Volume VII Number 2, April 2001

Provision of Services for Students With Visual Impairments: A Case Study

Robert Perkins
School of Education
University of Charleston


Several pieces of legislation provide mandates for colleges, universities and other institutions to provide equal access to their programs and facilities. This project's original objective was to attempt to find an efficient way to deliver services to students with visual disabilities. Specialized equipment was to be housed in a teacher education technology lab. The second objective was to help pre-service and in-service teachers to incorporate assistive technology into their teaching and curricula. This case study describes the attempt made by the University of Charleston=s dual purpose program of providing services and technologies to its own students, while at the same time exposing the professionals of tomorrow to the world of assistive technology.

The process began with funding. A grant was developed, and funding was received for a Braille printer and Braille translation software for processing requests for alternative materials by students and faculty; the grant further provided a computer reading system with the ability to read text from books and other printed sources aloud for low vision students and students with learning disabilities. Housed in the School of Education=s Demonstration Laboratory for Assistive Technology, these facilities are available to faculty, staff, and students.

Why the School of Education? The School teaches preservice and inservice teachers how to integrate technology into the curriculum. Placement of the equipment in the Demonstration Laboratory for Assistive Technology further allows it to be used to make presentations to college classes, civic organizations, and conferences. We have been visited by numerous community residents with disabilities who are interested in experimenting with assistive technology. After presentations of equipment in the past, many people state that they did not know this type of hardware and software existed, and that they knew someone who needed to be made aware. The Demonstration Laboratory for Assistive Technology continues to be a resource for information for the local community.

The result of this study, however, reveal that it is more important for the technology to be in the hands of the individuals who need the services. A survey indicated that the timeliness of accessing equipment any other way was not adequate.


Providing services to students with disabilities has been done in different ways at different locations. In the United States, legislation stipulates certain services are to be provided, but no direct funding is provided. In other countries, there may be no legal inspiration for providing services, but a recognition of the needs of students with disabilities exists. According to Castorina (1994), there are three reasons for providing access to information to students with disabilities: it's the right thing to do, it makes economic sense, and it's the law. According to the Library of Congress' Congressional Research Service (as cited in Castorina) 43 million Americans have a disability. There are 4.5 million students with disabilities attending schools (Castorina). For these students to be integrated into schools, and later into the work world, they will need the necessary adaptations available to them in schools.


At the International Conference on Disability in Higher Education, 50 delegates from 15 countries compared the services that were being provided, and how they were delivered, at their respective colleges and universities (Aune, 1993). Many countries offer some sort of accommodation to students, including extended time for exams, oral exams and the use of a scribe (Aune, 1993).

Providing assistive technology to students was accomplished in different ways. At the University of Central Lancashire in the United Kingdom, equipment was loaned to students. At Lincoln University in New Zealand and the University of Insbruck, Austria, the institutions were responsible for providing equipment. Grants provided on method for acquiring assistive technology. York University in Canada received $2 million for students with disabilities. This funding, and the supported programs, resulted in a 90% retention rate for learning disabled students, compared with 75% among the non-disabled student population (Aune, 1993).

Sweden provides government support for students at the University of Stockholm. This support is credited with an employment rate of 89.7% for students with disabilities upon graduation. Ninety percent of the students were living independently. Government-provided adaptive equipment was used by 75%. The success of the graduates was highly correlated to government policies (Aune, 1993).

Volunteers are also used extensively at some universities. This achieves two goals: first, obviously, students with disabilities receive the assistance they require to succeed, and second, the volunteers themselves come away with an enhanced awareness of the needs but also of the potential of people with disabilities. The University of Alberta, Canada uses 300 volunteers to help 200 students with disabilities. York University in Canada has a similar volunteer program (Aune, 1993).

Katholieke Universiteit in Belgium relies on volunteer class mates to provide much of the assistance to students with disabilities. Groups of 12-15 students work with a student with a disability to provide support services such as personal care, note taking, producing materials and providing transportation. Their duties rotate so the student with the disability is taken care of all day (Aune, 1993).

