Sobre a Deficiência Visual

Foreign Language Learning for the Visually Impaired

Christidou Sofia

Being Blind

This article presents in brief the causes of visual impairment in modern times and sets the theoretical framework along with giving some practical tips of the teaching methods the teacher of foreign languages should follow in order to maximize the performance of the visually impaired students in the language classroom.


Vision problems encountered in various individuals may be due to genetic causes, childhood diseases, viral infections, brain tumors, injuries, or even transmitted diseases. These causes can bring on a number of types of visual disabilities, which vary as to the severity of the condition caused. Individuals with serious vision impairment face a number of difficulties which spread in many areas of their development process as integrated personalities. These areas are related to the kinetic development and their orientation, their social and emotional development, their linguistic development, as well as their cognitive development. Therefore, the educational process involving people with vision problems should not only play the role of a simple provider of knowledge and skills but should mainly function as a link which contributes to the understanding of the reciprocal interaction between the individual and the society that surrounds it.

Regarding the educational process, we can distinguish two main categories of vision impairment: low vision and blindness. The low vision students are usually users of printed educational material, but may require the use of additional equipment and materials. The extent of visual disability depends on the physical sensing attenuation of the student’s eye, the age of the student at the beginning of the visual impairment, and the way that the attenuation occurred. The vision can also be variable or may be affected by other factors such as improper lighting, dazzling lighting, or fatigue. Therefore, there is no “typical” student with impaired vision problem. The major challenge faced by students with visual disabilities in the educational environment is the overwhelming number of visual materials to which they are continuously exposed through textbooks, school summaries, school programs, school boards, simply by writing, etc. Furthermore, the increased use of video, computers, compact discs, and television are added to the already large number of video materials to which the students have only limited access. Overcoming the students’ optical limitation requires unique and personalized strategies based on the specific visual disability of each student and their ability to communicate (e.g., Braille, speed listening, etc.).

General Behavior Guidelines for the Teachers

  • Address the class when entering and leaving the class or site.

  • Call the students by their first names if you want to attract their attention.

  • Use descriptive words such as straight forward, left, right, etc., according to the orientation of the student’s body. Be specific when giving directions and avoid using vague terms with inappropriate for use information, such as “there”, “here”, “this”, etc.

  • Describe, in detail, the visual events related to the learning activities.

  • Describe and familiarize through the sense of touch the student with the classroom, the laboratory, equipment, supplies, materials, etc.

  • Provide verbal notification of possible class change, additional meetings, or activities.

  • Offer to read written information for a student with a visual impairment, where required.

  • Please mention your name, do not assume that a student with a visual impairment will identify you by the tone of your voice even if you have met before.

  • If asked to guide a student with a visual impairment, mention your name, offer your services and if they are accepted, offer your hand to the student’s palm. Tell them if they need to ascend or descend stairs, tell them if the door is to their left or their right, and warn them of possible dangers.

  • Inform the student verbally whether you intend move or need to end a conversation.

  • If a student with a visual disability is part of your class, constantly control the learning environment to ensure that it is sufficient and ready for use.

  • When communicating with a student who has a visual impairment, always mention your name as well as the name of any other present in class.

  • Do not pet or touch a guide dog. Guide dogs are working animals. If the dog’s attention is distracted, it may be dangerous for the person with a visual impairment.

  • Try to perceive the low noise produced by a portable brailler.

  • Use an audio signal or a tactile signal where normally an optical signal is used.

  • It is not required to speak loudly to people with visual impairment.

Lesson Presentation by the Teacher

  • By verbally spelling a new or technical word, you help the student with visual impairment, as well as the other students.

  • An enlarged text with activities, instructions, or reading a detailed course can be used by a person with impaired vision for the description of three-dimensional tactile models.

  • Use an overhead projector to give instructions step by step. Cover all instructions except for the one you want to be followed.

  • Use an opaque projector whenever possible to zoom a text or a manual.

  • All colored objects used for identification and associated with a lesson, an experiment, or with other uses must be named with a Braille label maker or otherwise codified.

  • Describe, in detail, the visual events, the visual means, and the guidelines including all relevant aspects related to vision.

  • Use a narrator without any visual problems or a video with a verbal narration to describe the visual images of the videos or the compact discs. Describe in detail all the relevant visual events or the text which is written on the classroom board.

  • Where necessary, have the materials of the course written in Braille, or use an extended activity manuscript for classroom handouts.

  • Provide three-dimensional tactile models, paper with embossed lines or thermoform paper in order to complete drawings or graphs with a tactile shape when needed.

  • Whenever possible, use real objects (realia) in three-dimensional presentations.

  • Modify teaching to use listening or tactile presentation.

  • Use paper with embossed lines for temporary tactile presentations.

  • Allow students to use a tape recorder to record their presentations.

  • Modify all handouts and activities so that they are available in a suitable form, for example, normal printing, large scale printing, Braille, or audio recording, depending on how students communicate best.

Teaching English to the Visually Impaired

English language is part of foreign language learning in the educational system. Foreign languages have always been regarded as a demanding course intended for the most talented students. However, attitudes and methodology have changed and foreign language today is a subject included in the curriculum, as is the mandatory selection of a second foreign language, not only in Greek, but in schools all over the world. It is now widely accepted that the study of a foreign language is an important pillar in the education of students, providing both practical and professional benefits, as well as to the realization of a more comprehensive education.

