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Visual Impairment :
Special Educational Needs
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Severe visual impairment is a profound disability and affects every aspect of the child's perception, cognitive development, learning, behaviour, interaction, emotional state and autonomy.

Visual impairment can affect:

  • The child's development of mental processes such as conceptual thought, logical memory and language.

  • His/her perception of the immediate environment, objects, learning resources and other people.

  • The time needed to take in information or perform tasks.

  • His/her ability to detect non-verbal clues, facial expressions, posture, body language, and spatial arrangements (height, width, length and shape), resulting in a delay in building up an understanding of objects or situations from separate components.

  • The child's awareness of his/her own non-verbal gestures and expressions on others.


Visual impairment can be identified as a learning difficulty but this is misleading. A VI child is equally capable of learning as any of his/her sighted peers and of achieving his/her full educational potential, and will learn quickly and effectively when he/she is in an appropriate environment with work presented in a suitable context using accessible curriculum materials. It is a substantial barrier to learning and, compared to his/her peers, a VI child is severely hampered in accessing the curriculum. Failure to support him/her fully in school and teach and develop an extensive range of appropriate skills and strategies will reduce his/her ability to access the curriculum with consequent under achievement.

Almost all of a VI child's learning will demand hugely greater effort than his/her sighted peers and will take much more time. He/she lacks much of the incidental and peripheral learning that occurs effortlessly in fully sighted children. The RNIB estimates that the delivery of the school curriculum is 80% visual, so clearly a VI child is likely to miss much of this and consequently faces huge barriers to accessing the curriculum and to effective learning.

In a mainstream school much of a VI child's energies are absorbed in coping with the difficulties of acquiring information. Over the last fifty years education has changed considerably. From the 1960s onwards, with schemes such the Nuffield Projects and Schools' Council, there was a move away from the didactic teacher exposition reliant on reading text and copying from blackboards to a pupil-centred heuristic approach, often based on pupils researching themes and topics for themselves, in which teachers use a wide variety of mediums and techniques in the delivery of the curriculum. Paradoxically these improvements in the delivery of the curriculum make it more difficult for a blind child to access work.

Some of the significant changes since the 60s are:

  • Books containing many more coloured illustrations that those in the past.

  • Classrooms with interactive whiteboards linked to digital data projectors.

  • The use of ICT, with graphic user interfaces, with use the internet to research topics and the use interactive on-line programmes is widely.

  • Wall displays and posters used to convey information.

  • Considerable use of visual representations in many subject (e.g. graphs in Maths) and demonstrations (e.g. in Design Technology and Science.)

As a consequence a VI child will be confronted constantly with incomprehensible content and learning resources, methods and techniques that he/she can not access and presented with terminology and descriptions which are based on visual representations and imagery that he/she may not possess.

Severely visually impaired children rely on senses other than their sight, particularly hearing and touch. For many their main source of interaction with the world in through speaking and hearing. Excessive or sudden noises (from busy environments) can be confusing and frightening, while silence can isolate a child from their surroundings. In a recent appeal, B.'s mother wrote this description of the effect of silence and of the way in which she uses speech and hearing to interact with the world.

The isolation of silence: B. is 12, totally blind and is a bright and inquisitive child. Her link to the world is through her hearing so sound is very important to her. She dislikes silence as she feels that silence makes the world vanish and isolates her. Many blind children keep up a constant dialogue with anyone who is near. With no experience of the information that sighted people obtain through vision, they may assume that other people acquire all of their knowledge and understanding aurally as well. B. will often stand on her own telling stories to herself, much to the bemusement of her sighted peers. B. does not watch TV but listens to it as many programmes have audio description. She listens to discussion programmes, plays and the Archers on Radio 4. These are not the sort of programmes that she can discuss with other girls her own age.

Some blind children need to construct a profile of the people they meet as an alternative to having a visual image of them. This can take the form of asking a series of seemingly meaningless or unrelated personal questions, which are often perceived as being unnecessary, over-familiar, impertinent and disruptive, but are important for the child to understand their current environment. It should not be discouraged or criticised.