Designing Educational Environments to Optimize Vision

Authors: Chrissy Cowan, Mentor Coordinator, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired Outreach

Keywords: vision impairment, optical devices, lighting modifications

Abstract: The author discusses factors that challenge and strategies that support students with low vision in the school environment.

As you work with students with low vision, there are general adjustments that can be made to classroom environments that will enhance visual functioning. The following should be considered for each individual student, based on information from a functional vision evaluation.

Consider the Etiology

Familiarize yourself with the characteristics of the most predominant visual conditions resulting in low vision and their effects, such as retinitis pigmentosa, ocular albinism, retinopathy of prematurity, optic nerve hypoplasia, cortical visual impairment, cataracts, coloboma, nystagmus, central scotoma, glaucoma (this list is not complete). A current (October 2015) web resource for this is “Visual Impairment”. For each etiology, look for such things as:

  • Effects of Light: cataracts cause light to be scattered over the retina meaning that bright light and glare will usually cause problems for the student, whereas the student with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) will require high illumination. Glare for some would be disastrous. Overhead lighting might be too low/high, depending on the etiology. Illuminated screens (any type of lighted display) would be difficult for some, necessary for others.
  • Field Deficits: students with Stargardt’s Disease can have a central acuity loss, making staying on a line of print difficult without specific training. Students with retinitis pigmentosa tend to lose the peripheral field, thus making large print and/or enlarged maps/charts/graphs/photos difficult to scan.
  • Eye Motor: students with nystagmus tend to have problems shifting gaze from one target to another (typical of copying assignments).


A work surface and/or computer work station that is poorly arranged in regards to lighting would reduce visual efficiency. Whereas marketed reading stands straighten the student’s posture and elevate the reading material, students typically need to write on the same (slanted) surface. Look on occupational therapy websites, such as, for a writing stand that does not have the ridge at the bottom which makes writing uncomfortable. Or, use a 3 inch 3-ring binder turned sideways to slant work at an angle.


It takes the student with low vision longer to find things. Students need to access their materials quickly, so storing for quick retrieval is necessary. Consider a small, stick-on battery operated closet light that you press for inside desks and other darker spaces. Backpacks will need folders and other organizational containers to keep papers organized, and smaller objects in desks should have dedicated containers. The TVI will need to check and reinforce that an established system is used consistently.


  • Work Surfaces: with some eye conditions, a lamp might be necessary to put light precisely where it is needed. If an outlet is nearby, the APH lamp is wonderful. Another option is a battery powered OttLight that can be moved from room to room. When positioning the light, make sure the student’s head or hand does not occlude the light, or that the light is shining on the student’s face. Students with albinism or cataracts might have difficulty with too much ambient light and/or glare, which can cause headaches and have a “wash-out” effect on certain materials. Tinted lenses might be beneficial for some, or a light blue filter placed over the reading surface could change the contrast (watch for glare off of shiny surfaces). Avoid seating that is directly under harsh overhead lighting or near a large window.
  • Overhead Projector Screens and Interactive White Boards: when the target surface is lighted or bright, students with lighting issues may have difficulties. The classroom lighting can be adjusted to accommodate, or in extreme cases, the student may need to have a desk (print) copy if significant copy work is required. There are apps available that connect the student’s tablet with the teacher’s computer or the interactive white board that would provide a clearer copy for the student.

Writing Tools and Materials

Provide adapted paper and writing tools, and adjust lighting and positioning of materials (see writing slant board above) if needed. Examples of writing tools include drafting pencils (or #1 soft lead, available in art/craft stores) and fine point felt tip pens, such as a Flare® pen. Students may perform better with bold line paper, or commercially available wide ruled notebook paper with darker lines (compare these at the grocery store—some are darker than others). Gradually move toward fewer adaptations as the student becomes more proficient.

Optical Devices

If the student has been seen by a low vision specialist, start by making sure the prescribed optical devices are on hand and the student has learned how to use them correctly. Devices that tend to be handed to students by well-intentioned people should be avoided (for example: full page magnifier, bar magnifier). Electronic near devices are best used for “spot” viewing, and will slow the student down when reading longer passages. If a video magnifier is in the room, find out if it is being used consistently. If it is not (perhaps due to portability, placement, too much enlargement) consider retraining the student on a handheld or stand magnifier. There are now products available from APH and Region 4 Education Service Center, designed for teaching optical device use. Refer to Looking to Learn: Promoting Literacy for Students with Low Vision, D’Andrea and Farrenkopf, Eds., AFB Press.

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