Math Instructional Strategies for Students who are Blind/Visually Impaired (Updated July 2020)

What does it mean for a student to be blind or visually impaired?
Virginia state guidelines explain that a “visual impairment including blindness” means an “impairment in vision that, even with correction, adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term includes both partial sight and blindness” (Virginia Department of Education, 2017). The U.S. definition of legal blindness is a visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better-seeing eye with best conventional correction (meaning with regular glasses or contact lenses) OR a visual field (the total area an individual can see without moving the eyes from side to side) of 20 degrees or less (also called tunnel vision) in the better-seeing eye (American Foundation for the Blind, 2020). Low vision is a condition caused by eye disease, in which visual acuity is 20/70 or poorer in the better seeing eye and cannot be corrected or improved with regular eyeglasses (Sheiman et al., 2007). Students with visual impairments are a mixed group, with some having mild visual impairments and others being totally blind. These students may have visual impairment as their only disability, while others may experience additional disabilities (VDOE, 2017).
Instructional Strategies for Educators
The Guidelines for Working with Students Who Are Visually Impaired or Blind in Virginia Public Schools manual provides clear guidance for how school teams can work collaboratively to support students with visual impairments during the school day. Students with blindness and visual impairments may need accommodations for accessing general curriculum assignments and it is CRITICAL that the classroom teacher work with the child’s family, physicians and vision teacher (TBVI) to understand the nature of the child’s visual impairment and ensure that proper techniques and strategies are used to maximize the student’s ability to access visual information and use compensatory strategies.
The following strategies and resources are provided to promote access to mathematics content, based on Virginia’s SOLs, for students with visual impairments. Students with visual impairments will require on-going adaptations and accommodations in mathematics to provide access to the mode of learning that best fits their learning needs (Emerson & Anderson 2018). Decisions regarding instructional strategies must be made based on accurate and comprehensive assessment of the child’s vision and involve all team members. The following strategies are offered to provide a starting point for thinking about possible adaptations.
Accessible Material Production
Assistive Technology
  • Consult with assistive technology specialists (ATS) to discuss possibilities of low to high-tech devices for increasing independence and participation.
  • Consult assistive technology specialists (ATS) regarding the use of computer software that can be used to assist with writing assignments and reading of text.
  • The accommodation of an accessible calculator is an evidence-base practice support for students with visual impairments. Consult with the TBVI to determine which calculators are accessible for students who are blind or visually impaired (Ferrell, 2006).
Communication
  • Provide directions and instructions using the student’s preferred and strongest mode of communication. Many students will benefit from a multi-sensory approach that includes spoken language and tactile information.
  • Have classmates and adults identify themselves as they answer or ask questions and participate in class discussion to allow the student to orient to the speaker.
  • Explicitly teach communication skills to young students that are learned incidentally by sighted students such as listening, gestures, and using real objects.
  • Verbally describe math content containing visual images to improve access and provide a range of formatted materials so that the student can select the mode they are most comfortable using during instruction (Emerson & Anderson, 2018).
Distance Learning
  • Make sure the virtual learning programs, apps, software, hardware and materials are accessible to students with visual impairments by referencing the resources mentioned in the “accessible material production” section and through consultation with your district’s assistive technology specialist.
  • Consult with the vision teacher, school team, and student to ensure that the digital resources being used by the district are accessible to the student.
  • Recognize that online communication requires rapid turn taking in conversation that relies on visual cues not seen by those with visual impairments. Make sure students with visual impairments are provided the necessary supports during distance learning environments to have equal educational access (Oh & Lee, 2016).
Instructional Delivery
  • Review the possible accommodations for a student with a visual impairment for ideas of how to better include students in the classroom. Make sure you consult with the Teacher of the Blind and Visually Impaired (TBVI) on the specific IEP accommodations for the student in your class.
  • Use effective methods for math instruction such as using an abacus, tactile graphics, and concrete materials or manipulatives (Brawand & Johnson, 2016).
  • Provide access to visuals presented at an appropriate distance and in the child’s visual field and allow plenty of time for descriptions and exploration of materials and activities.
  • Visuals used should have clear, sharp images with high contrast (Cox & Dykes, 2001).
  • Provide information to the student to indicate that a new task is beginning, the expectations for the lesson, and prepare the student for transitions to new activities. Consistency across routines will facilitate learning.
  • Allow opportunities for repetition and practice of previously introduced material.
  • Use mutual exploration and modeling strategies (hand-under-hand and hand-over-hand) as appropriate to encourage exploration of materials and activities. Team members need to be aware of tactile sensitivity issues.
  • Consider close proximity to the activity and teacher during instruction. Positioning of the student and the materials must be based on understanding the child’s acuity and any field loss concerns. For example, a child who has a field loss on the left side will need materials presented on the right side. Accurate information about the child’s vision and how that loss affects access to information are critical.
  • Provide instruction at an appropriate pace, frequently checking for understanding and reteaching concepts as necessary.
  • Provide appropriate wait time for the student to respond to instruction or directions.
  • Review the classroom strategies for regular education teachers who have students with visual impairments.
  • Understand the basic components of the Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC) and consult with the TBVI to determine how these areas of instruction can be embedded into the core curriculum through collaboration of the school team.
Learning Environment
  • Consider environmental adaptations such as lighting conditions, contrast between materials, and the use of tactile cues in the room to promote independence and mobility.
  • Provide for an ergonomic work station that allows for a proper viewing position to avoid back and neck strain (Reading Strategies for Students with Visual Impairments, 2010).
  • Collaborate with the TBVI and orientation and mobility specialist to establish an accessible learning environment that meets the student’s individual needs.
Math Concept Development
  • Embed multiple opportunities for students to engage in math literacy activities by following the Paths to Literacy Tips for Teaching Math Literacy
  • Students who are braille readers should be taught systematic ways to explore tactile graphics using both hands through the support of the TBVI (Rosenblum, Cheng, & Beal, 2018).
  • Consult with the TBVI to locate Geometry Resources for students who are blind and visually impaired in order to provide students with a multi-sensory approach to learning.
  • Use hands-on, tactile activities to build basic math concepts by referencing the Paths to Literacy Tactile Math Ideas.
  • Understand that contextual clues for a student who is blind or visually impaired are greatly decreased from that of a sighted student and may need to be taught explicitly and individually (Pritchard & Lamb, 2012).
  • The abacus can be used as a foundational tool for teaching computation and math concepts. Consult with the TBVI to learn strategies for utilizing the abacus for math instruction (Hong & Rosenblum, 2014).
  • Prepare adapted materials in advance of the lesson so that students can be involved in activity at the same time, not later than the rest of the group.
  • Consult with the TBVI to understand which instructional tools for students who are blind/visually impaired align with the math skills being taught.
Self-determination
  • Involve the student in the brainstorming process. Ask the student to make suggestions about environmental and instructional strategies that are helpful.
  • Utilize self-determination resources to support student involvement in their educational program. Consult with TBVI to evaluate if supplementary instruction or material adaptation may be needed when using these resources for students with visual impairments (Cmar, 2019).
Links and Resources
References

