Assess ways in which information technology can enable visually impaired students to access their studies and employment.

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Research Brief 9469 - I.T. (2000 words, May 2004)

  • Assess ways in which information technology can enable visually impaired students to access their studies and employment.

Independence, integration and participation are three fundamental concepts for visually impaired citizens. Independence in the sense of self-sufficiency, thereby eradicating the requirement of everyday personal assistance and support functions, integration not only in the work place but also throughout all levels of education, and (active) participation pervading all facets of society. Are these concepts, or goals, wholly achievable however? There are many ways in which these aims can be fulfilled for visually impaired citizens, but perhaps one of the most powerful means is through the use of information technology. This is particularly relevant when it comes to visually impaired students and the ways in which they access their studies (in further and higher education) and their modes of employment. This work is concerned with such ideas - firstly an overview will be presented in terms of a visually impaired citizen - what it actually means to be visually impaired, what differing levels of sight such a person can have, and what difficulties such a person could encounter when studying in further or higher education. The focus then shifts to technology and what ways information technology (hardware and software) can aid the life of a visually impaired student. Some examples of enabling software are presented and discussed; what the software can achieve and also its limitations. Finally the essay concludes with a look into the future and what it may hold for the visually impaired.

The term visually impaired encompasses a wide variety of sight problems. Many people on hearing the term think blandly of blindness, but this is not always the case. Furthermore the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB), a UK body, estimates that there are approximately 2 million people in the UK with such sight problems. The main categories are as follows (and are relatively self explanatory); blind with no useful vision, blind with some useful vision, partially sighted (some sight available) and colour blindness (where people are unable to differentiate between certain colours - usually green and red. Incidentally the website of Vischeck provides excellent examples of what colour blindness is actually like). Why then is it difficult for people, or students, with such sight problems to become integrated into the education process, or working environment?  Today's society (especially in developed countries) is becoming more and more an information society. Value is founded in the context of creating, sharing and using information and knowledge. To succeed in the information society, computer exposure is a fundamental necessity. Whether it is to complete an educational course or thrive in the work place, computer literacy is elementary. What some people may take for granted, for example reading information from a web page, for visually impaired people it could be a laborious, or indeed impossible, task. Indeed, with specific relation to higher or further education so many tasks or necessary undertakings are computer or Internet related; whether it is accessing electronic journals, retrieving lecture notes or writing essays. It is therefore no surprise then that students with a visual impairment could find it potentially difficult to complete, or indeed enrol in, a course of further (or higher) education.

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During the 1980s when the microcomputer was all pervasive the general configuration of operating systems tended to be text-based. This was also the case during the early 1990s, with the rise in prominence of the Internet and World Wide Web (WWW), when most web pages were generally only text-oriented. Most operating systems still ran on DOS (Disc Operating System) and Lynx (a text-based browser) was used to access web pages. When this was the case access to such information for visually impaired people was not too much of a problem as text can quite easily (using specialist software) be converted ...

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