SOAS University of London

Student Advice and Wellbeing

Visual impairments - Advice for staff

Study Inclusion Plans (SIPs)

The Disability & Neurodiversity Team will usually have been in touch with the student before they start their course and will have agreed with them an individual Study Inclusion Plan (SIP). The Study Inclusion Plan describes any adjustments that need to be made or support the student will need to access the course. These might include preferred method of accessing written information, exam arrangements and library support.

The student is responsible for reviewing and confirming their Study Inclusion Plan (SIP) each academic year in order to distribute it to their new module convenors via Students should also make a PDF for their SIP and email it to other teaching staff (eg Graduate Teaching Assistants or Programme Convenors). If the student changes modules or wants to share the SIP with with other teaching staff, it will be up to them to send it separately. The academic department office will also have a copy of the SIP. Whether or not the student has an SIP, please feel free to liaise with the Disability & Neurodiversity advisors throughout the course regarding any questions or concerns you may have.

Please see the list of FAQs about Study Inclusion Plans.

What are visual impairments?

Visual impairments refer to sight problems - inherited or acquired - that cannot be corrected and which result in blindness or partial-sightedness. There is a very broad range of visual impairments: a person might have centred vision but not be able to see things to the sides, might have generally very blurred vision, or might see blank spots interspersed with visible patches. ‘Blindness’ is defined (by the RNIB) as ‘severely distorted vision’. About 80% of blind people will still have some useful sight and the remaining 20% will usually be able to distinguish light and dark. Most visually impaired people are able to get around independently.

How can I support blind or visually impaired students?

Meet with the student as soon as possible to find out about their needs and discuss any questions arising from the student’s SIP. This might include any difficulties with providing course information in the appropriate format, advance reading lists and directive reading. The guide below gives a general overview only and even two individuals with the same degree of sight loss may vary considerably in terms of how they choose to make teaching and course material accessible.

Suggested strategies
  • Let the student know you are there and waiting to talk to them by saying their name and letting them know who you are
  • Ask if the student needs help – do not assume
  • Explain to the student where something is by describing it according to their own body (e.g. in front of you, by your right elbow)
  • If you are walking with them, talk your way through it – “to our left, we have the Student Union and straight ahead we are coming to a set of four steps with a handrail up the right side”. Most blind people prefer to take someone’s elbow, half a step behind
  • Always communicate directly with the student rather than their assistant
  • Consider the practical implications if the student has a guide dog (e.g. water bowls and toileting)
  • Be aware that reading, joining in teaching sessions and completing of assessments are likely to take longer for a partially sighted student
  • The student will require extra concentration and memory skills for getting around and studying
  • It helps if there is enough time between lectures, tutorials etc., rooms close together, regular lectures in the same rooms as moving around may take longer
  • Plan support for years abroad, field trips or work placements well in advance in consultation with the student and the disability advisors
  • Be aware of Health & Safety issues (e.g. in classrooms, bags or photocopiers in walkways, fire evacuation)
Suggested Strategies – Teaching

Students will be relying mainly (or completely) on aural delivery. To enable maximum access to the lecture (and to assist note-takers):