American Foundation for the Blind (n.d.). Low Vision and Legal Blindness Terms and Descriptions. Retrieved June 23, 2020, from https://www.afb.org/blindness-and-low-vision/eye-conditions/low-vision-and-legal-blindness-terms-and-descriptions.

Brawand, A., & Johnson, N. (2016). Effective Methods for Delivering Mathematics Instruction to Students with Visual Impairments. Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research, 6(1).

Cmar, J. L. (2019). Effective Self-Determination Practices for Students with Disabilities: Implications for Students with Visual Impairments. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 113(2), 114–128.

Cox, P. R., & Dykes, M. K. (2001). Effective Classroom Adaptations for Students with Visual Impairments. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 33(6), 68–74.

Emerson, R., & Anderson, D. (2018). Using Description to Convey Mathematics Content in Visual Images to Students Who Are Visually Impaired. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 112(2), 157–168.

Ferrell, K. (2006). Evidence-based practices for students with visual disabilities. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 28(1), 42-48.

Holbrook, C. M., & Kamei-Hannan, C. (2003). Foundations of Education: Volume II: Instructional Strategies for Teaching Children and Youths with Visual Impairments (2nd ed.). American Printing House for the Blind.

Mclaughlin, R., & Kamei-Hannan, C. (2018). Paper or Digital Text: Which Reading Medium is Best for Students with Visual Impairments? Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 112(4), 337–350.

Oh, Y., Lee, S., McGreal, R., & Conrad, D. (2015). The Effects of Online Interactions on the Relationship Between Learning-Related Anxiety and Intention to Persist Among E-Learning Students with Visual Impairment. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 17(6), 89–107.

Parlakian, R. (2012). Inclusion in Infant/Toddler Child Development Settings: More Than Just Including. YC Young Children, 67(4), 66–71.

Pritchard, C. K. & Lamb, J. H. (2012). Teaching Geometry to Visually Impaired Students. The Mathematics Teacher, 106(1), 22–27.

Rosenblum, L., Cheng, L., & Beal, C. (2018). Teachers of Students with Visual Impairments Share Experiences and Advice for Supporting Students in Understanding Graphics. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 112(5), 475–487.

Sacks, S.Z. (1998). Educating students who have visual impairments with other disabilities: An overview. In S. Sacks, & R.K. Silberman (Eds.), Educating students who have visual impairments with other disabilities (pp. 3-38). Baltimore: Brookes Publishing Co.

Scheiman, M., Scheiman, M. & Whittaker, S. (2007). Low Vision Rehabilitation: A Practical Guide for Occupational Therapists. United Kingdom: SLACK Incorporated.

Silberman, R.K., Bruce, S.M., & Nelson, C. (2004). Children with sensory impairments. In F.P. Orelove, D. Sobsey, & R.,K. Silberman (Eds.), Educating children with multiple disabilities: A collaborative approach (pp.425-525). Baltimore: Brookes Publishing Co.

Virginia Department of Education, Division of Special Education and Student Services (2017). 2017 Guidelines for Working with Students Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired in Virginia Public Schools [PDF file]. Retrieved from http://www.doe.virginia.gov/special_ed/disabilities/sensory_disabilities/visually_impaired_blind/visually_impaired_guidelines.pdf

This information is available thanks fo the efforts of Megan Smith, Teacher of the Blind/Visually Impaired, PhD Student, George Mason University, July 2020.