‘Can a blind or visually impaired person ______?’ Answering your questions and dispelling the myths.

                         …How could a blind person possibly live alone?...
…Could a visually impaired person even go shopping?...
                   …But how would a visually impaired student learn?...
…What sports, if any, could a visually impaired person play?...
                          …What can a blind person do?...

If you are a blind, partially sighted or visually impaired person, you may have been asked one of these questions, or questions of a similar nature. Alternatively, if you are able-bodied, you may have asked (or perhaps thought about) questions similar to these ones.

When we think about visual impairment, the emphasis is often placed on how sight is lost, when our way of navigating the world is abstracted from our bodily function and renders a now-visually impaired person incapacitated.

Without our eyes to help guide our decisions on which flounce sleeved button-up matches which pair of cropped linen trousers, or to enable us to access the research material needed for an upcoming board meeting, the world appears impossible to navigate. Hence, these questions, centred around inability, arise.

Whilst inaccessibility (and, more ideologically, ableism) is a real and significant socio-political issue, these questions can also feel disempowering to be asked as a visually impaired person. Their doubtfulness and perplexity assumes that, without your eyes, you are no longer a whole person. Ironically, these very questions of inaccessibility perpetuate systemic ableism.

However, what happens when we turn these questions on their head, reorienting our perception to what we, as visually impaired people, can do, as opposed to what we cannot? Rather than assuming that being visually impaired means living a fully incapacitated lifestyle, we can focus on how being visually impaired invites new ways to adapt, negotiate and innovate. As aptly described by Disability scholars Hamraie and Fritsch, visually impaired people are “experts and designers of everyday life”, where outside-of-the-box thinking paves the way of meeting our goals.

In this series, I will be answering some common questions that members of the visually impaired community are often asked. In addressing these common queries, I will be placing an emphasis on how new AI technologies, such as MyFinder, can help the visually impaired community to meet their access needs (Mingus, 2019) and thrive within a more accessible world. In this first blog post, I will be covering student life, accessibility and visual impairment, in answering the following question:

...‘How does a visually impaired student learn?’...

So, let’s talk learning.

The archetypical image of a student is someone whose head is buried within a book, or of someone who is furiously writing away in order to meet their next assignment deadline. As you may have noticed, these student activities are typically considered as eyesight dependant. Therefore, being a visually impaired student means adopting alternative learning styles.

Prior to the technologies that we, as visually impaired people, are just beginning to access today, learning was difficult. Living up to the archetypical image of a student, and performing to the same level of able-bodied peers, was even more difficult. Most adjustments included sitting at the front of the class, receiving hand-outs on colour-corrected paper, and being provided with a support teacher to give verbal instruction.

For me, as a visually impaired young woman, adjustments made for my education included all my exams being printed on A3 paper (requiring three desks!). I also have a distinct memory of my exam invigilator walking up to my desk and dumping a box of shapes on (one of my three) desks during my GCSE maths exam – replica models of the shapes referenced within the exam paper. Whilst I appreciated the extra (although misguided) efforts of my exam board, being given gargantuan exam papers and physical shapes did not aid my ability to learn whilst living with a visual impairment.

So, ‘how did visually impaired students learn?’, awkwardly, and with patience. However, the development of innovative technologies is allowing us to deviate from being dependant upon uneducated accessibility attempts. Ranging from JAWS screen reader services to Dragon’s speech recognition, non-eyesight dependant learning is finally beginning to be normalised. However, the advanced ability of MyFinder’s AI is what may revolutionise learning for visually impaired students. Utilising its real-time scenes describing function, it is not only text that becomes describable. Rather, text, scenery and objects can all be detected, facilitating accessible classroom environments that are fit for visually impaired students - facilitating their ability to learn. Furthermore, accessing educational environments themselves, as well as educational material, is a fundamental part of being a student. Myfinder’s identification feature can prove a useful tool for public transport, identifying the landscape and reading bus/tram/train timetables.

In addressing the commonly asked question ‘how does a visually impaired student learn?’, we are slowly, yet nonetheless excitedly, beginning to be able to answer: ‘independently’ and ‘with confidence’.