Blind or Low Vision Visitors to the United States: What You Need to Know
Information and resources for international visitors to the United States who are blind or have low vision. Specific tips for navigating professional, community or academic environments.
International visitors to the United States will find Americans friendly and helpful but also may be confronted with Americans expectations that people who are blind or have low vision learn to navigate and live independently in their daily lives. U.S. laws create opportunities to support the independence of blind people. This can range from:
- Allowing people who are blind to bring dog guides into places that typically do not allow pets,
- Providing Braille and audio materials, or
- Arranging free or low-cost training for independent living skills such as housekeeping or computer training.
It is your responsibility to ask specifically for these services. In the United States, individuals are also expected to be aware of their legal rights to equal access.
- How can I learn to travel without assistance from a sighted guide in the United States, as is often expected of international students or visitors?
- Where do I find services such as orientation and mobility specialists, dog guide training schools, or accessibility information about the public transportation system in the U.S. city or town where I will be living?
- If I am living away from my family members for the first time, what do I need to know about doing daily tasks in the home on my own like cooking, laundry, managing money, etc?
- What if I know English and Braille, but not the contracted form of American Braille or Nemeth Braille codes? Where do I learn these and how long does it take?
- What if I cannot read or receive Braille materials? Are there other options?
- What type of assistive technology can I use in the United States? Where can I get it, and how much would it cost?
- What if I cannot get access to assistive technology? What are other options?
- What other resources are available?
How can I learn to travel without assistance from a sighted guide in the United States, as is often expected of international students or visitors?
The strength of American disability laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), creates more opportunity for independence by requiring places of education, employment, and business, as well as community services, to provide equal access. With the right skills, the United States can be easy to navigate independently without the need for a sighted guide. In the United States:
- Traffic typically follows the rules of the road;
- Public spaces are less congested than in other countries;
- Sidewalk and street surfaces are well maintained; and
- Public transportation is often accessible.
The exception are older, urban cities where the busy communities and large school campuses can make sidewalks and hallways crowded with people and intersections difficult to cross with heavy vehicle traffic. Rural areas may also have less access to public transportation services. Check ahead with the disability services person on the campus or disability organization in the community to see what is available and how accessible the local community is for pedestrian traffic.
While some international exchange programs to the United States will provide a staff person or peer to assist you upon arrival and to help orient you, this person will not typically stay with you throughout the day. It is a good idea to learn to travel safely and independently outdoors and indoors by consulting an Orientation and Mobility specialist (more information on locating specialists is included in the next question). Orientation and mobility training on a school campus or in the community will usually involve learning to find:
- Bus stops,
- Routes between classes,
- Grocery stores,
- Dining halls/cafeterias, and
- Other common destinations that you will use throughout your stay.
Orientation and mobility training will also teach you safety in traveling across street intersections or through crowded areas.
Part of your orientation and mobility training may include learning long cane techniques. In the United States, a long cane is typically metal and painted white with a red tip; it can be extended in front of you as you walk to help you find obstacles. Learning to use a long cane can provide you with the freedom to move around unassisted and help identify you as having a visual disability.
When first learning, you will have to walk more slowly than usual, but skilled cane users can often walk quickly. The time it takes to learn to use a long cane can vary based on your previous orientation and mobility skills and other individual factors. These mobility skills could be taught two hours a week for a few months or in a more intensive residential program over the course of a few weeks. These services can be expensive and are typically not provided for free by the college or university or through U.S. state agencies for the blind; most students learn mobility skills before graduating from high school with support from their school district. However, if you are coming to the United States through an organized exchange program, especially a federally-sponsored program, then this program may have funds to assist you with getting orientation and mobility training.
A newsletter article by Dona Sauerburger, a Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist, provides excellent definitions and instructions of what “Orientation and Mobility” means for someone who is low vision, blind, or deaf-blind. It includes:
- Strategies for navigating independently using one’s senses,
- Selecting and using a long cane, and
- Resources and organizations that provide more information on the topic.
Human guides, electronic devices, and dog guides can also be used when independent navigation with a cane is not feasible. Access all this information by clicking on the following link: An Introduction to Orientation and Mobility by Dona Sauerburger, Orientation and Mobility Specialist.
Where do I find services such as orientation and mobility specialists, dog guide training schools, or accessibility information about the public transportation system in the U.S. city or town where I will be living?
The American Foundation for the Blind has an online database “How do I Find…?” that provides information in each U.S. state by selecting the keyword describing the service you need. For example, you can select “Reader Services” if you are looking for volunteers to read aloud your postal mail or other print materials that you cannot access through technology or accessible formats. Search the database by clicking on the following link: Find Services.
Public transportation systems are accessible throughout the United States, but there are also paratransit services in areas where public transportation is less available. You can qualify for these services once you are in the United States, because these agencies recognize that people who are blind are often unable to use a bicycle or drive a car independently. Contact the local public transportation or disability agencies to learn what is available in your area and how to use their services.
The Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals (ACVREP) offers a searchable database you can use to locate and check the certification credentials of Low Vision Therapists, Orientation & Mobility Specialists, and Vision Rehabilitation Therapists in the U.S. state you will be visiting. Find the directory by clicking on the following link: Welcome to the ACVREP Directory of Certificants.