Students in computer science at the University of Karlsruhe, Germany volunteer to transfer reading materials to computer disk for blind students. They are also developing software and hardware for students with disabilities to use. Very few German universities have an office of disability services, however. There is no legislative equivalent to the United States= Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act(Aune, 1993).


In the United States, students with disabilities are protected by legislation, but compliance in many cases, was accomplished by litigation. Legislation related to disabilities includes Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). Litigation has resulted from interpretations of these acts.

Section 504 was legislation based on civil rights aimed at protection from discrimination discrimination against individuals with disabilities (Chang, Richardson & Jackson, 1996; Senge & Dote-Kwan, 1998). Specifically, Section 504 was intended to provide equal access to education for all students (Castorina, 1994). Institutions that received federal funding (virtually all colleges and universities) must make their programs accessible to all people with disabilities to continue receiving that funding (Senge & Dote-Kwan, 1998).

"The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications" (U.S. Department of Justice, 1996). This law requires colleges and universities to make accommodations that would make it possible for students with disabilities to be in the classroom (Chang, et. al; Senge & Dote-Kwan, 1998). It also requires course materials to be provided to students with disabilities in a format that the students could use in a timely manner (Chang, et. al).

"Title II requires that State and local governments give people with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from all of their programs, services, and activities (e.g. public education, employment, transportation, recreation, health care, social services, courts, voting, and town meetings)" (U.S. Department of Justice, 1996). Any public organization must provide for all citizens regardless of disability.

Based on the legislation as applied to colleges and universities, Kincaid and Simon (as cited in Chang, et. al, 1996) make the following points:

More specifically, both written and oral communication must be provided to individuals with disabilities that are as effective as communication with non-disabled individuals (Senge & Dote-Kwan, 1998). Provision of materials must be delivered in an alternative format such that the effectiveness of the program is not reduced (Senge & Dote-Kwan, 1998). Alternative formats suggested are large print, Braille, electronic texts and audiotapes (Senge & Dote-Kwan, 1998).


In the United States, colleges and universities must follow Section 504 and ADA regulations, including assigning a coordinator for compliance. Many have complied by creating an office dedicated to the purpose of serving students with disabilities. Web sites for these colleges and universities are providing information for their students. The University of Southern California's (USC, 1999) web site specifies who qualifies for services, lists the services they provide, and the available physical and academic accommodations to be provided. Other colleges and universities have similar web sites. For a comprehensive list with links, access the University of Kansas' (1999) site. These web links will provide information which includes disability services and special projects provided by over 25 colleges and universities in the United States.

Senge and Dote-Kwan (1995) surveyed 18 public universities in California and found that a majority of the universities took from 2-6 days to provide basic instructional materials in Braille, electronic text or audiotapes. Five of the institutions required more than seven days and 11 reported that electronic texts were not available. This leaves a gap between what legislation requires and what is being provided to students with disabilities (Senge, J. C. & Dote-Kwan, J. 1998).

The Braille Transcription Project was initiated to (a) create a regional center to produce instructional materials for Braille readers in 22 post-secondary campuses in the California statewide university system, and (b) to provide faculty development regarding accommodations for students with disabilities (Dote-Kwan & Senge, 1998). In the first year of operation over 5,000 pages of Braille for 16 students and 19 faculty members on five (out of the 11 southern campuses part of the pilot year) campuses were produced. In the first three months of the second year, 3,500 pages of Braille for 20 students and 50 faculty members on 13 of the 22 campuses were produced. Dote-Kwan and Senge state that having a regional center allows the cost of equipment to be spread and provides for a more qualified staff. Turnaround for most materials was three to five days.

A study done to measure faculty knowledge of disability laws used a survey sent to 845 faculty and administrators in a southeastern research university (Thompson, Bethea & Turner, 1997). The return of 400 surveys provided the results. Less than 18% indicated familiarity with Section 504 and 50% said they were familiar with ADA. The survey was created using content derived from Section 504, the ADA and recent court cases. Items were written as statements and respondents indicated yes or no if it was based on law.

