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Accessing the curriculum

Print size

Sometimes we hear that the minimum print size a child or young person can access is used to argue or imply that a print size which the child or young person wants is in fact bigger than necessary.

Research shows that we need a reserve of acuity to be able to read fluently and quickly. Studies have shown that we need an acuity reserve of 3:1. This means, if we require print size 12 we should be able to access a minimum print size 4. Or, if we require print size 36 we should be able to access a minimum print size of 12.

Magnification and reading fluency

Reading speed and fluency will be affected by the number of letters or words a child or young person can see at one time. When we read a sentence we are looking directly at words but also taking in the next few words ready to read.

If the child or young person uses a magnifier, the visual field is restricted and the stronger the magnifier the narrower the field. Research has shown that in order to read fluently we need to see 4 to 6 letters at a time. Consequently, when a child or young person uses medium powered magnifiers, reading can be restricted and this is why it is hard to read with anything but the weakest magnifier.

Some children and young people do not like using low vision aids. This can, of course, be about personal image and not wanting to appear different. It can also result though through the trade-off between magnification and visual field size not working to the child’s or young person’s satisfaction. Consequently, reading fluency is hampered.

This can partly be addressed by the child or young person holding the magnifier closer to his or her eye which allows for a wider field of view. There is always a trade-off though between ease of use and the best theoretical magnification.

Contrast sensitivity

Another, and sometimes under estimated effect on accessing visual information is contrast. Contrast sensitivity means the difference between the darkness of a letter against the lightness of a background (or vice versa). This contrast is measured and called contrast acuity. In functional and everyday terms this results in different sized objects standing out visually in differing degrees from the background.

When we access print it is not all very black or all very white. Sometimes print is overlaid on top of pictures. Also, the more we photocopy, enlarge or re-copy, the more we lose clarity and contrast. As a result, the contrast between print and the background impacts upon reading speed and accuracy. Consequently, we need a reserve of contrast acuity in order to read fluently and quickly.

A contrast test allows us to measure the contrast threshold and hence predict reading fluency. If a child or young person has reduced contrast sensitivity then we know that simply increasing the power of magnification will not be enough.

Contrast acuity and mobility

Contrast sensitivity also impacts on mobility. When a child or young person encounters steps or changes in threshold, the result visually is reduced contrast acuity. When different parts of the environment represent different shades of grey visual confusion may result.

Therefore, a low vision assessment should offer a balance between magnification, lighting and contrast with the assessment written in functional terms.


Writing by hand may be difficult for children or young people with low vision. Often, handwriting is untidy. Consequently, despite his or her best efforts a child or young person may be unable to see what s/he has written.


Following are a few difficulties commonly encountered along with a few suggestions which may reduce the problem:

  • Hand eye coordination may be poor making pen control difficult. Sometimes, specific exercises to develop handwriting co-ordination set by an Occupational Therapist can help
  • Writing in a straight line may be difficult; dark lined paper can help
  • Your child or young person may find it difficult to see what s/he has written. Using a black felt tipped pen may help with seeing the writing. Using a pencil should be avoided
  • Your child or young person may write slowly and need longer to complete a task. Importantly, therefore, enough time needs to be allocated otherwise your child or young person may feel frustrated through never experiencing the satisfaction of finishing a piece of work and reaching his or her potential
  • Others may find it difficult reading your child or young person’s writing. Touch typing will not only help to remove the sheer effort when writing but it will also address other difficulties listed above


  • Your child or young person’s views should be sought about his or her preferred method of recording information
  • When writing by hand, success may require the setting of realistic goals

If you feel isolated, in need of professional support and information see what Families and Special Educational Needs can offer.


Deciding if your child or young person should be a tactile or print user can be difficult. Unfortunately, a decision can be made based on available resources and not individual need. Following is a model used by colleagues in North America.


Based on assessment select the best option from the following:

  • Braille
  • Print
  • Braille, complemented with print
  • Print, complemented with Braille
  • Braille (tactile learner)

Ongoing considerations

Having ascertained the best option consider further the following:

  • An option which includes both Braille and print should be dependent upon what the individual child or young person prefers
  • An individual's vision, the visual demands placed on the child or young person, and the use of one medium over another may change
  • Even though a child or young person may use one medium more than another it is critical to develop proficiency in both. For the pre-school child this will mean providing equal opportunities for visual and tactile activities
  • After pre-school the amount of time teaching or practicing a medium will be based on assessment and taking into account the current needs of the individual
  • All concerned must consider the choice of medium most suited to the individual’s situation

Five considerations

Following are five considerations for deciding the most suitable medium. These are:

  • Medical
  • Physical
  • Print reading
  • Handwriting
  • Low Vision Technology

Who should be a tactile learner and use Braille?

