Overcoming Barriers: Preparing a University for Differently Abled Students?

Education is much more than just the physical learning. The process of receiving or giving systematic instruction can also be defined as the delivery and receipt of a series of enlightening learning experiences.  

For many, the learning part needs to include application of what was learned. Application, or use, seals the learning into the individual through a real-world realization of the benefit.  

Based on our two recent blog posts “The Tyranny of the Status Quo” and “Opening Up the World for the Blind & Visually Impaired,” we received an enquiry about some of the aspects a university needs to consider when preparing for blind, visually impaired or students with other varied abilities to achieve the most impactful learning environment.  

The ViewPlus Perspective

Based on research, our experience, and years of community dialogue on such a subject, we conclude that there are some basic imperative considerations. 

Consideration 1: Reassurance 

Before learning can take place, the student must feel welcome and secure within their learning environment. This step we’ll call the “reassurance” step. 

Reassurance incorporates such considerations as obstacle-free physical access to the building, or access to rooms inside the building which might be the common destinations for students (classrooms, break or study areas, lounges, the administration office, or the library).  

Large flowerpots, sofas, and other items might create a welcoming environment for most visitors, but such items can create a challenging gauntlet to navigate for a person with vision loss, or a person in a wheelchair.  

Clearly indicated stairs, entrance and exit doors, as well as braille buttons, large signs, strong color contrasts, and/or tactile guides (textures or colors) on the floor makes it easier for impaired individuals to move around independently, while reducing the stress associated with needing to reach their destination, often timely.  

Consideration 2: The Classroom Setting  

Classrooms need to be configured to accommodate diverse needs. This can be a specific seating or layout of the classroom which doesn’t change to avoid unnecessary searching for seating or amenities, as well as extended time for assessments, such as quizzes, midterms and final exams or distraction-free alternate setting for tests.  

Consideration 3: Technologies and Learning Aids  

Inside the classroom itself, a variety of learning aids and technologies need to be readily available to create a welcoming environment of barrier-free, productive learning.  

Video magnifiers, different types of monitors, reading machines, screen readers, braille displays, braille embossers, and text to braille conversion programs should be readily available to be easily implemented.  

While technology is the specialty of ViewPlus®, we acknowledge that technology alone cannot claim the award for being the ultimate “fix” to assisting physically impaired students achieving their learning goals and objectives. Technology, on its own, is insufficient to the task at hand. Technology is only one of several important considerations. 

Consideration 4: Creating a Learning “System” for the Physically Impaired 

A system is a combination of people, tools, and processes, which combined, produce a desired outcome.  

A differently abled student can’t learn if they can’t physically get to the classroom. They won’t approach the school campus if they don’t feel secure and welcome. They won’t learn as well, once they reach the classroom, if they don’t have the tools, technology aids and instructors to assist. 

All parts must be designed to align and become a system of learning for the person. That will create synergy of the components of education and multiply its impact. 

Institutions of learning (at any level) may need to become aware and think systemically to achieve excellence in educating all persons and their many varying needs. They must be willing to alter policies, practices, and methods to accommodate students, including allowing service animals in facilities or rescheduling classes to an accessible or pre-equipped location. 

Other adaptations and modifications may also be necessary to incorporate into the system, such as participation in the college’s programs, services, and activities. In the USA, ADA (the Americans with Disabilities Act Section 504) provides guidelines to meet the needs of students with different abilities, including comparable accessible housing, scholarships, and sports programs.  

A Final Word: 

There are multiple considerations in designing a system that will enable the blind and visually impaired student achieve a higher-level education.  

Foremost in that system is building a foundation of reassurance. Students, of any age, must feel welcome and secure in their learning environment. Once reassurance is established, designing a learning-enabling classroom setting, and supplying learning aids and technologies complete the system.  

And, if one thinks about the bigger picture, these considerations can be extended to a variety of different environments and life overall, because learning and reassurance are key forces that drive growth throughout life.