Faculty members knew less concerning accommodations for students with visual disabilities than any other category (Thompson, Bethea & Turner, 1997). Over 50% of the faculty were unaware that material must be provided in an alternative format if requested by a student with a visual impairment. The authors felt that part of this may be attributed to the fact that students have not made requests for materials because they have found other resources. With the rise in Office of Civil Rights investigations, the conclusions included the necessity for faculty training.


Assistive technology is defined as "any device or process that assists a person with a disability to do something that could otherwise be difficult or impossible to accomplish" (Thompson, Bethea, Rizer and Hutto, 1997). According to Thompson, Bethea, Rizer and Hutto, there are over 4.3 million people with visual impairments. Accommodations for these individuals can take many forms. They can vary from seating arrangement to providing materials in alternative formats such as books on disc or Braille printed materials (Chang et. al, 1996). Testing may also require adjustments such as tests on tape, large print or Braille. Other accommodations include Braille note takers, tape recorders with indexing capabilities and refreshable Braille (Thompson, Bethea, Rizer and Hutto).

For students with visual impairments, assistive technology might include specialized equipment like the Kurzweil Reading Machine which can read printed material such as books to students. There are also programs for computers that use Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and speech synthesis to read aloud. Screen Reading programs such as "Jaws for Windows" can use synthesized sound to read computer screens aloud (Chang, et. al). Access to assistive technology may need to be provided to students by the institution but according to Chang et. al (p. 38), students "usually have the type of equipment" that they need.

Historically, the two most prevalent sources of alternative format for vision impairments have been audio and Braille (Scadden, 1997). Audio included long playing records, reel-to-reel tape, and later, cassette recordings. Electronic reading machines such as the Kurzweil products and other Optical Character Recognition (OCR) devices with speech synthesizers have added to independence. Now computer disks and CD-ROM provides storage for text to be read by computers with speech synthesis. Braille translation programs and Braille embossers (printers) also have become more affordable. Refreshable Braille (mechanically produced changing Braille) allows access to more technical and quantitative information. Many of these technologies allowed blind individuals to write and edit their own documents. (Scadden, 1977).

Electronic information such as email, Internet access and World Wide Web (WWW) have required new technologies. Screen reading programs allowed all text based information on a computer screen to be read aloud. This was adequate for email, gopher access and the early days of WWW. But with the proliferation of faster, more powerful computers, more non-text based information is being transmitted over the web (Scadden, 1997). Graphical User Interface programs are still a problem, but developers of system and application software are taking this into account (Scadden). Realization that blind users were not able to access a great deal of available information has prompted the principles of "universal design" (Scadden). Universal design means that the initial product is already accessible to all individuals, i.e., it does not need adaptations for individuals with disabilities. The future should include tactile access to graphics so that multimedia presentations will also be accessible to individuals with vision impairments (Scadden).


In response to legislative mandates to serve the needs of students with disabilities, various models of support and service provision are being developed. Recently, two students with vision impairments at the College/University of Charleston, SC entered our Computer Science degree program and needed their notes published in Braille, but the College/University did not have this capability. The process was contracted out.

The School of Education computer lab serves two purposes for the college. It is a teaching lab for all educational technology classes. With respect to that purpose, it serves as both a classroom and provides open lab hours for students to practice what they have learned and complete class assignments. At least one technology course is required by all students receiving an education degree at the undergraduate or graduate level.

The lab has been a resource for demonstrating assistive technology to education classes, other local colleges and universities, state agencies, local schools and anyone else requesting information. The lab has been a site available to local citizens with disabilities so that they may try some of the assistive technology available. The equipment has also been used to make local, state and national conference presentations.

This lab has been funded through very generous grants in the past from the Civitans both locally and nationally, and from the George A. Ramlose Foundation. The current project began with seed money from the South Carolina Assistive Technology Project (SCATP Award # H224A600001-97A). In order to satisfy the needs of visually impaired students at the college and to continue providing demonstrations of assistive technology in the local community, the grant was to provide both services.

