Noelle Paredes-Plaza
Ontario Tech University


This chapter explores the role of assistive technology in supporting the academic pursuit of students with visual impairments in post-secondary education. Research shows that assistive technology most used by students with visual impairments includes screen readers, scanners, and text magnification apps. Moreover, ubiquitous mobile devices such as tablets, smartphones, and laptops are becoming popular tools for their built-in assistive features. Despite technological advancements, students continue to face learning barriers such as accessibility and lack of training. Therefore, to meet the needs of students with visual impairments, educators should apply various frameworks when implementing appropriate assistive technologies in the curriculum.


accessibility, assistive technology, disability, higher education, mobile technology, post-secondary, visual impairment


A national survey on disability found that over 1.5 million Canadians aged 15 or older reported having a visual impairment (VI) or a sight disability (Statistics Canada, 2018). A visually-impaired person has a sight condition that cannot be fixed by standard corrective eyewear, such as glasses or contact lenses (Eye Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, 2018). Furthermore, a person is considered legally blind when they possess one-tenth of their 20/20 vision or have a range of peripheral vision less than 20 degrees (Eye Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, 2018). Although VI encompasses several eye conditions, from low vision to complete blindness, visual impairment does not describe “what an individual can do but, rather, acts as a classification system that describes how well an individual can see” (Colclasure et al., 2016, p. 1).

The survey also revealed that roughly 48% of youth and young adults with a disability relied on at least one type of assistive technology (AT) to aid them in their school work (Statistics Canada, 2021). Assistive technology refers to devices designed or adapted to help people with disabilities perform activities that “might otherwise be difficult or impossible” (University of Washington, 2022, para. 1). Post-secondary students with disabilities (SWD) have used various AT since the late 1990s. Cost and compatibility issues, however, often presented barriers to accessibility (Fichten et al., 2014). Nevertheless, several researchers have noted the integral role of AT in providing students with disabilities flexibility and independence in achieving their learning goals (Lamond and Cunningham, 2020). Although AT have gained mandatory status in higher education (Heiman & Shemesh, 2012), they must be carefully implemented and assessed through appropriate frameworks to ensure that assistive technology effectively dismantles academic barriers for students with visual impairments.

Background Information

Barriers to Education

While assistive technologies have enabled SWD to engage academically and perform course work more efficiently and independently (McNicholl et al., 2021), SWD still encounter many learning barriers. Students with VI reportedly take two to five times longer to process academic materials (Reed & Curtis, 2012). Their eye conditions also affect their educational decisions, such as choosing which courses or careers to pursue and whether to enrol in fewer subjects (Statistics Canada, 2016). Course design can also dissuade students with VI from pursuing them; for example, science programs may require students to conduct extensive lab work, which may hinder students with VI from participating due to safety concerns (Ostrowski, 2016). Therefore, enrolling in fewer courses may contribute to the estimated 1.5 extra years students with VI take to complete their education (Reed & Curtis, 2012). Barriers faced by SWD manifest in several ways; however, course accessibility and inadequate training on assistive technologies pose major hindrances to pursuing academic goals.

Course Accessibility

The inaccessibility of course materials can affect the effectiveness of AT. For example, screen readers cannot read some course websites, chat systems in learning management systems (LMS), and PDFs made of heavily photocopied or scanned images (Fichten et al., 2009). For low-vision students, materials with low contrast and serif fonts make them hard to read (Marghalani & York, 2021). An Australian study also found that discussion boards in LMS are not always readable (Cain & Fanshawe, 2021). Furthermore, students who rely on personal devices can encounter compatibility issues if the course websites include uncaptioned images or handwritten notes. Thus, students’ ability to use the assistive features of mobile technologies depends on whether course materials are uploaded in accessible formats and made available on students’ devices (Fichten et al., 2014).

Inadequate Training

Several studies have also noted that lack of user training impacts the usage and effectiveness of AT. Researchers identified that inadequate training of SWD on the functionality of some AT produced poor results in exams and low academic engagement (McNicholl et al., 2021). These findings seem to support a previous study which found that some technologies had fewer users, indicating that there may be a lack of knowledge and training in available AT (Reed & Curtis, 2012). UK researchers also noted the problematic assumption by institutions that students with VI are already well-versed in AT before commencing their studies. Their findings indicated the opposite: students only had limited knowledge of available AT and were inexperienced in advocating for their technological needs (Hewett et al., 2017). While student awareness of AT is crucial in improving educational access, so is the level of knowledge that teachers have about using assistive devices in their teaching. Jones et al. (2018) argued that AT training and comfort level are essential to successfully implementing AT, a claim echoed by Bin Tuwaym and Berry’s (2018) research that found that teacher knowledge and confidence significantly impacted the use of AT.