  • Try to ensure you are visible by standing in a well-lit place; not directly in front of a window, as your face will be in shadow
  • Keep background noise to a minimum (e.g. whispering, clicking of pens)
  • Speak clearly, giving explicit instructions and directions
  • Invite students to use recording equipment (i.e. using a laptop or brailler to take notes or record the lectures via a digital recorder - they may need access to a plug socket)
  • Explain at beginning of lecture what the structure and main points will be; providing a written summary in advance if possible – this will assist the student and note taker
  • Say if something specific should be noted. Highlight key points, topic changes and new vocabulary and concepts
  • Summarise regularly and build in regular stopping points to check understanding
  • Be aware that gestures and other non-verbal communication cannot be seen, and therefore it can be difficult to infer irony and interpret a facial expression
  • During group discussions and oral sessions, have a strict ‘one at a time’ rule and use names – not being able to pick-up on non-verbal communication makes knowing when it is your turn or when to jump in with a point very difficult
  • Discuss with the student any adjustments that might be needed for their own presentations
  • Explain visuals/diagrams verbally
  • Use black or dark coloured pens on whiteboards (red or green are particularly difficult to read)
  • Read out anything you write on a board or on a power point presentation
  • If videos are used as teaching aids, the student will need a copy well in advance of the lecture viewing to enable the Student Helper to watch the video with the student and explain what is happening; in addition, the Student Helper might need to attend the lecture viewing and quietly commentate
  • Be sensitive to new lecture venues as the student may not be familiar with the layout.
  • Make sure that short notice lecture relocations do not just rely in a message on the door or notice board which may not be accessible to a visually impaired student
Suggested strategies - Course Materials
  • Provide whatever material you can in advance and electronically via e-mail or on the BLE (the student can then access the material either enlarged on the screen, print off the material in Braille or use their screen-reading software to hear the material)
  • Tell the student which of the recommended reading is ‘essential’ as early as possible so they can convert it into an accessible format and allow for pre-reading taking longer
  • Written material should be clear and simple with a strong contrast in colour and tone and no overcrowding on the page
  • Provide subject word lists, glossaries of terms and acronyms
  • Keep pictures and diagrams to a minimum or provide text or audio alternatives
  • Provide paper-based reading lists, notes and handouts in large print (16+ point) with a clear font (e.g. Century Gothic) preferably on buff or ivory-coloured paper
  • Left-justify typed material and use 1.5 spacing where possible
  • Use clear headings and bullet points
Suggested Strategies - Assessments

The following are possible adjustments that may be necessary for exams.

  • Extra time and possible rest breaks (e.g. for eye strain etc)
  • Exam papers printed in large font or in Braille
  • Invigilator to face the student when giving instructions
  • Amanuensis (scribe) or screen-reading software in exams
  • Student to use their own, familiar laptop and keyboard with their own specific software in exams
  • Table large enough to house laptop and Braille or enlarged papers
  • Allow submission of assignments by e-mail
Suggested Strategies – Feedback

Ask the student how they would prefer to receive feedback. For many visually impaired students it will be easier for them if the feedback is given electronically rather than handwritten (so that they are able to use a screen reader to access it).

Other adjustments and facilities available

Equipment and software available at SOAS

In both D15 and 482 there is a computer which runs Jaws (screen reader with text-to-speech output) and Zoom text (a screen enlarger). These rooms also have scanners and Magnilink CCTV which magnifies books, magazines and pictures and projects the enlarged image onto a screen. The rooms can be booked at the issue desk in the library. 

The library also has two scan and read machines. These are the Sara reading machine and a Scan and Read Anywhere machine. These mean that you can put a book on the scanner and it will read it to you straight away. You will need headphones for this. The portable scanner is kept at the issue desk and can be borrowed with a library card. The large scanner is likely to be kept on the lower level – please ask library staff for more info. 

The Disability & Neurodiversity Team has one loan computer that has Supernova installed.


Students with a visual impairment have access to extended loans and a contact person in the library. The contact person can help with photocopying, scanning and finding books.

Volunteer Readers

The Disability & Neurodiversity Team can arrange for volunteers to read to visually impaired students.

Funding and Support

Most partially sighted students who are UK residents have extra disability funding from their LEA via the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA). This can fund note-takers, library assistants, readers, mobility helpers, translation support to translate documents into Braille, a specialist who can help with orientation and living skills for the student and mentoring sessions – life and study at University can be challenging and often frustrating for blind and partially sighted students; sometimes these students need extra personal and psychological support. 

The DSA can also fund specialist equipment such as: computers with screen-reading software; scanner for scanning printed text, to then emboss into Braille; specialist, electronic dictionaries; Braille translation software and embossing equipment; Mini-disc recorders with foot switch control. You can find more information on this link - Disabled Students' Allowances (DSAs)

Non-UK residents are eligible to access the loan equipment service and the Disability & Neurodiversity advisors will assess potential funding requirements for study support on an individual needs basis.

Further info