• What is Visual Impairment?

    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.

    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 leading causes of visual impairment among infants and children are retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), cortical visual impairment, and structural ocular abnormalities, such as cataract and coloboma. These conditions occur during infancy and early childhood, when it is difficult to assess their effects on vision and quality of life. In addition, many of these conditions occur with increased prevalence in children with neurodevelopmental delay, further complicating the assessment of level of vision and the evaluation of quality of life.

    The rate at which visual impairments occur in individuals under the age of 18 is 11.2 per 1,000. Severe visual impairments (legally or totally blind) occur at a rate of .06 per 1,000.

    Many visual impairments can occur at any age, however, over two-thirds of those with visual impairment are over age 65.

    More boys than girls are visually impaired. Additionally, increasing numbers of infants are born very prematurely and survive. These children are at high risk for multiple disabilities, including visual deficits, and will substantially increase the number of Americans with visual impairment.

    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.

    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.
    Information provided by The National Association of Parents With Children in Special Education.