Please note, however, that the ACVREP database will not help you locate additional non-certified service providers in your state or local area. Another place to search is on the Vision Aware website under their databases of service providers, which are searchable by state or specialty. The databases can be found by clicking on the following link: A Self-help Center for Vision Loss Searchable Databases.
To access services abroad before arriving in the United States, the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AERBVI) is an international membership organization for vision rehabilitation professionals. You can locate AERBVI orientation and mobility specialists and other service providers in U.S. states by looking at their chapters’ webpage, but you will need to contact the organization to request the contact information of their international member in other world regions. Go to the website at: Welcome to AER online.
Dog guide training schools tend to provide service animals for free or low cost, but you will need to inquire if the school accepts foreign students. If you would like to locate a dog guide training school or learn how to qualify for a training program either before or after arriving in the United States, contact the International Guide Dog Federation. Its members are listed by region and country on this webpage: International Guide Dog Federation World Map.
If I am living away from my family members for the first time, what do I need to know about doing daily tasks in the home on my own like cooking, laundry, managing money, etc?
Programs that empower people to help themselves are common in the United States. You can locate and choose a program you feel comfortable with and also inquire about connecting with an American roommate or host family who can assist you in your new home away from home.
An example of a useful resource is E.A.R.S. for EYES (800-843-6812, firstname.lastname@example.org), a nonprofit public charity that provides free self-study audiotapes that teach adaptive daily living skills to people who are blind and visually impaired. It may also be useful for a roommate or host family you are staying with to learn about assisting you in learning these independent living skills. Learn more on their website at: Enrichment Audio Resource Services.
Vision Aware also has useful articles online about taking care of home tasks independently, such as doing laundry and labeling your clothes, as well as self-help support resources and products for independent living, such as an audio wristwatch or optical aides for reading mail. Go to the following link: A self-help resource center for vision loss: Independent Living at Home with Vision Loss.
Local independent living centers, chapters of national blind associations, state commissions of the blind, and other resources in each state mentioned previously can also assist with learning some of these skills or acquiring assistive living products.
A U.S. school’s special education teacher, disability services office, or local service clubs may be able to help foreign exchange participants obtain free or low-cost assistive aids, training services or corrective lenses. Your exchange program sponsor may also be able to assist with funds. The following are other resources for corrective lenses or magnification tools:
- Vision USA at: American Optometric Association Vision USA
- Lions Clubs International at: Lions Clubs International Paperless Classroom Helping Students with Special Needs
- Unite for Sight at: Unite For Sight How to Help
What if I know English and Braille, but not the contracted form of American Braille or Nemeth Braille codes? Where do I learn these and how long does it take?
Contracted Braille is regarded as the standard form of literacy for blind individuals in the United States because it saves space on a page and increases reading speeds by accomplished readers. Since the 1950s most published materials from U.S. braille producing organizations have been produced in contracted Braille, and most instruction provided to braille reading students in both local and specialized schools has been in the contracted form. Nemeth Braille is used for scientific and mathematic equations.
- Uncontracted Braille refers to a braille code made up of the 26 letters of the English alphabet, punctuation symbols and the number sign. It has 180 rules.
- In contrast, contracted Braille consists of the alphabet plus 189 one cell and two cell contractions representing various combinations of letters. Contracted braille, with 450 rules, is a more complex system.
(Excerpted from: TSBVI Reading for Everyone: Expanding Literacy Options)
Many U.S. students who are blind do not use Braille, but use audio or large print formats. If you do not know Braille, then more information is available in the next question. If you do use Braille but do not know contracted Braille, then you could purchase or borrow Braille display equipment, such as PacMate or BrailleNote, that will allow you to read electronic text from a computer. This equipment can be expensive, but it is small enough to carry with you. It displays the information in mechanically raised dots that represent the Braille codes. You can choose to read it in the uncontracted form. However, only 20 or 40 braille characters are typically displayed at a time, so it may make it slower to read in the uncontracted format.
If you want to learn contracted or Nemeth Braille, the Hadley School for the Blind’s Professional Program provides free on-line Braille Training Resources for English-speakers from any country with Internet connections. A teacher in your country could learn contracted and Nemeth Braille and teach it to you and others hoping to study in the United States. Or you could ask about signing up yourself in their courses for adult continuing education. Their courses for blind high school students happen on–site at their Illinois state school. They offer introductory courses on assistive technology, too. To learn about Hadley’s distant learning and on-site courses go to: Hadley's School for the Blind Programs.
You could find other courses through places that serve blind students, such as Overbrook School for the Blind or Carroll Center for the Blind on the east coast of the United States. Read about Overbrook School for the Blind’s international programs here: Overbrook's International Program. The Carroll Center for the Blind has programs for adult learners, as well as distance learning courses. For more information visit their website, which is listed here: Carroll Center for the Blind International Training Program.
For self-study, Braille through Remote Learning (BRL) courses are offered free of charge. They provide a good introduction to the basics of reading and editing contracted Braille. Resources include Braille contractions, an alphabetical index of Braille symbols, and a summary of rules for use of contractions. Visit their website by clicking here: BRL Braille through Remote Learning.
