“School sucks for a blind student:” Creating disability-affirming classrooms for blind students

Ben Chase, BSW Candidate and Elspeth Slayter, MSW, MA, PhD

Recently, Ben, a legally blind social work student with partial visual impairment wrote to Elspeth, saying “school sucks for a blind student at Salem State.” With a 4.0 grade point average and consistently positive attitude towards learning, Ben helped me to learn about the experiences leading to this statement. Honoring the disability justice principle that disabled people are the best experts on their lives, let us learn from Ben’s experience so we can do better at moving beyond creating disability-inclusive spaces, to fostering disability-affirming spaces. Visual access is an implicit requirement for learning. Most educators don’t consider how much visual access matters until they accommodate a blind student. Even then, they tend to underestimate their access needs. So, what barriers do blind students face?

Let’s start with the classroom space. What is the setup of the classroom, are there rolling desks that are never in the same place? Where are students sitting and what desks are taken? How many students are in the room, and who are they? Where is the door? Is there an unspoken culture about everyone sitting in the same seat? Will someone accidentally sit in an awkward place or without socially acceptable proximity to others due to lack of depth perception? Once in the classroom, depending on the student’s vision, there are often social problems, such as lack of connection with other students, disability microaggressions, and active ableism. 

Lighting is also a vital issue for blind students in terms of brightness, color, and placement (overhead vs. lamp). Ben reports “My eyes are light-sensitive, fluorescent overhead lights create a glare. This is why I wear hats on campus. Turning the lights on after they’ve been off for a while is incredibly painful if I’m not aware when it’s going to happen, so I can cover my eyes.”  A number of blind students report eye fatigue after straining/using vision for a while, requiring them to need to take breaks due to the pain they are experiencing. Another student reports “professors never handle this well in my experience, one boldly told me I could just leave if I didn’t feel like being in class versus giving an excuse.”

The colors and writing styles used in classroom presentations also matter in creating affirming spaces vis-à-vis writing on the board (cursive vs. print, light colors) or the presentation of non-accessibly designed slides. All images on slides need to have an ‘alt text’ description (right click the image to add that) so that students can access the image. If you included the image for your students, it was meant to facilitate their learning, so why wouldn’t you want all students to access it? Also, showing videos without audio description enabled often leaves blind students confused because much of the context in the video is accessed visually. Audio descriptions are a similar concept to closed captions except they’re verbal. They only provide brief descriptions of key visual contexts that are essential to know for the storyline. Imagine a 5 minute scene montage with a musical overlay only. There’s no way for blind people to know what’s happening there.

Digital materials and handouts are also areas to consider. For some blind students with accommodations, handouts should be sent to blind students ahead of time so that they can read the documents with their screen readers or screen magnifiers or other assistive technology. They may be unable to do this right in the classroom. Anything requiring handouts may be a problem, such as an attendance sheet, as completely blind people cannot always write, and partially blind people may only read written material with dark markers. One common problem reported on the use of in-class handouts is that faculty take a photo of a handout with their smartphone and email it to their blind students, not understanding that screen readers cannot read the text in a photo. Digital materials, especially PDF files, need to be in the format that screen readers can access, not in photo format. Websites for assignments are often inaccessible or difficult to navigate for screen readers and or another assistive technology. Website navigation issues could result in an assignment taking three times the amount of time intended when a screen reader is involved.

Overall, professors should be aware of visual access barriers and act on them ahead of time, taking initiative in creating disability-affirming spaces, including when guest lecturers are present. This is an aspect of disability etiquette. Asking blind students “what has worked for you in the past?” is a great place to start. Communicating with Disability Services about how to best accommodate an individual is vital, as is being open to constructive feedback. Central to this work is being self-aware of unintended ableist attitudes and behaviors. Disability pride movements are common, and many blind students are happy to be part of disability culture without being ‘fixed.’ Most importantly, blind students don’t want to be anyone’s inspiration, they just want to fit in.

So let’s act on all of this wisdom from our students. As educator Dr. bell hooks once said, “what we do is more important than what we say or what we say we believe.” Let’s do better for blind students, so another student doesn’t come to us saying that school sucks for them at Salem State.