Sensory disabilities

Used with permission from DO IT 
Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking & Technology 
University of Washington

Sensory disabilities include low vision, blindness, deafness and hard of hearing.

Low Vision

What are some examples of different ways low vision may affect the ability to learn? For some students with low vision, or partial sight, standard written materials are too small to read and small objects are difficult to see. Other students may see objects only within a specific field of vision, or see an image with sections missing. Text or objects may appear blurry.

Learning via a visual medium may take longer and may be more fatiguing for people who have low vision. Some people with low vision may be able to read enlarged print for a long time period, while others may only be able to tolerate reading for a short time and require readers or audiotaped material.

Visual abilities may also vary in different situations. For example, reduced light or strong glares may affect visual abilities during different times of day or in different classrooms.

Students with low vision may face challenges in locating large-print materials, getting around in an unfamiliar setting, finding transportation, hiring readers for library work, researching reports and short articles, as well as getting recorded textbooks on time.

General classroom accommodations for students with low vision include:

  • Large-print reading materials (e.g., books, handouts, signs, and equipment labels). Large print is typically as 16 to 18 point bold type, depending on the typeface used.
  • Front-row or preferential classroom seating in well-lit areas with full view of the instructor and visual aids.
  • Class assignments in audiotaped or electronic formats.
  • Computers with screen enlargers, optical character readers (which convert print to speech output), or speech output.
  • The use of a reader or scribe for exams or class assignments.
  • The use of cassette recorders and laptop computers for notetaking.
  • Extended time for exams and assignments.
  • Verbal descriptions of visual aides.
  • TV monitors connected to microscopes to enlarge images.

Examples of accommodations for laboratory or strong visual instructional content for students with low vision include:

  • Large-print instructions.
  • Large-print laboratory signs and equipment labels.
  • Enlarged images through connecting TV monitors to microscopes.
  • Raised line drawings or tactile models for illustrations.

Students who have no sight cannot access standard printed materials. Students who have had no vision since birth may also have difficulty understanding verbal descriptions of visual materials and abstract concepts. Individuals who are "legally blind" may have some functional vision, making accommodations for students with low vision appropriate.

Consider the description, "This diagram of ancestral lineage looks like a tree." If one has never seen a tree, it may not be readily apparent that the structure of note has several lines of ancestry which can be traced back to one central family. However, students who lost their vision later in life may find it easier to understand such verbal descriptions. Additionally, demonstrations based on color differences may be more difficult for students with blindness to participate in and understand than demonstrations which emphasize changes in shape, temperature, or texture. In some cases, the assistance of a sighted person is required in order for the student who is blind to gain access to the content of your course.

Ready access to printed materials on computer disk, via email, or on websites can allow a blind student, who has the appropriate technology, to use computers to read text aloud and/or produce it in Braille. Some materials may need to be transferred to audiotape. Since it may take weeks or even months for support staff to procure course materials in Braille or on audiotape, it is essential that instructors select and prepare their materials well before they are needed. Typically, school staff who support disabled students coordinate Braille and audiotape production in collaboration with instructors and the student.

During lecture demonstrations, clear, concise narration of the basic points being represented in visual aids is important. This technique benefits other students as well.

Other examples of accommodations for blind students include tactile models and raised-line drawings of graphic materials. Staff who support disabled students can help locate or create these materials. It is most helpful when the instructor identifies the specific learning objective when an accommodation is needed. This clarifies the academic accommodation required.

Adaptive lab equipment such as talking thermometers, calculators, light probes, and tactile timers can maximize access to labs for students who are blind. In addition, computers with optical character readers, speech output, Braille screen displays, and Braille printers allow students who are blind to participate in computer exercises and on-line research. In addition, Web pages used in your course should be designed so that they are accessible to those using Braille and speech output systems. The disabled student services office and/or computing services staff on your campus can be consulted when addressing computer access issues.

Deaf or Hard of Hearing

Functional hearing loss ranges from mild to profound. Often, people who have very little or no functional hearing refer to themselves as "deaf." Those with milder hearing loss may label themselves as "hard of hearing." When these two groups are combined, they are often referred to as individuals with "hearing impairments", or "hearing loss", or are "hearing impaired". When referring to the Deaf culture, "Deaf" is capitalized. Accommodations for students who are deaf or hard of hearing can be classified as "visual" and "aural." Visual accommodations rely on a person's sight; aural accommodations rely on a person's hearing abilities. Examples of visual accommodations include sign language interpreters, lip reading, and captioning. Examples of aural accommodations include amplification devices such as FM systems.

Hard of Hearing
Some students who are hard of hearing may hear only specific frequencies or sounds within a certain volume range. They may rely heavily upon hearing aids and lip reading. Some students who are hard of hearing may never learn, or only occasionally use, sign language. Students who are hard of hearing may have speech impairments due to their inability to hear their own voices clearly.

Being deaf or hard of hearing can affect students in several ways. They may have difficulty following lectures in large halls, particularly if the acoustics cause echoes or if the speaker talks quietly, rapidly, or unclearly. People who have hearing impairments may find it difficult to simultaneously watch demonstrations and follow verbal descriptions, particularly if they are watching a sign language interpreter, a captioning screen, or a speaker's lips. In-class discussions may also be difficult to follow or participate in, particularly if the discussion is fast-paced and unmoderated, since there is often lag time between a speaker's comments and interpretation.

Students who are hard of hearing may use hearing aids. Students who use hearing aids will likely benefit from amplification in other forms such as assistive listening devices (ALDs) like hearing aid compatible telephones, personal neck loops, and audio induction loop assistive listening systems. Some students use FM amplification systems which require the instructor to wear a small microphone to transmit amplified sound to the student.


Students who are deaf may have little or no speech depending on the severity of the hearing loss and the age of onset. They will often communicate through a sign language interpreter. American Sign Language (ASL) is widely used and has its own grammar and word order. Other students may use manual English (or signed English), which is sign language in English word order. A certified interpreter is used for translation into either language. Students who are deaf may also benefit from real-time captioning, where spoken text is typed and projected onto a screen.

It is important to remember that a student who is using an interpreter, who is lip reading, or who is reading real-time captioning cannot simultaneously look down at written materials or take notes. Describing written or projected text is therefore helpful to this student. Handouts that can be read before or after class are useful, but create challenges when referred to during the class session.

Accommodations for Hard of Hearing and Deaf Students
Examples of accommodations for students who have hearing impairments include:

  • Interpreters.
  • Sound amplification systems.
  • Notetakers.
  • Real-time captioning.
  • Electronic mail for faculty-student meetings and class discussions.
  • Visual warning systems for lab emergencies.
  • Changing computer auditory signals to flashes or contrast changes.

There are also several ways you can direct your speaking style and adjust the "pace" of the classroom to make information more accessible to a student with a hearing impairment.

  • When speaking, make sure the student can see your face and avoid unnecessary pacing and moving.
  • When speaking, avoid obscuring your lips or face with hands, books, etc.
  • Repeat discussion questions and statements made by other students.
  • Write discussion questions/answers on the board or overhead projector.
  • Speak clearly and at a normal rate.
  • Use visual aids with few words and large images and fonts.
  • Provide written lecture outlines, class assignments, lab instructions, and demonstration summaries and distribute them before class when possible.