Here are some useful reminders about making good provision for pupils with visual impairments

Most children with visual impairments (VI) cope perfectly well in mainstream schools, with appropriate specs, but some have problems that go undetected, and others have significant difficulties that require specialist help.

If you wear glasses or contact lenses, you will have a good understanding of what school life can be like for pupils with a visual impairment. Having to remember your glasses, getting headaches and eye strain, struggling to read print that everyone else can read easily, or being unable to see further than the end of your nose. Because visual impairments can easily be undetected, teachers and TAs need to be on the look out for signs of VI in pupils and should recommend investigation by a GP or optician where there is cause for concern.

Look out for:

  • Red/weepy eyes.
  • Squints.
  • Continual blinking/rubbing of eyes.
  • Discomfort in bright light.
  • Child holding head at an awkward angle, or holding books very close to his/her face.
  • Frequent headaches/dizziness.
  • Clumsiness; bumping into things; poor balance.
  • Lack of, or inappropriate response to non-verbal communication.
  • Slowness/difficulty in copying from the board, untidy handwriting, underlining, diagrams. 

Some strategies for teachers and TAs

  • Check that glasses are worn when they should be, and that they are clean! Compliment the wearer!
  • Provide enlarged print where possible (though good contrast and layout are often more important than size of print).
  • Check use of ICT (enlarged icons, background colour, magnification).
  • Avoid standing with your back to the window as this creates a silhouette and makes it harder for the pupil to see you.
  • Seat the child where there is good lighting – not too bright or too dim.
  • If a child has monocular vision, maximise the use of the good eye.

For pupils with more significant impairments:

  • Seek advice about low vision aids, special SATs and exam arrangements etc.
  • Tell the pupil if there is a change to the layout of a space or any new/temporary obstacles, hanging art work, etc
  • If you are guiding a pupil with a visual impairment, let them take your arm, or hold hands. Avoid leaving the child in space, always show them a chair or leave them touching the wall or a piece of furniture.
  • Help pupils to learn frequently-used routes such as classroom to toilet. The best route may not be the most direct way, for example a diagonal route across the empty space of a school hall. It’s better to trail the walls and be guided by the landmarks passed on the way. A white line painted along the wall at shoulder height can be very helpful.

Accessibility Small physical changes to the environment can make a big difference to children with VI. Contrast and colour can be used to denote different areas in a classroom, around the school and for writing on the whiteboard. Some pupils find that coloured overlays placed over print can help them see and read more easily. Textures attached to the wall are useful for showing the place where the pupil might need to cross a corridor, turn a corner, etc and permanently positioned, solid pieces of furniture can act as landmarks. Changes of surface underfoot, for example gravel, paving, grass, carpet, vinyl, tiles – can also help to signal that the child is moving into a different area. Contrasting strips along the edge of steps make going up and down stairs a lot easier. There is usually no need to spend large sums of money on buying special equipment for pupils with VI, but ask the Sensory Support Service about their loan scheme. You might consider investing in talking scales and other measuring equipment with large-format markings (you’ll find that this will be popular with most pupils!). Angle poise lamps and sloping desk tops can be helpful to some pupils with VI.

Using electronic whiteboards

Electronic whiteboards can have a remarkable impact on children’s enjoyment and achievement and have much to offer pupils with special educational needs. The fact that they are big and bright is, in itself, a bonus – especially for the pupils described above (with visual impairments). But the key to getting the most out of an EWB is to stop thinking of it as a mechanism purely for display and regard it rather as an extension of the computer. For example, processes and arguments can be built up one step at a time, on separate screens then saved and replayed for pupils who need to revisit them. They can be printed off to give to pupils as handouts or made available on the school intranet. The built-in clock can be useful for timed tasks – acting as a constant reminder to pupils who need to know exactly how long is left, and the handwriting recognition software means that pupils can write something on the board which is turned into word-processed text, a great boost for those whose handwriting lets them down.

For more ideas about using whiteboards see Terry Freedman’s article in the Special Needs Coordinator’s File (25).


Practical tips

SENCO Action to support pupils with VI effectively:

  • Ensure that all staff are on the look out for signs of VI in pupils (TAs can play an important role here).
  • Provide general guidance for staff on how to reduce problems in the classroom for pupils with VI.
  • Make sure that there is a good variety of large print books in the school library.
  • Circulate concise information and advice to staff who teach pupils with significant VI.
  • Liaise with the Sensory Support Service to find out about low vision aids etc.
  • Make sure that the school’s Accessibility Plan acknowledges the needs of VI pupils and describes steps to improve both the physical environment, and curricular access, for them.

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This e-bulletin issue was first published in January 2007

About the author: Linda Evans is the author of SENCO Week. She was a teacher/SENCO/adviser/inspector, before joining the publishing world. She now works as a freelance writer, editor and part-time college tutor.