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General Information about Visual Impairments

Fact Sheet Number 13 (FS13), 1997



National Information Center
for Children and Youth with Disabilities


Definition of Visual Impairments



Educational Implications




Learning and Other Disabilities

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Definition of Visual Impairments

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)
  • 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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American Foundation for the Blind. (1993). AFB directory of services for blind and visually impaired persons in the United States (24th ed.). New York, NY: Author. (See address below under organizations.)

Blakely, K., Lang, M.A., Kushner, B., & Iltus, S. (1995). Toys and play: A guide to fun and development for children with impaired vision. Long Island City, NY: Lighthouse Industries.

Curran, E.P. (1988). Just enough to know better (a braille primer). Boston, MA: National Braille Press.

Ferrell, K.A. (1996). Reach out and teach: Materials for parents of visually handicapped and multihandicapped young children (Item No. 2084). New York, NY: American Foundation for the Blind.

Hazekamp, J., & Huebner, K.M. (1989). Program planning and evaluation for blind and visually impaired students: National guidelines for educational excellence (Item No. 155x). New York, NY: American Foundation for the Blind.

Holbrook, M.C.(Ed.). (1996). Children with visual impairments: A parents' guide. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine. (Telephone: 1-800-843-7323.)

Scott, E., Jan, J., & Freeman, R. (1995). Can't your child see? (2nd ed.). Austin, TX: Pro-Ed. (See address above.)

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American Council of the Blind Parents

c/o American Council of the Blind
1155 15th Street N.W., Suite 720
Washington, D.C. 20005
(202) 467-5081; (1-800) 424-8666
E-mail: ncrabb@acces.digex
Web address: http://www.acb.org

American Foundation for the Blind

11 Penn Plaza, Suite 300
New York, NY 10001
(1-800) AFBLIND (Toll Free Hotline)
To order publications, call: 1-800-232-3044
E-mail: afbinfo@afb.org
Web Address: http://www.afb.org/afb

Blind Children's Center

4120 Marathon Street
Los Angeles, CA 90029-0159
(213) 664-2153; (1-800) 222-3566
E-mail: info@blindcntr.org
Web Address: http://www.blindcntr.org/bcc

Division for the Visually Handicapped

c/o Council for Exceptional Children
1920 Association Drive
Reston, VA 22091-1589
(703) 620-3660

National Association for Parents of the Visually Impaired, Inc.

P.O. Box 317
Watertown, MA 02272
(817) 972-7441
(800) 562-6265

National Association for Visually Handicapped

22 West 21st Street, 6th Floor
New York, NY 10010
(212) 889-3141
E-mail: staffnavh@org
Web Address: http://www.navh.org

National Braille Association, Inc. (NBA)

3 Townline Circle
Rochester, NY 14623
(716) 427-8260

National Braille Press

88 St. Stephen Street
Boston, MA 02115
(617) 266-6160; (1-800) 548-7323

National Eye Institute

National Institutes of Health
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
Building 31, Center Drive, MSC2510
Bethesda, MD 20892-2510
(301) 496-5248
E-mail: 2020@b31.nei.nih.gov
Web Address: http://www.nei.nih.gov

National Federation of the Blind, Parents Division

c/o National Federation of the Blind
1800 Johnson Street
Baltimore, MD 21230
(410) 659-9314
E-mail: nfb@acces.digex.net
Web address: http://www.nfb.org

National Library Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

Library of Congress
1291 Taylor Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20542
(202) 707-5100; (1-800) 424-8567
E-mail: nls@loc.gov
Web address: http://www.loc.gov/nls

Prevent Blindness America

500 E. Remington Road
Schaumburg, IL 60173
(708) 843-2020; (1-800) 221-3004 (Toll Free)
E-mail: 74777.100@compuserve.com
Web Address: http://www.prevent-blindness.org

The Foundation Fighting Blindness

(formerly National Retinitis Pigmentosa Foundation)
Executive Plaza One, Suite 800
11350 McCormick Road
Hunt Valley, MD 21031-1014
(1-800) 683-5555 (Toll Free)
(410) 785-1414; (410) 785-9687 (TT)
Web Address: http://www.blindness.org

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Update January 1997

This fact sheet is made possible through Cooperative Agreement #H030A30003 between the Academy for Educational Development and the Office of Special Education Programs. The contents of this publication 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.

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