  • Medical: a child or young person who is severely sight impaired and with very little sight or is expected to experience rapid sight loss
  • Physical: someone with an additional disability that does not interfere with the ability to learn Braille
  • Print reading: the individual cannot read print or reading is extremely slow even after all print factors have been adjusted for maximum efficiency
  • Handwriting: a child or young person who cannot, or has great difficulty reading his or her own handwriting
  • Low Vision Technology: someone who cannot comfortably read print even when using a CCTV or other non-portable device

Who should learn and use print?

  • Medical: a child or young person who has a stable eye condition or has a prognosis of continued improvement
  • Physical: someone who experiences little fatigue or discomfort from reading. The nature of an additional disability prohibits reading in a tactile format. A child or young person after assessment displays an inability to process tactile information with accuracy and fluency
  • Print reading: the individual reads regular print comfortably and efficiently in most settings and circumstances. Reading speed accuracy is on a par with a child or young person’s expected grades. Performance level is on a par with overall ability. A child or young person can use print easily for all academic, non-academic and employment needs
  • Handwriting: a child or young person has legible handwriting and can easily read his or her own and others' notes at an acceptable distance.
  • Low Vision Technology: someone who reads regular print without low vision devices and comfortably uses a pocket-sized magnifier for reading fine print.

Who should learn and use Braille complemented with print?

  • Medical: a child or young person with a diagnosis or prognosis of severe visual impairment, has a degenerative eye condition, or has severely restricted visual field
  • Physical: someone who holds a book close to his or her face, can read only very large print, or regularly suffers from headaches, fatigue, or visual discomfort after reading. The individual displays a strong preference for tactile learning. S/he can read using an electronic low vision aid but only with effort. S/he cannot read using hand-held magnifiers with any reasonable speed, accuracy or comprehension. S/he is unable to consistently and independently complete school work on time
  • Print reading: an individual's print reading speed is far below that of others at the same developmental level. S/he is consistently inaccurate when reading, and has difficulty reading a variety of print styles or print on a coloured background
  • Handwriting: a child or young person can only read notes when written with a felt tipped pen and only one or two inches above the page. S/he has difficulty reading notes accurately or can only read them using a CCTV

Who should learn and use print complemented with Braille?

  • Medical: a child or young person who currently has a stable eye condition but is at risk of eventual deterioration, has a slowly progressive eye condition, has a restricted visual field or has fluctuating vision
  • Physical: someone whose posture during reading results in back and neck strain or headaches. S/he complains of watering eyes, blurring, or other visual discomfort after extensive reading or writing tasks. The individual cannot complete assignments without relying on others or technology for reading and note taking
  • Print reading: the individual cannot read standard print easily or accurately for an appropriate length of time in order to complete tasks throughout the day. S/he may read using both regular and large print. S/he reads primarily in large print combined with optical or electronic low-vision aids, and s/he is unable to maintain a reading rate on a par with grade levels. S/he depends on very large print for accessing practical everyday information. Pre-school observations should include how a child approaches learning; that is, a visual versus tactile approach
  • Handwriting: a child or young person has difficulty producing and reading his or her own, or others' handwriting
  • Low Vision Technology: someone who sometimes uses a CCTV to access visual materials such as maps and diagrams

If you feel isolated, in need of professional support and information see what Families and Special Educational Needs can offer.


In the UK and other developed countries it is expected that all children, including those with a disability, will become familiar with ICT.


To ascertain the most appropriate technology, an understanding of an individual’s skills and needs are required. These include:

  • Current learning objectives
  • Long term learning objectives
  • The effect of the individual’s eye condition in functional terms
  • The visual impairment’s prognosis
  • Other disabilities
  • The individual’s general development

Whatever ICT equipment is needed it must address individual need. Deciding upon suitability requires an assessment covering a learner’s potential and then matching it with the potential of the equipment. In reality, of course, the allocation of equipment can depend on finance and what equipment is available having been initially bought for others.

Current and long-term teaching and learning objectives

A word processor that can edit and format may meet educational and visual needs in the primary and early secondary years. Later, more sophisticated equipment is likely to be needed and this must be compatible in all areas in which it is to be used.