Many colleges and universities are attempting to find the most efficient and economical method of providing specialized services to their disabled constituents. This project attempted to demonstrate one way to deliver services to individuals with disabilities. Typically that task has been assigned to a department that already exists, making this an Aadd-on@ to their department, but not necessarily its focus. Delivery of these services is usually segregated from classroom situations. This project moved service delivery into a teaching lab, thereby making it more public. Present and future teachers need to be more aware of the available assistive technology. It was proposed that by placing and using the technology in the same environment that pre-service and in-service teachers are taught in, future educators would be able to observe the availability and use of the technology and be more willing to incorporate it into their own classrooms in the future.

Funding for the grant was received in August, 1998. Available equipment was researched and ordered. All equipment had been received to do Optical Character Recognition scanning into text using OpenBook, a Windows program and a flatbed scanner. Jaws for Windows, a screen reading program, was acquired. An announcement was distributed through the college ListServ to all faculty before Christmas break announcing that the equipment was available and urging them to contact the lab if they had blind students who needed alternative format materials. Faculty and staff were similarly informed that Braille printing would also be available.


Five replies were received. One faculty member had passed the message on to a student who was blind, and that student contacted the lab to see what equipment was available (he was very familiar with the programs) and how to gain access to it. The second message was from a faculty member who had a graduate student in his class and was passing on the name of that student. The third came from the coordinator of services for students with disabilities at the college informing the project of the names of the two blind students attending the college (including the students who had already made contact. The fourth message was from an administrator passing on information about the college's services for students with disabilities. The fifth was from a faculty member informing the project about one of the previous students and who the contact person was in disability services.

Over winter break, all equipment was set up and was ready to go. At the beginning of the Spring semester, an announcement went out to all faculty again announcing that the equipment was available for them or their students, and could they inform the students who may need the service. This time there were no replies from faculty and no reply from the second blind student.

The lack of interest/requests from faculty prompted the decision to create a questionnaire for both the students and the coordinator of student services.


When no replies came from faculty requesting alternative format materials, it was decided to create a survey to gain the students' perspective on services provided. At this time, only one student has returned the survey. The following are the questions that were asked and the replies:

  1. What services has the college provided you to help you in courses you take at the college?

    The college has provided the following services.

    • An Optical Character Recognition system (Reads some textbooks with synthetic speech).
    • Lab computers that have been speech-enabled through screen reading software.
    • Reader services (to record books that are not already available on tape and/or can not be scanned with OCR solutions).
    • Readers for course examination materials (exam readers).

  2. How have you felt about the services provided?

    Access to textbooks is a large concern for visually impaired students. Until recently, the college has not provided modern OCR solutions to enable visually impaired/blind students to read their assigned material. The OCR solutions that have existed are over a decade out of date, and are slow and inaccurate.

  3. Were these services adequate?

    No. I've had to come up with many of my own solutions to read textbooks, handle course requirements, etc. Handling things on your own is a good thing to some extent, but other disabled students who may not have my technical skills will have considerable problems. As a liberal arts institution, it is fair to say that a majority of students will not be involved in technical areas, therefore they will have difficulty reading textbooks, using computers for class, etc, and will therefore yield poor academic results.

  4. Were these services provided in a timely manner?

    No. I have had to constantly annoy people and complain to countless others in order to get many things accomplished.

    As a Computer Science major, I require access to campus machines in order to perform my course work. Many people are notified of this need prior to the semester that I will be taking the classes requiring the adaptation, and I am still waiting for people to get through the red tape half-way through the semester.

  5. How have faculty responded to your needs for accommodation?

    On a whole, most professors are willing to make whatever adjustments or modifications that are required for me to participate in their courses. I rarely require any adaptation at the classroom level, however. In most classes, the only needs that I have are for professors to orally indicate anything that is written on a board or overhead projector and approval to have a reader from the College Skills Lab administer all tests and exams. On an individual basis, the staff is generally helpful, but this does not seem to be the case when more than one person becomes involved.

  6. What accommodations were provided for course material?

    Readers are a way of gaining access to printed material.

  7. Were these accommodations adequately provided?

    Unlike other universities, however, this college insists on having disabled students go through the Disabled Student Services Office (DOSS) in order to gain services from a reader. The time lag in this method makes it impractical.

