Tim Truzy has performed assessments for people with disabilities and is an expert in assistive technology.
Defining Environment for the Classroom
Unquestionably, environments can be thought of as the conditions or surroundings in which a plant, animal, or person functions or dwells. For instance, forests and swamps are types of outdoor environments. However, the classroom is a particular setting in which an activity occurs, which is another application of the word “environment.”
For this reason, an environment assessment for a student with low vision is a methodical analysis of the classroom or other areas in which the student will be functioning from a visual perspective.
Low Vision and the Environment Assessment
Most professionals in the field of visual impairments refer to low vision as a permanent loss of eyesight which cannot be corrected to 20/20 vision through the use of contacts, eyeglasses, surgery, or medications. Low vision has many causes and substantially impacts activities of daily living along with educational progress. The environment assessment is usually carried out by the Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI), a special education professional trained to instruct students with visual impairments. As a counselor with TVI training, I conducted environment assessments for students with low vision, applying the results to relevant learning environments. Below are considerations during the process with samples of recommendations which may be implemented in the classroom where the student with low vision receives instruction.
Questions Explored During the Environment Assessment
- Lights and Glare-What are the sources and amount of illumination in the room? These include: sunlight, incandescent, fluorescent, halogen, and LED. Describe bright and dark areas while indicating shiny surfaces: mirrors, tabletops, other? Document areas of glare: windows, computer monitors, tiles? Are there lamps, ceiling lights, or other fixtures present?
- Organization and Safety-Are there flammable materials in the room with a functioning fire extinguisher nearby? What parts of the room require reorganization: cabinets, tables, and/or closets? Are there overhanging or sharp dangerous objects? Is the path entering/exiting the classroom clear of obstacles? Are bookshelves in the walkway?
- Color and Contrast with Cues: Will adding sound and/or tactile cues be beneficial? Can labels and/or markers be applied to help the student with low vision find items? Note the color of furniture, doors, floors, handrails, and walls. Where do you notice significant contrast in colors?
Purposes of the Environment Assessment
After obtaining parental consent and agreement has occurred within the education team, an environment assessment can take place. First, the general learning environment is systematically analyzed for any possible changes. Next, tasks are looked at in terms of demands for the student with low vision. Also, the ability of the student with low vision to problem solve is carefully scrutinized during this period. Often, the student with low vision actively participates in the process in order for the TVI to better gauge tasks, the environment, and related demands. If the student with low vision has difficulties with accomplishing targeted tasks, then practical solutions are offered on a written report after the individualized environment assessment has ended. Sample recommendations follow:
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1. Glare and Lights
Extreme or limited lighting can create problems for students with low vision. One result arising from the findings of the evaluation could be adding adjustable blinds on the windows to control sunlight during the day. Likewise, the report may show the door needs to be opened or closed for better lighting. In addition, a lamp may be needed near the student’s desk for better viewing of assignments. The types of lighting in the room may require changing. The report may indicate reflective surfaces which cause glare, such as shiny tiles or painted surfaces, must be covered or replaced.
2. Seating Arrangement and Materials
The report may demonstrate the student with low vision needs to change where he/she sits in the classroom to reduce the distance in viewing information. In fact, students with visual impairments receive preferential seating in the front row. Furthermore, an electronic whiteboard with image enlargement and color altering capacities may be desirable for lessons. Providing oral descriptions to videos during instruction may be recommended. Charts, graphs, and maps should be converted to accessible formats for a student with low vision. Finally, assignments and texts must be prepared in the appropriate reading/writing media for the student with low vision, which may include Braille and/or large print.
3. Removing Clutter While Promoting Independence
Improving safety and promoting independence in the classroom is essential for all students, but certain items require specific attention for a student with low vision. For example, a recommendation may be to keep closet doors closed. Also, the environment assessment could reveal electrical cords are in walk paths in the room. A suggestion could involve spacing the desks in order to have adequate aisles, utilizing color and contrast for safely moving around the class. Colored labels may need to be added to various supply locations to allow the student with low vision to find things independently. The report could indicate boxes on the floor should be stored.
4. Use of Technology and Visual Aids
Visual aids recommended for the student with low vision should be permitted in class, including: telescopes, a monocular, and magnifiers. A student with low vision should be allowed to use a digital recorder to take notes, if indicated by the IEP. Hardware and software recognized as assistive technologies, such as screen readers, Braille displays, and magnification devices must be allowed in class. In accordance with the education plan, a student with low vision should be allowed to access print books through the use of a digital book reader. In the report, oral descriptions for pictures may be suggested as well as incorporating 3D replicas during discussions and demonstrations.
The IEP and Other Assessments
The environment assessment is an example of the supports and services on an IEP developed with participation of the student with a visual impairment, parents and the education team. An IEP (Individualized Education Program) has benefits for eligible students with disabilities in public education from childhood until graduation. Essentially, the IEP is a legal document developed after evaluations for determining strengths and weaknesses of a student according to the Individualized Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Coincidentally, the providers and services for a child receiving special education instruction are written on the document. Every child receiving special education services, like children with low vision, must have an IEP.
Nevertheless, the environment assessment is part of the total plan for helping the student with low vision as stated on the IEP. Primarily, the child with low vision will receive and orientation and mobility evaluation, examining safe and efficient methods of travel. In addition, use of assistive technology will be assessed. A clinical low vision examination will be conducted to find out about visual aids which can help the child in class and throughout life. In conclusion, the IEP can be amended with changes for the student with low vision, including need for further environment assessments.
Corn, A. L., & Koenig, A. J. (1996). Foundations of low vision: clinical and functional perspectives (2nd ed.). New York: AFB Press.
D'Andrea, F. M. and Farrendopf, C. (Eds). (2000) Looking to Learn, promoting literacy for students with low vision. New York, USA: AFB Press.