Hearing the stories of students with vision loss to inform more accessible classrooms

Understanding the perspectives of students with visual impairments about their everyday experience, both on and off campus, was the subject of Chris Ostrowski’s master’s thesis. Through interviewing post-secondary students with visual impairments, Chris’ initial focus on technology also revealed a number of interesting themes related to accessibility concerns across educational settings, from grade school to university.

Chris investigated the types of devices, resources, and tools that these students are using, both mainstream (e.g. cellphones) and specialized (e.g. text-to-speech software), to meet their needs. Chris was particularly interested in how these everyday tools intersect with the services offered by the institutions, and how instructors respond to the students’ learning requirements.

Accessible Learning

In their day-to-day lives, the participants reported that newer mainstream devices often have built-in accessibility features, which they frequently used. Whether for personal or for other reasons, these products offered a discreet and convenient way to meet their needs in a variety of settings. Particularly for those participants who had lost their vision later in life, these subtle supports were preferred when they were out in public.

In the classroom, however, these tools may not suffice. While the participants often had access to supporting software and tools, barriers arose as a result of institutional and instructors’ attitudes towards individuals with vision loss. The students reported that having accommodations listed in their official documentation didn’t necessarily mean it was smooth sailing in attempting to fully participate in learning.

The participants shared multiple experiences of reactionary, rather than proactive, approaches to accessibility in classrooms. Overall, the participants felt that many instructors were not readily prepared to support their learning. Challenges arose through the design of the course, resources (such as textbooks, research articles, etc.) that were not compatible with their tools, and in an instructor’s approach to accessibility.

The participants spoke to the discomfort associated with instructors making assumptions about their abilities, even those with good intentions. The participants thought that most instructors had little knowledge and experience working with people with vision loss. This resulted in some students not receiving appropriate supports, or having their accommodations ignored.

One student discussed an instructor who provided enlarged texts, when instead she required adequate lighting. Another instructor insisted on dimming the lights during lecture presentations, which left the student unable to follow along with these lessons, particularly when information was written on the boards while the lights were dimmed. In contrast, instructors who were mindful of accommodation requests could considerably impact on the experience of these students. Collaboratively finding a solution was a central goal for these students.

Working with Students

The participants’ experiences highlight the importance of engaging students in discussing their learning needs, and in hearing their voices to understand what accommodations they require. Chris calls for institutions and instructors to consult with students on the development of policy and services related to student needs, and in designing accessible courses. While students can advocate for themselves, whether in conversation with the instructor or through Student Accessibility Services, this coming together was suggested as the most meaningful solution for both parties.

Chris is currently building on his initial work in a doctoral program at Werklund. Chris plans to help university instructors design courses with accessibility in mind and support students with specific learning needs.

Connected Citations

Ostrowski, C. P. (2016). A narrative inquiry into the experiences of university students with visual impairments: The effects of people, institutions, and technology in supporting learning (Unpublished master’s thesis). University of Calgary, Alberta. Available Online.

Ostrowski, C. P. (2016). Improving access to accommodations: Reducing political and institutional barriers for Canadian postsecondary students with visual impairments. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness110(1), 15–25.

Ostrowski, C. P. (January, 2016). The complexities of ‘simple’ tasks: The experiences of postsecondary students with visual impairments. Poster presented at the IAFOR International Conference on Education. Honolulu, HI.