Accessible textbooks for the visually impaired


Supporting children who can’t read standard print

Resources for schools and learning, like so many other everyday materials, are rarely designed with the needs of blind or partially sighted children in mind. In the UK there are around 24,000 children with sight problems. With the support of their teachers and other staff in schools, many of these children manage well in classroom settings that are far from ideal for their needs.

While it is important to consider environmental factors, such as a child’s lighting needs, use of technology and the safe layout of the classroom, it is vital to think also about the learning resources used during the lesson. If curriculum materials are provided in an accessible format, a pupil with a visual impairment will often be able to work in class with little or no additional support. The same applies to children with severe dyslexia or other disabilities that make it difficult to read from a standard text book.

The situation for blind and partially sighted children is particularly serious. Throughout the country they risk losing out on their education because their teachers struggle to get hold of text books in a format they can read, such as large print, audio or Braille. In fact, a report from the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), Where’s My Book? (November 2006), showed that only twelve per cent of maths and eight per cent of science GCSE textbooks in England are available in Braille or large print. Not one of the dictionaries or atlases most widely used by fourteen to sixteen year olds was available in a format that a blind or partially sighted pupil could read.

Adapting curriculum materials effectively takes time and skill. The research showed that teachers and classroom assistants are forced to spend hours photocopying, enlarging and retyping pages from textbooks to turn them into Braille or large print, so that their pupils with sight problems do not have to go without.

However, there has been much pressure on the Government, from charities involved in the Right to Read Alliance, and now it seems that a solution to these problems could finally be a step closer. This summer, the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) is expected to announce the beginning of a new pilot project in England which aims to transform access to textbooks for children who cannot read standard print.

This will be a major milestone in addressing the current lack of accessible curriculum materials. The pilot is expected to develop and test ways of providing books and other Key Stage 3 and 4 curriculum materials in electronic formats that are accessible to pupils who are blind, partially sighted or dyslexic. It is likely to run in several local Authorities in England during the 2009-10 school year.

However, while the pilot is underway, and we await its findings, there is still a lot that can be done to support blind or partially sighted children in the classroom now. The starting point must be to talk to children, as well as their families and specialist support staff, about the format they need. Bear in mind that this may vary from one task to another. For example, worksheets may be fine in large print for a partially sighted reader, but longer texts and revision materials may be best on an MP3 audio file or an electronic file to read on a computer.

  • How you produce an accessible version of a resource depends on the length and complexity of the original, as well as the format it is being converted into. Support staff will often need to scan pages of the original material into a computer to make the necessary changes. This can involve:
  • enlarging the text or changing the background colour
  • simplifying or describing pictures and diagrams and removing any non-essential information
  • changing the presentation and formatting so it is easy to follow
  • saving as an electronic file to be read with speech software, a Braille display or on screen.

All of this takes time and skill, so if you are able to plan ahead and provide resources to be adapted well in advance it could make a huge difference. Specialist staff working with the pupil will be able to advise on how different materials should best be presented and how long it will take to produce these.

If there are chapters of a text book that you will never use, let support staff know that these don’t need to be produced. It also helps to give an idea of the order in which you will use the materials. As well as text books, it is also important to provide accessible versions of everything you hand out in class such as worksheets, reference materials and powerpoint presentations. If you can provide these to support staff electronically, so much the better.

Wherever possible, think inclusively when you create your teaching resources to make them suitable for the whole class. The more you are able to design visually simple materials from the start, the less work will be needed to produce accessible versions of them. Indeed, many pupils with a print disability may be able to use the same version as the rest of the class, promoting their social as well as educational inclusion.

We would all agree that blind and partially sighted children, along with those with other forms of print disability, must enjoy the same opportunities to learn as their sighted classmates. Getting curriculum materials in the appropriate format at the same time as the rest of the class is key to this, and the DCSF pilot project is a crucial step forward in achieving a long-term solution. The progress of the project will be followed with great interest.

Further Information

RNIB’s Curriculum Access Service provides information about teaching and supporting children with sight problems, and advice on teaching resources. RNIB also has two new DVDs available, Count Me In and Hear Me Out, relating to the Government agenda Aiming High for Disabled Children. Visit

It may be possible to find an electronic source file for accessible versions of a resource via

Yashoda Sutton
Author: Yashoda Sutton

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