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Visual Impairments NICHCY Disability Fact Sheet


The terms partially sighted, low vision, legally blind, and totally blind are used in the educational context to describe students with visual impairments. These terms are defined as follows:

•“Partially sighted” indicates some type of visual problem has resulted in a need for special education;

•“Low vision” generally refers to a severe visual impairment, not necessarily limited to distance vision. Low vision applies to all individuals with sight who are unable to read the newspaper at a normal viewing distance, even with the aid of eyeglasses or contact lenses. They use a combination of vision and other senses to learn, although they may require adaptations in lighting, the size of print, and, sometimes, braille;

•“Legally blind” indicates that a person has less than 20/200 vision in the better eye or a very limited field of vision (20 degrees at its widest point); and

•Totally blind students, who learn via braille or other non-visual media.

Visual impairment is the consequence of a functional loss of vision, rather than the eye disorder itself. Eye disorders which can lead to visual impairments can include retinal degeneration, albinism, cataracts, glaucoma, muscular problems that result in visual disturbances, corneal disorders, diabetic retinopathy, congenital disorders, and infection.


The rate at which visual impairments occur in individuals under the age of 18 is 12.2 per 1,000. Severe visual impairments (legally or totally blind) occur at a rate of .06 per 1,000.


The effect of visual problems on a child’s development depends on the severity, type of loss, age at which the condition appears, and overall functioning level of the child. Many children who have multiple disabilities may also have visual impairments resulting in motor, cognitive, and/or social developmental delays.

A young child with visual impairments has little reason to explore interesting objects in the environment and, thus, may miss opportunities to have experiences and to learn. This lack of exploration may continue until learning becomes motivating or until intervention begins.

Because the child cannot see parents or peers, he or she may be unable to imitate social behavior or under- stand nonverbal cues. Visual disabilities can create obstacles to a growing child’s independence.

Educational Implications

Children with visual impairments should be assessed early to benefit from early intervention programs, when applicable. Technology in the form of computers and low-vision optical and video aids enable many partially sighted, low vision, and blind children to participate in regular class activities. Large print materials, books on tape, and braille books are available.

Students with visual impairments may need additional help with special equipment and modifications in the regular curriculum to emphasize listening skills, communication, orientation and mobility, vocation/career options, and daily living skills. Students with low vision or those who are legally blind may need help in using their residual vision more efficiently and in working with special aids and materials. Students who have visual impairments combined with other types of disabilities have a greater need for an interdisciplinary approach and may require greater emphasis on self-care and daily living skills.


American Foundation for the Blind. Search AFB’s Service Center on the Internet to identify services for blind and visually impaired persons in the United States and Canada. Available: www.afb.org/services.asp

Holbrook, M.C. (Ed.). (1996). Children with visual impairments: A parents' guide. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine. (Phone: 800.843.7323. Web: www.woodbinehouse.com)

Lewis, S., & Allman, C.B. (2000). Seeing eye to eye: An administrator's guide to students with low vision. New York: American Foundation for the Blind. (Phone: 800.232.3044. Web: www.afb.org)

National Eye Institute. (2003, December). Eye health organizations list. (Available online at: www.nei.nih.gov/health/organizations.htm)


American Council of the Blind 1155 15th St. N.W., Suite 1004 Washington, D.C. 20005 202.467.5081; 800.424.8666 info@acb.org www.acb.org

American Foundation for the Blind 11 Penn Plaza, Suite 300 New York, NY 10001 800.232.5463 (Hotline) For publications call: 800.232.3044 afbinfo@afb.net www.afb.org

Blind Children’s Center 4120 Marathon Street Los Angeles, CA 90029-0159 323.664.2153; 800.222.3566 info@blindchildrenscenter.org www.blindchildrenscenter.org

National Association for Parents of the Visually Impaired, Inc. P.O. Box 317 Watertown, MA 02472-0317 617.972.7441; 800.562.6265 napvi@perkins.org www.napvi.org

National Association for Visually Handicapped 22 West 21st Street, 6th Floor New York, NY 10010 212.889.3141 staff@navh.org www.navh.org

National Braille Association, Inc. (NBA) 3 Townline Circle Rochester, NY 14623-2513 585.427.8260 nbaoffice@nationalbraille.org www.nationalbraille.org/

National Braille Press 88 St. Stephen Street Boston, MA 02115 617.266.6160; 888.965.8965 orders@nbp.org www.nbp.org

National Eye Institute 31 Center Drive MSC 2510 Bethesda, MD 20892-2510 301.496.5248 2020@nei.nih.gov www.nei.nih.gov

National Federation of the Blind, Parents Division 1800 Johnson Street Baltimore, MD 21230 410.659.9314, ext. 360 nfb@nfb.org www.nfb.org/nopbc.htm

National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library of Congress 1291 Taylor Street, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20011 202.707.5100; 202.707.0744 (TTY); 800.424.8567 nls@loc.gov www.loc.gov/nls

Prevent Blindness America 500 E. Remington Road Schaumburg, IL 60173 847.843.2020; 800.331.2020 info@preventblindness.org www.preventblindness.org

The Foundation Fighting Blindness (formerly the National Retinitis Pigmentosa Foundation) 11435 Cronhill Drive Owings Mills, MD 21117-2220 410.568.0150; 410.363.7139 (TTY) 888.394.3937; 800.683.5551 (TTY) info@blindness.org www.blindness.org

Publication of this document is made possible through Cooperative Agreement #H326N030003 between the Academy for Educational Development and the Office of Special Education Programs of the U.S. Department of Education. The contents of this document do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government. This publication is copyright free. Readers are encouraged to copy and share it, but please credit NICHCY.