Glaring yellow light with sunbeams representing photosensitivity.

Photosensitivity in the classroom

Tips for teachers on how to handle photosensitivity and flashing lights that trigger migraines and seizures.

When I was in high school, I began experiencing photophobia and photosensitivity to bright, strobe, and flashing lights. While tinted glasses were a helpful tool for helping to mitigate the effects of bright lights, my teachers and I often had to be vigilant when it came to avoiding sources of strobe and flashing lights, as they could trigger a nonepileptic seizure or migraine and cause me to miss out on valuable class time. Here are ten items that were surprising sources of strobe and flashing lights in the classroom, and how we covered or minimized the effects of them.

Fluorescent lights

Fluorescent lights were probably the most common source of flickering or flashing lights in all of my classes, because they would often flicker for seemingly no reason. This is distracting for all students, but the rapid flickering effects that come from a faulty light could trigger a migraine or seizure, or at the very least eye strain. Because of my medical condition, my teachers would put in an urgent work order for lights to get fixed in the classroom, and would sometimes turn off the overhead lights in favor of using lamps or other surface lighting.

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Light switch

One of my teachers had a habit of rapidly flickering the lights to get the attention of students, which was not a good option for my class. Since I sat next to the light switch, the teacher would often tell me to close my eyes before they would flicker the lights, or they would simply turn the light off without immediately turning it back on again. I never had any issues with students messing with the light switch while I was in class, as they knew it would hurt my brain.

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Slideshow animations and transitions

Some slideshow animations and transitions can have a flickering or flashing effect or trigger sensations of vertigo. Since I have low vision, I would watch a copy of the slideshow on my personal computer and turn off animations so that I could navigate the presentation at my own pace. Many slideshow applications also offer users the option to open a presentation without animations enabled, or users can choose to view slides one at a time in the Editor view.

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Instrument tuners

While this isn’t an item in every classroom, instrument tuners often use lights to indicate whether an instrument is sharp or flat, and these lights often flicker rapidly as the musician plays a tuning note. Since students often tuned their instruments with the help of another student anyway, I would have the person assisting me cover the lights of the tuner with their finger or turn the display away from me so that I wouldn’t see the lights.

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Similar to fluorescent lights, projectors can have a flickering or flashing effect when they are not working, or flash multiple times when being turned on or off. My teachers would let me know when they would be turning the projector on or off so that I could close my eyes, and any issues with flickering or flashing displays were submitted as an urgent work order/repair request.

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Flash photography

Camera flashes, especially multiple camera flashes in a row, are often distracting and can trigger a migraine or seizure in some cases. Classroom visitors and audience members at school events were asked to refrain from using flash photography for the safety of students, and some of my teachers would say that they had students who had medical conditions that were triggered by flashing lights. This may not be feasible at some larger events, such as graduations and school picture day, though I still minimized my exposure to flashing lights at these events by alerting photographers and positioning myself away from lights when possible.

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Many movies and videos we watched in class contained flashing lights at one point or another. One of the strategies for watching videos in class with photosensitivity is to have someone write down the time stamps of scenes with strobe or flashing lights, and have dialogue cues listed so that students can know when to close/open their eyes. There are several other strategies for watching videos for student with photosensitivity as well, including watching videos in a well-lit room and enabling audio description. Sometimes I would also listen to movies from the hallway if they had a lot of flashing lights or if I was already on the edge of having a migraine, or I would watch classroom videos at home instead.

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Some internet routers may have flickering or flashing lights that give information on device connection status. While these lights aren’t particularly large, my teachers would often cover them with opaque tape, removing the tape at the end of the week so that maintenance could check the devices during the weekend.

Fire alarms

One of the most distinctive features of a fire alarm is a flashing light, which can produce a strobe effect when multiple fire alarms are going off at once or are reflected in a window. The school nurse would often pull me from class in advance of a planned fire drill so that I wouldn’t get a migraine, or I would be taken to a location away from fire trucks and first responders so that the sirens wouldn’t make me feel even worse.

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Mobile applications

Some games and mobile applications used in my classes had strobe or flashing effects, or would trigger effects of vertigo. Disabling animations or enabling high contrast modes can sometimes help with reducing these effects, though most of my teachers would usually have me find an alternative app or activity if I came across an app with lots of flashing lights.

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Bonus- substitute teachers

There was an incident in one of my classes during freshman year of high school where a substitute teacher hadn’t noticed a note that my teacher had left telling them not to flicker the light switch, and they ended up flickering it repeatedly during the class period even after other students told them to stop. After that incident, my teacher started adding a note in large print at the bottom of sub plans about not flickering the lights and announcing when they were turning the projector on/off. I also started approaching substitute teachers before the start of class to remind them not to flicker the lights, and rarely had to deal with issues like that again.

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Other tips for dealing with photosensitivity and flashing lights in the classroom

By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes,

Updated August 2023; original post published August 2017

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