or recorded, or in Braille.  Extra time is needed for this, both from the processing point of view for the student and from a transcription point of view for the department. Skim reading may be very difficult or impossible and reading may need to be carefully paced to avoid fatigue or eye strain. Finding books in the library may be impossible without assistance.


It may take longer for students to write down lecture notes and they may be unable to see PowerPoint slides or board work. Diagrams and new vocabulary can be problematic unless an oral description or additional clarification is given. Documentation given out in the lecture may not be accessible to the student. TV and video/DVD are generally less problematic than might be expected, but students should be told when they are to be used.  Some students may choose to have a note-taker and others will prefer to take their own notes on to a computer, or other equipment.  Recording lectures can also be useful and staff should be prepared to accept such a request.

Written work

There may be delays in starting writing because of the extra time needed for reading. It may take longer to proof-read written work and to put a bibliography together. Presentation requirements may not be met unless the student has support in doing this.

Access to teaching staff

Students with a visual impairment will need to speak to staff about the management of their course, but difficulties may occur with the following:

  • finding rooms
  • finding people in a crowd
  • recognizing people
  • using pigeon holes
  • finding information on notice boards

How should tutors react?


It is important for core reading to be identified well before the start of a semester, so that arrangements can be made for students to access it. Students may have to obtain it from the RNIB library or have accessibly formatted as a recording, Braille or large print. It is helpful if key chapters can be identified if the whole book is not needed.


It is a great help if visually impaired students can be provided with any lecture-notes or handouts, preferably in advance, so that they can arrange to have them transcribed into their preferred medium.  Clearly, the use of Blackboard is key here as many students will prefer to access material electronically.

If during lectures new terms are written on the board, an oral explanation and spelling should be given.

Some visually impaired students also record lectures and are usually advised to ask for permission first.

Seemingly minor issues such as finding a place in a busy lecture theatre can be a source of great embarrassment. Other students do not always offer assistance, mainly through lack of confidence about how they should react. If the lecturer can deal with these situations confidently and sensitively, it is helpful for everyone.

Written work

Guidance on writing development is no different for a visually impaired student than for any other student. However, any formative comments made on written work need to be accessible to the student – emailing them to the student, for example, rather than writing them by hand.

Some students may request key reading for a particular essay title. A support worker may help them use the library, but usually the internal systems available from Library staff are sufficient to alow students to independently access the Library.   Students can also join the White Card Scheme if they wish which enables them to ask Library staff to collect material on a student’s behalf and photocopy it if required.  See

Proof-reading is not easy for many visually impaired students. However, it is important for a student to know if the level of errors in their work is unacceptable and to be given help in finding ways of improving accuracy.

Lecturers will naturally want to be understanding of the barriers faced by visually impaired students to accessing reading. However, if it is felt that the bibliography is unacceptably short, the student should be informed.

Where presentation requirements are part of the marking criteria, this should be made clear to the student. They may not be using the standard word processing equipment.

Seminars/small group work

Concerns are sometimes expressed about how other students might react to visual impairment. Usually over time this is not a problem. If difficulties occur, it might be useful to discuss with the student how they would like situations to be handled. They are the experts in what works for them and everyone is different.


It is important to agree a means of communicating which is easily accessible for the student: this might be by e-mail, telephone or after a specific lecture. Going up to the student at the end of a lecture can be a good way of making initial contact. Information on notice boards and in pigeon holes is not accessible and messages need to be relayed via departmental office staff by telephone or email to the student. This is particularly important for last minute room or time changes.

Guide Dogs

A question often asked is whether guide dogs should be made a fuss of. A good rule of thumb is if the dog has its harness on, it should be ignored as it is working and concentrating. If you want to make friends with the dog when it is not working, check with the owner until you get to know them both. Too much fuss may be distracting and make it more difficult for the student to settle the dog for the lecture.

University Services available

AccessAbility Tutors

Each department has a designated tutor who acts as a source of support and a point of contact for students and staff.

The AccessAbility Centre

Students vary on how they wish to manage their course and liaise with staff. Some students choose to do it themselves, others prefer to use the services of the Centre staff, at least at the start of their course.  See information for students who are blind or have a visual impairment for services offered

Technological Support

The University has a range of specialist equipment which supports the study of students with visual impairment.

  • Zoom Ex - Can be used to create electronic books or other learning materials in the approriate size and contrast
  • A CCTV  which magnifies text onto a screen
  • Zoomtext keyboard in the AccessAbility Centre
  • Digital recorders for loan


RNIB see:

Notes from Cambridge University Advisory Committee on Disability are acknowledged as the starting point for the original version of these guidance notes.

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or visit us on the ground floor of the Library

The AccessAbility Centre is open 9.00am to 5.00pm, Monday to Friday, during both terms and vacations. Contact us if you would like to speak with someone outside of these hours.


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