A child or young person requires appropriate technology in school and at home and that provision should take account of movement from one part of a learning environment to another. Early on, this may be relatively easy when most subjects are class based and often in one area. Later, when different subjects are taught by specialists in subject areas, things become much more difficult. Provision for moving equipment around may need to be considered. Suitable storage areas may then be required.

The effects of a visual impairment

Information about a child’s eye condition helps decision making regarding equipment and settings; for example, size and type of font, colour of background or type of speech package.

Learner achievement

Your child or young person’s achievement will be governed by more than the eye condition’s severity. Other considerations include:

  • The significance of other disabilities
  • The appropriateness of early intervention
  • The support at school and at home
  • Your child’s motivation
  • A young person's motivation
  • The quality of learning materials
  • Reading and writing skills
  • Level of independence

Other disabilities

By matching knowledge of each area of need with an awareness of the devices available, recommendations can be made about appropriate technology to support learning.

A whole school or college policy

For access technology to be successfully integrated there has to be a whole school or college policy with an approach supported across the curriculum.

Access technology drawbacks

Access technology including for example, screen magnification packages and speech access software has to be learned alongside application software. Common forms of access technology have their own difficulties and using them does not mean that the addition of a screen magnifier or speech synthesiser will enable your child or young person to access the curriculum on a par with fully sighted peers.

Most pieces of access technology contain barriers of their own. These may include:

  • Screen magnifiers only allowing a ‘keyhole’ view of a task
  • Speech synthesisers often speak too much with a voice difficult to understand
  • They can only speak in lines rather than sentences and reproduce many words which are inflected and mispronounced

Technological advances can cause additional difficulties. Updated versions of software might not be compatible with previous versions or may require higher specification computers.

The requirements to learn about all of this equipment along with any new equipment places more demands on an already busy curriculum and alongside all the extra skills a learner with low vision needs.

Touch typing

Touch typing skills are essential for those with low vision using a QWERTY keyboard. Consequently:

  • Time should be allocated at an early age to develop these skills so that a computer is viewed as a natural aid to communication
  • Adapted keyboards can be used to meet individual need such as Braille
  • Keyboard skills allow a child or young person to maintain a level of competence and independence
  • Key strokes should be used to minimise the need for a mouse

Word processing skills

Applications like spreadsheets and databases require individuals to understand concepts like cells, columns, rows and fields along with the relationships of cause and effect.

Writing, reading speed and accuracy

A word processor helps a child or young person who writes slowly or has difficulty reading his or her own writing.

Reading difficulties can be supported by using a voice synthesiser or a magnification package but both of these need practice.

Basic packages available

  • Word processing, spreadsheets and database programmes have fast find functions which can help to alleviate difficulties with searching and skimming
  • Standard packages include spell checkers along with changes to screen size and style of font which help children and young people who are experiencing difficulties with reading, writing and spelling
  • Inserting borders can aid screen orientation
  • Using different colours can provide visual separation between different functions or areas of the screen

Graphics and diagrams

A fully sighted child or young person can draw information from a diagram almost instantly. A diagram can be seen in its entirety and comparisons can be drawn quickly and easily. Individuals with low vision may find even simple graphic representations difficult; for example, a bar graph or pie chart can be difficult due to a child or young person being unable to see an overall view of data. More easily accessible alternatives include lists or tables.

When deciding how best to present information consider its use and present the information in the most convenient format for the child or young person.

Communicating information through pictures

Many packages which involve the creation of graphics allow very limited access through a speech synthesiser. If screen magnification is used, the enlargement process may distort the image; the higher the magnification, the greater the distortion.


CD-ROMs allow access to a vast amount of information but they often contain graphics and video clips which are of little use to children or young people with low vision unless additional print or audio information is used.


Pages are often visually busy and the internet can be very difficult to access for those with low vision. As with CD-ROMs, internet pages often contain videos and graphics which are often very difficult to access.

Training for those supporting your child or young person

ICT must also be considered in relation to staff training. Training for teachers, teaching assistants and parents should be available to ensure that access technology will be fully integrated into all areas of learning in school, college and the home.

Conclusion: maximising ICT at school, college and home

To ensure your child or young person can potentially maximise the uses of ICT at school, college and home several requirements are necessary. These include:

  • An effective school or college policy
  • Appropriate allocation of resources
  • Assessment to ascertain individual need
  • Training for all staff working with your child or young person

ICT can enable your child or young person to potentially take more control over learning by promoting independence. Specialist ICT can play a significant part in helping integration by providing access to areas of the curriculum where low vision can represent a barrier.

If you feel isolated, in need of professional support and information see what Families and Special Educational Needs can offer.

Copyright 2020