Providing Learning Support for Blind or Visually Impaired Students Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities



Handouts are widely distributed to students in higher education, partly to outline the content, structure and requirements of specific courses of studies, and partly to support individual classes. For blind and visually impaired students, copies of the standard printed handouts may not be very helpful. Here is one alternative:

Large print
Although large-print documents are of little use to blind students, they are a valuable and relatively cheap option for students with low-vision sight, especially in view of the growing student ownership of PCs and laser printers. The best option if printing from a PC is to use a sans serif font (e.g. Arial), 18 point font size (larger font sizes reduce the number of words per line, and make reading progressively more difficult), and optionally adopting a bold type. The text should be kept as simple as possible, avoiding italics, underlining and font changes wherever possible, and there should be clear space between individual paragraphs. Alternative paper colours help students with some forms of visual impairment with their reading — find out beforehand which paper colour is best for each visually impaired student. Avoid using graphical images for backgrounds. Large print versions of existing handouts can also be made using the enlargement facilities of a photocopier, though some cutting and pasting might be needed to fit the enlarged material onto standard-sized paper.

Where students have more serious visual impairments, consider using non-visual alternatives. These include:

Despite impressions to the contrary, braille is not much used by students with an acquired vision loss. Even the former Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett, finds braille too unwieldy — over two large cardboard sheets needed to contain the information from a single A4 sheet. He opts instead for information spoken into a tape recorder which he plays back at twice the normal speed (Carvel, 2000) — see below.
Audio cassette
Because of the popularity of 'talking books' among the blind, staff should seek the views of any visually impaired students planning to undertake fieldwork to see if they make regular use of this technology. If so, they should liaise with the local university disability unit to explore the possibility of creating a spoken version of relevant handouts or briefing sheets. Alternatively, a sighted student might be prepared to read the contents of relevant handouts into a tape recorder for the visually impaired student.
Synthesised speech
Where the text of fieldwork handouts are already available in digital form (e.g. as word-processed documents), it might be possible to create a digital speech file using speech synthesis software (see below). If the material is available as Web documents, then the student might be able to listen to the contents using a screen reader or a braille display. (For details, see the document on Assistive Technology.) An increasing number of files on Web sites use the Acrobat portable document format (pdf), because this ensures that the documents have the same layout as printed versions. As a result of accessibility initiatives from Adobe (see details at, Acrobat files (pdf) can be read by visually impaired students in two ways:

In order to get handouts translated into alternative versions, it is essential that you plan ahead. It is a good idea to have alternative versions prepared for distribution to the blind or visually impaired students at the same time as the standard printed versions. If the visually impaired students are going to undertake the conversion themselves, then they will need to receive the original version in good time — last-minute distributions of handouts are virtually useless. Also, it is easier for the student to convert from a digital version than from a paper version.

For related information, see the Lectures and Laboratories document.

Page updated 14 December 2001

GDN pages maintained by Phil Gravestock