AT in Higher Education

A study on Canadian post-secondary learners with VI found that blind students frequently used screen readers or text-to-speech programs, scanners with optical character rec­ognition software, and refreshable braille. On the other hand, low-vision students often relied on screen magnification and proofreading software (Fichten et al., 2009). Another study found that commonly used software in one Canadian university were screen readers Kurzweil and JAWS and the screen magnifier ZoomText (Reed & Curtis, 2012). However, research on low-vision students enrolled in online classes showed that they preferred text-to-speech software over magnifiers to assist them in accessing online reading sources (Marghalani & York, 2021). Studies show that students often use more than one AT to aid them (Fichten et al., 2009; Marghalani & York, 2021; Statistics Canada, 2021), highlighting the importance that AT plays in minimizing education barriers.

Mobile Technologies

In recent years, devices such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones with built-in assistive functions have become common types of AT (Fichten et al., 2014; Statistics Canada, 2021). According to Irvine et al. (2014), many features of these ubiquitous devices provide versatility and affordability and “have been developed to accommodate the needs of the visually impaired” (p. 53), such as contrast settings, voice control, screen magnification, and text to speech options. Furthermore, in one study, low-vision students increased their reading speeds by using an iPad compared to reading on paper (McLaughlin & Kamei-Hannan, 2018).


Frameworks for AT Integration

Assistive technology plays a significant role in helping students with disabilities pursue their academic goals. However, integrating AT into a student’s education plan requires careful selection and adequate training (Bin Tuwaym & Berry, 2018). To implement AT in the curriculum, researchers have proposed different frameworks to help ensure that the use of AT considers the unique needs of the visually impaired learner.

SETT Framework

The SETT (Students, Environments, Tasks, Tools) framework is a decision-making model that should be applied when assessing technology. It places the student, the learning environment, and required tasks ahead of tool selection (Zabala, 2010). The SETT model aims to prevent improper incorporation of assistive technology, for it could result in “high rates of abandonment or underutilization, and most importantly, the irreclaimable time lost for living, education, employment, or recreation by the individual whose functional capabilities were not increased, improved or maintained by the technology” (Zabala, 2005, p.10).

UDL Framework

Course designers and educators seeking to make accessible teaching materials should adhere to the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a framework promoting inclusivity of all learners via guidelines that provide multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression (CAST, 2018). Research has shown that UDL provides accessibility for higher education students with VI (Marghalani & York, 2021) and can mitigate time, money, and quality issue in converting materials (Ostrowski, 2016).

Integrating Assistive Mobile Devices

Literature over the years has shown that mobile devices such as iPads, with their built-in AT functions and available apps, have enabled students with disabilities to access and complete their course work (Irvine et al., 2014; Fichten et al., 2014; McLaughlin & Kamei-Hannan, 2018; McNicholl et al., 2021). From a curriculum standpoint, integrating such devices into lessons should be guided by how well they engage the learner. According to Cain and Fanshawe (2021), the assistive features of mobile devices such as shortcuts, voice commands, and screen readers provide students more autonomous access to course material, thus giving students a feeling of “connectedness to their course” and a “sense of belonging” (p. 141).

Considering the Environment

Curriculum integration should also consider the environment in which the tools will be used and the tasks that need to be accomplished. For students with VI, using iPads gives them a sense of privacy when conducting personal communications (McNicholl et al., 2021). The versatility of tablets provides visually-impaired students flexibility to perform various activities (Irvine et al., 2014). Moreover, since students with or without disabilities commonly use mobile devices (Fichten, 2019), they do not invite the attention or social stigma that traditional AT bring (McLaughlin & Kamei-Hannan, 2018; dos Santos, 2022).

Ensuring Accessibility

When incorporating mobile technology into the curriculum, educators should strive to uphold UDL principles. Research has shown that by doing so, students with VI can access information in multiple formats, perform actions, and stay engaged through various assistive functions (Marghalani & York, 2021). Therefore, course materials should be digitally formatted, such as Word documents and accessible PDFs (Ostrowski, 2016; Marghalani & York, 2021), in order for students to benefit from the assistive features of apps like text-to-speech screen readers, scanners, and recorders on their mobile devices (Fichten et al., 2019).

Conclusions and Future Recommendations

Assistive technologies have become crucial in supporting students with visual impairments to engage meaningfully with their post-secondary course work. Barriers, however, continue to exist and must be addressed if higher education institutions are to provide inclusive learning. With more students relying on the convenience and versatility of mobile technologies for their assistive features, educators and course designers must ensure that materials are designed for accessibility before the start of courses to allow students to access materials independently and without delay. Institutions should not operate under the assumption that students already have the necessary knowledge of how to use certain AT and associated apps. Instead, students should receive proper training, and instructors should get adequate support so they can confidently guide during the course. Although it is impossible to anticipate the various learning needs of students with VI, it may make the provision of support more effective if students are encouraged to learn to advocate for their needs. Also, when choosing AT, curriculum designers should apply various frameworks to ensure that AT integration meets the multi-faceted needs of learners. Finally, further studies into ways students with VI engage with mobile technologies for academic purposes are encouraged so that all stakeholders can advance the efforts towards inclusive education.


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Technology and the Curriculum: Summer 2022 Copyright © 2022 by Noelle Paredes-Plaza is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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