Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

Experiences of Students with Visual Impairments in Canadian Higher Education

Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

Experiences of Students with Visual Impairments in Canadian Higher Education

Article excerpt

Structured Abstract: Introduction: This article presents a study of the higher education experiences of students with visual impairments in Canada. Methods: Students with visual impairments and the staff members of disability programs were surveyed and interviewed regarding the students' experiences in entering higher education and completing their higher education requirements. Results: Although the reported graduation rates were high, the students took more than four years to complete their studies. They thought that heavy reading requirements, work in groups, and an inability to participate in some activities were barriers to their full participation in higher education. Discussion: The findings demonstrate that barriers exist that have a negative impact on the higher education experience of students with visual impairments. Implications for practitioners: Students with visual impairments have challenges that require unique preparation for higher education.

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Access to higher education improves employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities (Ontario Human Rights Commission, 2005). However, the positive outcomes for the impact of education on employment may not reflect the experiences of those with visual impairments (that is, those who are blind or have low vision). Kirchner and Smith (2005) reported that with increasing years of education, the disparity between the employment rates of those with and without visual impairments decreases. Yet, Capella-McDonnall (2005) found that education can predict employment only if students with visual impairments complete their higher education programs. Estimated rates of employment for individuals with visual impairments are less than 47% (Shaw, Gold, & Wolffe, 2007; Stark & Stark, 2003; Wolffe & Candela, 2002).

Most colleges and universities in Canada provide accommodations for students with disabilities (Reed, Lund-Lucas, & O'Rourke, 2003). Yet Reed et al. (2003) found that there was considerable variability among institutions of higher education in the accommodations they provided and that this variability typically reflected the types of disabilities of the population of students with disabilities who were attending those institutions. Given that students with visual impairments likely make up only a small proportion of those with disabilities who are registered, accommodation practices that developed to meet the needs of the majority may not meet the needs of students with visual impairments.

The successful completion of programs in higher education depends, in part, on social and academic integration into the institutions (Kinder, Gillis, Reed, Arooz, & Carr-Locke, 2002). To date, researchers have examined some academic and social barriers that have a negative impact on the completion of college and university programs by students with visual impairments, such as the poor quality and timeliness of alternate print formats, poor access to computer-based materials, the inability to participate in extracurricular activities, and the lack of independence because of the nature of their disability (Gallagher, Connolly, & Lyne, 2005; Kilmurray & Faba, 2005; McBroom, 1997). However, there is a paucity of research about the experiences of students with visual impairments in Canadian higher education.

Understanding the unique situation of students with visual impairments in higher education in Canada could lead to more successful program planning and integration. The objectives of the study presented here were to examine the perspectives of staff members who provide academic support to students with visual impairments, and the experiences and opinions of university and college students with visual impairments in Canada regarding enrollment, recruitment, application and transition services, supports, accommodations, and bar tiers in higher education. The research questions were these:

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