Advising Blind and Low Vision Exchange Participants

Reading a tactile map of building floor plan
Exploring the world is nothing new for people in the blind community. Now you can learn too how best to support your advisee who is blind.

People who meet the definition of legal blindness, meaning that they possess 20/200 vision or less in the best eye, will have varying levels of eyesight. Measuring or inquiring about someone's visual acuity will not give an accurate idea of the level of assistance that they require. Since there is so much variation in the type and quality of education that any given blind or visually impaired individual might have received, it is hard to make generalizations about the supports that they might need without consulting them. 

Common Accommodations

No two blind or visually impaired participants will have the same skill set. Some will read braille and others will only know large print. Some will use a cane while others will prefer a guide dog. You should include the blind or low vision participant in all conversations about accommodations and other arrangements. They will know best which accommodations are most effective for their skill set.

  • Written materials converted into large print, Braille, on tape and/or in electronic format
  • Use of technology, including screen-reading and screen-magnification software, and a refreshable Braille display
  • People to assist with scanning, reading, and writing print materials
  • CCTV which is an electronic magnifier that can be stationary or handheld
  • Permission to sit in preferred seat
  • Extra time during classroom assignments and tests
  • People to assist with orientation to surroundings and transportation
  • Access to a guide dog, mobility cane, sighted guide and/or combination

Steps to Take to Arrange Accommodations

  1. Make a list of all required materials, so that accessible versions can be found or made for the exchange participant in time. Sometimes, the individual will just need certain materials in braille with the rest supplied in an electronic format that can be quickly made accessible.
  2. Ask the participant what accommodations he or she generally uses, and have a contingency plan if those accommodations aren’t available or complications arise.
  3. Offer to provide assistants for participants on field trips or for assignments if wanted. Others may be willing to volunteer as guides, note-takers, readers and/or scribes in exchange for a reduced program fee or work study option.
  4. In some cases, it is useful for people who are blind or low vision to arrive earlier than the start of a program. They can learn to navigate their new environment and/or arrange for training on new assistive technologies. You can connect with state or country chapters of the organizations listed in Related Links to see what training they could offer.
  5. Orientation to the area on arrival is necessary for some. Trainings may include orientation to the participant’s living quarters, the closest bathroom, the surrounding area, and to classrooms and/or the exchange program area. Orientations may also include nearby shops and public transportation.
  6. Assist in researching the requirements if bringing a guide dog. Receiving required documentation and vaccinations for a service animal can take weeks or even months. In some situations, it may be illegal to import a service dog into the destination country without a quarantine process. Learning about pet importation requirements in the destination country is important when deciding whether to bring a dog guide. See Related Resources for more information.

Creating an Accessible Experience

Sometimes it can help to introduce a blind or visually impaired exchange participant at the beginning of a program to create a better overall social dynamic and to check misconceptions that peers might have. The participant will tell you if they want to take this path. Before introducing them to his or her travel peers, ask how he or she would like the introduction to go. The participant may want the opportunity to dispell myths and share what would be helpful, or may not want his or her disability to be part of the initial introduction in the group setting, and instead may prefer to bring it up casually at another time.

Safety should come first, but not at the expense of participation. Blind and low vision Americans have developed tools for self-sufficiency and independence. They are just as capable of being safe away from home as their sighted peers, and they shouldn’t be excluded from programs for disability-related reasons.

The liability concerns for students with disabilities need not be greater than for other international exchange students. All students must get accustomed to living in an unfamiliar environment, need orientation to learn to navigate their new surroundings and have self-preservation motivations to learn that new environment as quickly as possible.

Although  concerns regarding safety while learning independent navigation skills are understandable, the individual who is blind likely has concerns, as well. Mobility training includes safety considerations and students who are blind must be diligent to take necessary safety precautions. Given appropriate training and support, students who are blind pose no greater liability risk than others while off-campus.

“I now feel more confident that we can do it again. We now know what questions to ask up front and to have more communication with disability services offices early on in the placement process. Certainly, it has exposed me to the support services that are available. I didn’t realize the depth of support available to students with visual disabilities,”  says Shawn Woodin, National Director at Commuity Colleges for International Development, Inc., who placed an Egypian student who was blind at a U.S. community college.

To begin the conversation, you can download the Blind and Low Vision Assessment Forms and Guidelines in the Documents sidebar. Also, see Related Resources for what to share with the exchange participant as he or she plans for their international experience.