  8. Were course materials provided in a timely manner?

    Students, learning of the reading assignment from a professor, must make a request for a reader to the DOSS office, wait for the office to schedule someone to read the material, have that person deliver the recordings to the DOSS office, and finally make the recordings available to the student who is requesting the service. This procedure is further complicated by the added steps of trying to find people, waiting for them to return calls, etc. It is unrealistic to expect that this procedure will require less than a week to complete.

  9. What suggestions would you have to offer that could improve college life for students with disabilities?

    Other institutions put students directly in contact with the readers. A student must notify the reader that they will need materials recorded. When the recording is complete, the student is contacted by the reader. This can still take a few days, but is a far more responsive method than the current practice.

  10. Do you have any other comments? (other questions I should have asked?)

    This college has been extremely slow in providing adaptive access to campus computing facilities including screen reading software, screen magnification software, and alternative input equipment. The solutions that are currently available are spotty in regards to their availability from any one moment to the next. It is not possible for a disabled student to enter a campus computing center and make use of a workstation. Although it may not be realistic to expect a school of this college's size to make its entire network accessible, it is not so unrealistic to expect them to provide workstations in each computing center that are configured with adaptive software. Currently, however, these adapted workstations are constantly in and out of order, and relying on them for any type of regular usage is a serious mistake.


The anticipated results of this project were two fold. First, students with disabilities would be served in a timely manner by providing support for students with vision and learning disabilities. Second, current and future teachers would become knowledgeable of the available assistive technology for students with visual impairments. To this, there have been no requests for Braille material from professors or students, and the OCR software _OpenBook_ has been used by one of the blind students. The second student, when contacted directly, stated that he was glad to know it was there, but has yet to request its use. The one computer science student was allowed to install _OpenBook_ on his computer so that he would have access to it directly. The equipment is in the lab, but since it is not currently being used, students in the education classes are not seeing the adaptive technologies incorporated into the classroom. Demonstration presentations, however, are being made to the teacher education students in their classes with the technology and at local and state conferences.


In response to legislation that mandates services for students with disabilities, colleges and universities are struggling to find the best way to meet their obligations. Typically, assistive technology has been too expensive to purchase and not available to students and faculty alike. The goal of this project was to come up with a way to provide services to individual students with disabilities that can also be used to empower future teachers in their provision of services and technologies. Hopefully, the benefit would be that individuals with disabilities would be better served while they are at the university and that the educators trained here would provide further awareness and services to others with disabilities after they leave the university.

Surprisingly, no requests for Braille documents were made. Why? Speculation would be that the students are finding the necessary materials in an alternative format. With the proliferation of computer technology, professors may be providing the course materials students need as computer files, eliminating much of the need for Braille. The student who did respond to the services and survey was a computer science major, whose professors would obviously be most computer-proficient.

But outside readings require either a reader or an OCR computer setup. This student found the college facilities not adequate in both areas. Only by installing OpenBook on his own personal computer was he able to receive materials in a timely manner. At that point, he had the materials read to him by his own computer at his convenience and in time for class assignments.

It is important not to put roadblocks up for students with disabilities. The timeliness of delivering services is an important issue. Students with disabilities need the information at the same time as non disabled students so that they may prepare for classes, projects and exams in the same way and with the same amount of time as other students. Based on this study, anything short of providing students immediate access, including their own access to giving assignments to readers and their own adaptive technology, may be inadequate. It may be that the only acceptable alternative is to provide technology directly to students. This study comes to one conclusion on how to best provide services to students with disabilities-put it in their hands. When it comes to meeting the "timeliness" requirement of the law, it may be the only adequate way to provide services.

Perhaps the most important issue facing the student in need of alternative format texts is timeliness. With information from only one student, our survey can hardly be considered statistically significant. This respondent=s departmental affiliation C computer science C also skews results, as most students would presumably not be as aware of available technologies. It does seem likely, however, that it is the student with 24-hour easy access to his or her assistive device(s) of choice that will lead to the greatest success rate among college and university students with disabilities.


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