Students with visual impairments face unique challenges in the educational environment. Not only must they be able to access text information across all curricular areas, but they also need to be able to participate fully in instruction that is often rich with visual content. Assistive technology is one way of supporting them in that process.
Consideration of assistive technology by the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team is required for all students with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and when deemed appropriate, it must be provided and supported by the local education agency. This is to ensure that students with disabilities have the tools necessary to fully access and participate in the curriculum, with the greatest possible level of independence. Even more important, use of assistive technology helps prepare students for independent living, vocational pursuits, or higher education following graduation from high school!
"Assistive technology" refers to a range of tools, devices, and strategies that allow a student to accomplish a task that they would otherwise be unable to do, or would have difficulty accomplishing effectively. Assistive technology can be simple or complex. Examples of low tech tools for students with visual impairments might include enlarged text or raised line paper, while high tech tools may encompass digital tools that "read" to the student, connect to a braille display, or even incorporate GPS.
The term "visual impairment" describes a broad range of visual abilities and needs. Because each child is unique, what works well for one student may not work well for another. Selection of assistive technology should be the result of a team process that takes into consideration feedback from family, educators, paraprofessionals, and the student. It is important to remember that "high-tech" is not always the best solution for a student. Selected tools should reflect the student’s unique strengths and needs, the activities he needs to be able to accomplish, and the environment in which he will be working. A student’s need for assistive technology will likely change and evolve throughout his or her education, and in most cases, no single tool will meet all of a student’s needs.
The purpose of this resource guide is to provide an introduction to the types of assistive technology that may benefit students with visual impairments. Specific products and their features are not described here. Instead, a general overview of tools will help raise your awareness so that you are able to determine what tools to investigate further. A list of additional resources and vendors is provided at the end of this guide if you’d like to learn more. There is also a glossary of terms if you are unfamiliar with some of the terminology related to assistive technology and visual impairments.