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Understanding Visual Impairments
National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities

The terms partially sighted, low vision, legally blind, and totally blind are used in the educational context to describe students with visual impairments. They are defined as follows:

"Partially sighted" indicates some type of visual problem has resulted in a need for special education;

"Low vision" generally refers to a severe visual impairment, not necessarily limited to distance vision. Low vision applies to all individuals with sight who are unable to read the newspaper at a normal viewing distance, even with the aid of eyeglasses or contact lenses. They use a combination of vision and other senses to learn, although they may require adaptations in lighting or the size of print, and, sometimes, braille;

"Legally blind" indicates that a person has less than 20/200 vision in the better eye or a very limited field of vision (20 degrees at its widest point); and

Totally blind students learn via braille or other non-visual media.

Visual impairment is the consequence of a functional loss of vision, rather than the eye disorder itself. Eye disorders which can lead to visual impairments can include retinal degeneration, albinism, cataracts, glaucoma, muscular problems that result in visual disturbances, corneal disorders, diabetic retinopathy, congenital disorders, and infection.

The rate at which visual impairments occur in individuals under the age of 18 is 12.2 per 1,000. Severe visual impairments (legally or totally blind) occur at a rate of .06 per 1,000.

The effect of visual problems on a child's development depends on the severity, type of loss, age at which the condition appears, and overall functioning level of the child. Many children who have multiple disabilities may also have visual impairments resulting in motor, cognitive, and/or social developmental delays.

A young child with visual impairments has little reason to explore interesting objects in the environment and, thus, may miss opportunities to have experiences and to learn. This lack of exploration may continue until learning becomes motivating or until intervention begins.

Because the child cannot see parents or peers, he or she may be unable to imitate social behavior or understand nonverbal cues. Visual handicaps can create obstacles to a growing child's independence.

Educational Implications
Children with visual impairments should be assessed early to benefit from early intervention programs, when applicable. Technology in the form of computers and low-vision optical and video aids enable many partially sighted, low vision and blind children to participate in regular class activities. Large print materials, books on tape, and braille books are available.

Students with visual impairments may need additional help with special equipment and modifications in the regular curriculum to emphasize listening skills, communication, orientation and mobility, vocation/career options, and daily living skills. Students with low vision or those who are legally blind may need help in using their residual vision more efficiently and in working with special aids and materials. Students who have visual impairments combined with other types of disabilities have a greater need for an interdisciplinary approach and may require greater emphasis on self care and daily living skills.

American Foundation for the Blind. Search AFB's Service Center on the Web to identify services for blind and visually impaired persons in the United States and Canada. Available: www.afb.org/services.asp

Holbrook, M.C. (Ed.). (1996). Children with visual impairments: A parents' guide. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine. (Telephone: 800.843.7323; 301.897.3570. Web: www.woodbinehouse.com)

Lewis, S., & Allman, C.B. (2000). Seeing eye to eye: An administrator's guide to students with low vision. New York: American Foundation for the Blind. (Telephone: 800.232.3044. Web: www.afb.org)

National Eye Institute. (2003, December). Eye health organizations list. (Available online at: http://www.nei.nih.gov/health/resourceAlpha.asp)

American Council of the Blind
1155 15th St. N.W., Suite 1004
Washington, D.C. 20005
202.467.5081; 800.424.8666
Web: www.acb.org

American Foundation for the Blind
11 Penn Plaza, Suite 300
New York, NY 10001
800.232.5463 (Hotline)
For publications, call: 800.232.3044
Web: www.afb.org

Blind Children’s Center
4120 Marathon Street
Los Angeles, CA 90029-0159
323.664.2153; 800.222.3566
Web: www.blindchildrenscenter.org

National Association for Parents of the Visually Impaired, Inc.
P.O. Box 317
Watertown, MA 02472-0317
617.972.7441; 800.562.6265
Web: www.napvi.org

National Association for Visually Handicapped
22 West 21st Street, 6th Floor
New York, NY 10010
Web: www.navh.org

National Braille Association, Inc. (NBA)
3 Townline Circle
Rochester, NY 14623-2513
Web: www.nationalbraille.org

National Braille Press
88 St. Stephen Street
Boston, MA 02115
617.266.6160; 800.548.7323
Web: www.nbp.org

National Eye Institute
31 Center Drive, MSC 2510
Bethesda, MD 20892-2510
Web: www.nei.nih.gov

National Federation of the Blind, Parents Division
1800 Johnson Street
Baltimore, MD 21230
410.659.9314, ext. 360
Web: www.nfb.org/nopbc.htm

National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Library of Congress
1291 Taylor Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20011
202.707.5100; 202.707.0744 (TTY); 800.424.8567 (Toll Free)
Web: www.loc.gov/nls

Prevent Blindness America
500 E. Remington Road
Schaumburg, IL 60173
847.843.2020; 800.221.3004 (Toll Free)
Web: www.preventblindness.org

The Foundation Fighting Blindness (formerly the National
Retinitis Pigmentosa Foundation)
11435 Cronhill Drive
Owings Mills, MD 21117-2220
888.394.3937; 800.683.5551 (TTY)
410.568.0150; 410.363.7139 (TTY)
Web: www.blindness.org

Publication of this document is made possible through a Cooperative Agreement between the Academy for Educational Development and the Office of Special Education Programs of the U.S. Department of Education. The contents of this document do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

P.O. Box 1492
Washington, DC 20013
(800) 695-0285 · v/tty
(202) 884-8441 · fax

January 2004

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