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Elementary school classrooms and low vision: Designing accessible classrooms series

Here are my tips for creating an inclusive and accessible classroom for students who are blind or low vision.

Last semester, I had the opportunity to work with an elementary school-aged student and their teachers to help implement various accessibility tools within the classroom. After observing how the student moved around the classroom, I created a plan to help make their classroom more inclusive and accessible for the student, and it was incredible to see the transformation and how much these things helped the student be more independent. Here are my tips for how to make an elementary school classroom accessible for low vision and blind students, as part of my Designing Accessible Classrooms series.

Explain the layout of the classroom or create a tactile map

When starting on the first day of school or transitioning to a new classroom layout, it’s helpful to give students a description of the classroom layout, such as where the desks are located, where the board is, and similar relevant information. A great way to show this information is in a tactile map, which can be created with everyday objects and lets blind/low vision students better figure out where objects are located in relation to other objects, such as where the bookshelf is compared to the teacher’s desk.

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Learn how to be a human guide and teach fellow students to do the same

When a student has trouble seeing, it can be tempting to not let them go anywhere alone or to grab their arm when they are walking. This can be very dangerous or disorienting for the student, especially if someone grabs their cane or other mobility aids. Instead, I recommend learning how to be an effective human guide, and teaching students in the classroom to do the same. Things like asking the student if they need help, letting them grab onto the guide’s arm, and giving helpful directions can make a huge difference!

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Be flexible with lighting

I have photosensitivity and wear tinted glasses to help me with avoiding light, and have asked my teachers and professors in the past to adjust lighting in the classroom so that I could see better, without affecting the other students. When I adjusted the lighting temporarily in the classroom I was working in, the student exclaimed that their eyes felt much better when the front lights were dimmed and that it was easier for them to focus on the projector with less light in the classroom. In another classroom, a student with low vision wanted more light at their desk so that it would be easier for them to focus on their worksheet, so a small portable desk light was added so they were able to see it more easily. I suggest working with the student to figure out what lighting system will work best when doing various classroom activities such as taking notes, watching videos, and completing assignments.

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Add PVC pipe to the leg of a desk to store a blindness cane

While I do not typically use my blindness cane often in the classroom, many younger students use their canes more frequently and need to have them in an easy-to-locate place, including the student I was working with. Instead of folding their cane and keeping it inside the desk where it was likely to fall down, we added a piece of PVC pipe purchased for less than $2 to the leg of the desk, so that the student could easily store the cane and grab it as needed- we lifted the desk leg and put it inside the PVC pipe. The exact size of PVC pipe needed will depend on the size of the cane and the cane tip, though these things are easy to measure.

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Find a way to make all student responsibilities/jobs accessible

When I worked with another elementary school-aged student, they mentioned that they wanted to be able to do a new classroom job each week, like their friends. Their teacher had been skeptical to have them change jobs each week because they thought it would be overwhelming for the student, and they weren’t sure how to make some of these jobs accessible. Some of the job modifications/accommodations we talked about included:

These will vary from classroom to classroom depending on student age and classroom needs, but there are options for modifying activities!

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Avoid having obstacles in the middle of the floor

One of the things that the student mentioned to me about their classroom is that they were glad there weren’t beanbags anymore. When asked to elaborate, they mentioned that their previous classroom had lots of beanbags on the floor that they frequently tripped over, and it was hard for them to navigate with things on the floor. For this reason, it’s helpful to avoid having obstacles in the middle of the floor that students can run into, and to have clear walkways as much as possible.

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Look for accessible copies of classroom books online

Many classrooms have a small classroom library of books for students to read, though most of the time they are not in an accessible format for students with print disabilities. Since the student wanted to read the same book as their friends, we asked the teacher to write down the ISBN number for the student so that they could find the book on Bookshare (a free accessible digital library), and the student was able to get a copy of the book within a few minutes so they could read with their friends. If a book is not available in an accessible format, Bookshare can convert it for free as well.

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Add tactile labels and details to bulletin boards

Bulletin boards often contain classroom information, educational posters, or other things that can be helpful for students, so it’s important to make sure that all students can access them as needed. Some ways that teachers can make their bulletin boards accessible for blind and low vision students include:

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Reimagine classroom items

In many cases, teachers can take advantage of existing classroom materials and make them work for blind/low vision students. Some examples implemented in the classroom I worked in include:

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Follow student accommodations and recommendations from other staff

While this is meant to be a guide for making classrooms accessible for low vision and blind students, it isn’t a guide for making classrooms accessible for all low vision and blind students that one might encounter. It’s important to look at student accommodations documents such as IEPs or 504 plans to determine what students need, and follow recommendations from special education staff, parents/guardians, and the Teacher of the Visually Impaired. What works well for one student may not work well for another.

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Summary of designing elementary school classrooms for low vision

By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes,

Updated August 2023; original post published December 2020

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