Once in the United States you can search for associations of Braille transcribers in your state. In many communities, volunteer groups of braille transcribers may also be available to provide assistance for those wishing to learn more about reading contracted Braille.
The amount of time it takes to learn contracted braille varies among individuals, but on average it takes about four months to learn uncontracted braille and up to two years to learn contracted Braille.
If a foreign student is attending a U.S. school, then in most cases the school must provide access to print materials at no cost to the foreign student. Alternatives to Braille materials are large print, audio or electronic versions that can be accessed with assistive technologies. A special exception to the U.S. Copyright Act, known as the Chafee Amendment, permits blind people and others with certified physical print disabilities to have access to special versions, including audio versions, of copyrighted books from the publishers. For college textbooks, the student will often need to purchase a print copy of the book. Examples of organizations that provide electronic or audio copies of texts include:
- National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
- Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic
- Accessible Textbooks Clearinghouse
For a more comprehensive list of sources for electronic books, go to: List of Resources.
Learning the assistive technology and software that allows one to translate electronic text into audio or large print can often take several months. At many schools, the faculty expects a high level of literacy and high-quality writing in standard American English. Blind students who use only audio text will need to ensure that the grammatical elements of their writing are up to educational standards through tutoring or proof-reading.
What type of assistive technology can I use in the United States? Where can I get it, and how much would it cost?
At the secondary school level, students who are blind are often given the Braille-N-Speak or VoiceNote by their school districts to allow them to take their own notes in class or do their homework. This equipment can be simple to learn. People who have the ability to purchase more robust equipment, will look into many of the other options that allow quick connections to computers, such as PacMate or BrailleNote. Equipment is changing everyday, so it is best to contact some of the various manufacturers to find their latest models and capabilities. U.S. people who are blind typically use this type of equipment instead of a slate and stylus because it is faster to use and can change audio or Braille back to electronic or regular print for sighted people to read.
For those using Braille, this equipment is getting more portable everyday. For those relying on audio formats, a laptop computer that can download electronic text, may be the only equipment you need. Although, you will have to get computer software that helps with the vocalizing of the text and a scanner with OCR software (which can be as small as a cell phone that takes photos) to change print into readable electronic text. Free or low-cost software is available that vocalizes or enlarges the information on a computer screen, but for more user-friendly software designed specifically for a blind or low vision person, the cost of the software increases with its capabilities. Examples of this software include: JAWS for Windows, ZoomText, or Kurzweil. Some blind associations or libraries provide free equipment for listening to their audio recordings, and schools or colleges may have accessible computers that students can use while at school. To learn more about assistive technology, go to this website: A Self-help resource center for vision loss - Find Assistive Technology Products.
Non-technology solutions still exist in the United States and some people prefer them. You could request that your school, employer, or a local blindness organization hire a person or find a volunteer to assist you in reading and/or writing information. This person is called a reader or scribe. If using this service in a classroom or workplace, the reader/scribe is typically provided by the school at no cost to you. However, you or the exchange program may need to pay for someone that helps you outside of class or the work place. It is typically more expensive to have readers in the United States than in other countries where human assistance is more easily hired. Volunteers may also be available who would not charge a fee.
If you have some vision, you can also use tools that enlarge text through magnification. Video magnifiers (CCTVs) will enlarge printed material and display it on a television monitor. Schools will often have large CCTVs available for students to use on campus, but you may want to purchase portable devices that you can carry with you and use in your daily life.
Traveling to the United States with the purpose of learning and sharing with Americans you meet can be a rewarding experience. With the right skills and resources in place, your transition can be smoother. In addition to the information above, our National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange publishes stories by international exchange participants who are blind about their advice and experiences. You can also join the National Federation of the Blind's international students with disabilities listserv.
Other tipsheets also provide in-depth strategies for accessing foreign languages or traveling with a dog guide. Learn more through the following links:
- Assistive Technology Information for International Students Who Are Blind or Have Low Vision
- English Language Classroom and Students with Disabilities
- Advising International Individuals with Specific Disabilities
- Providing Information in Alternative Formats
- Dog Guides and Service Animals While on International Exchange
- Accessing Foreign Language Materials as a Blind or Low Vision Student: An Informational Guide on Arranging for Assistive Technology, Accessible Formats and Services in the Foreign Language Course
- Foreign Language Learning and Students with Disabilities
- Fulfilling Dreams through the Fulbright Program to the United States: The Story of Karla Rivas
- Future Leaders Exchange Program: A High School Student Shares Her Experiences in the U.S.
- Overcoming Challenges While in the United States for an English Language Program
- A U.S. Community Rallies Support for a High School Exchange Student
- Building Bridges Around the World with blind communities - Rotary Youth Exchange
- Finding a Host for a High School Foreign Exchange Student who is Blind
Although efforts have been made to ensure accuracy, MIUSA/NCDE cannot be held liable for inaccuracy, misinterpretation or complaints arising from these listings. Mention of an organization, company, service or resource should not be construed as an endorsement by MIUSA/NCDE. Please advise NCDE of any inaccuracies you may find.