Additionally, the students themselves choose to learn a foreign language on their own, motivated by the chances for a more flexible professional mobility and increased opportunities for tourism, entertainment, and communication. For all these reasons, the great majority of students choose to learn English as their first foreign language, since now English is the language of trade and financial systems, as well as of the film and music industry.

The teaching of foreign languages to pupils with visual impairment presents some peculiarities and difficulties in relation to other subjects taught.

The Transmission of Meaning

A key feature of language teaching is that while in other courses communication is used to teach the course content, in foreign languages content is used to teach communication. The non-verbal methods of communication are key players in the teaching of meaning, while in most classes where languages are taught, vision plays a dominant if not an exclusive role. Consequently, the teachers of the visually impaired who are unable to use visual means to support their teaching, must look for new ways to facilitate the teaching of the target language without making compromises regarding the transmission of meaning.

Means and Materials

Today foreign language teaching is greatly based on vision. The meanings are often transmitted visually, using pictures, maps, and diagrams which are inaccessible to the visually impaired students. One solution is to prepare differentiated material which is though time consuming and costly. The students who use customized sources and material lose many physical-random learning opportunities and the chances to strengthen the incentives of the secondary information which is contained in the original material. In addition, students’ opportunities to choose by themselves the readings which they find pleasurable are reduced.

Reading and Writing Skills

The difficulties in reading and writing in all subjects met by students with vision problems are commonly accepted, but are significantly increased in the case of learning a foreign language. The readers may have a particular difficulty with the handwriting of a foreign language. Another difficulty might be presented in the use of documents (catalogs, brochures, etc.) to be read which vary in font sizes, interpretation codes and sometimes present peculiar text arrangements. Moreover, stresses are often not so visible and should be highlighted.

The Braille users follow a more unified system, with different types of difficulties. Each language has different abbreviations. Despite the use of the first degree Braille for foreign languages in order to include symbols for stresses and symbols for common words, a risk of confusion still remains. Students from a point and on will have to either learn to use the Braille code of the foreign language, which requires a very good command of the Braille code of their mother tongue to avoid confusion, or to work with recordings.

Access to Reference Material

A particular point of difficulty for students with visual impairment is their effective access to dictionaries whose use is a major problem for both printed text users and Braille users. Volunteer readers can be a solution to this. In this case, however, the use of the dictionary is a troublesome dependence on others for the students and is not a skill of the student. Talking computers and mobile signs in Braille can help, but what is really needed is a complete and effective talking pocket dictionary with good pronunciation.

Use of Information Technology Where Appropriate

Despite the students’ with visual impairments relative familiarity with the use of computers, the commercially available software for language learning is mainly visual. The sound synthesis systems available for text editing vary in capacity to produce foreign languages and mobile Braille signs are expensive. CD-ROMs can provide reading materials with sound, but when it comes to its selection, teachers should make sure that the visual elements are not the dominant ones.

Assessment Procedures

Reading comprehension during an assessment may be a big test for the memory since the student does not have the opportunity to keep notes in order to be helped. The additional time given to the students as to complete the examination is necessary, but it puts to test their physical endurance and their ability to concentrate.

Foreign Language Learning Practices for People With Vision Impairment

It is obvious that the main challenge in foreign language learning for people with vision problems is to reduce the importance of the element of visual representation without affecting the transmission of the meaning.

This can be achieved by introducing a limited number of vocabulary and ideas, using tactile objects, the sense of smell or taste, and sound effects, but care must be taken so that all students fully understand what they experience, which in a relatively numerous class might not be possible. Moreover, the use of objects, relief maps, charts, and all kinds of recorded sounds is advisable.

It is generally accepted by most teachers that, for the transmission of the meaning of foreign words, they use their mother tongue more than they would like to. One suggestion would be the “code change” until the students gain an initial level of understanding. The method to achieve this is to use the target language first, repeat the word in their mother tongue and then again in the target language. Gradually the support of the mother tongue is withdrawn as the students will begin to learn the meaning of each word. The disadvantage which can result from this method is the confusion created regarding the continuous and alternating use of different languages.

Inevitably, when it comes to students with visual impairments, more emphasis is laid on acoustical stimuli.

Some strategies that can help the learning process are: the use of homonymous words (Μητέρα - Mother), speaking clearly, emphasizing on already known words and the tone of voice. A student may also be asked to explain something to the whole class. Controlling comprehension in this way is necessary to avoid verbalism, which is the use of words and phrases without fully understanding their meaning.

Another approach to teaching students with visual impairment supports the use of physical expression to help speak in the foreign language. Role plays and dramatized dialogues not only help students to develop orientation and mobility skills, but also help them put to use the language of a particular meaning and practice linguistic expressions. An active and multisensory approach is encouraged in this way. Learning and reciting simple songs or poems or encouraging the students to create improvised rhyming lyrics and songs can also be very helpful.

Finally, another feature that enhances the motivation of the students and supports understanding by giving meaning to learning is to negotiate the content of learning. This will inevitably be done in the students’ mother tongue and since in this way students fully understand what are learning, the advantages outweigh by far the disadvantages of the use of the mother tongue.

Sofia Christidou is an Experienced English Teacher, holding a Ba in English Language and Literature from the Department of English Studies of the School of Philosophy AUTh, Thessaloniki, Greece. Skilled in Translation and Interpreting, Technical Translation, Translational Research, Adult Education and Special Education.



Foreign Language Learning for the Visually Impaired in the Region of Central Macedonia, Greece:
Problems and Suggestions
Sofia Christidou
University of Western Macedonia, Thessaloniki, Greece



Maria José Alegre