How do teenagers with visual impairments use digital technologies to negotiate the world?

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Girl holding up a mobile phone and looking at the screen © Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

How do teenagers with visual impairments use digital technologies to negotiate the world? A qualitative study of children aged 13-17 and their teachers in the North West of England has explored how young people are using such technologies to overcome barriers to learning, integrate themselves within the classroom and strengthen their social ties. Yet more needs to be done to support class teachers in facilitating the use of such technology.

There is currently limited research that examines how disabled young people use digital technologies. This is an important omission given the need to understand and support disabled children and young people to benefit from the potential opportunities for learning, leisure, play and communication that their peers do, whilst developing the digital skills needed to use technology effectively and safely.

With this in mind, I carried out a qualitative research project exploring how disabled children and young people use digital technologies – such as computers, laptops and mobile devices – for learning within the context of their everyday lives. The teenagers who participated in the project were between 13-17 years of age, based in the North West of England and all had a visual impairment that cannot be corrected with glasses. Visual impairment has been chosen as an illustrative case because technology has the potential to greatly impact visually impaired people’s lives. My aim was to gain insights into how disabled children, in this case, children with visual impairment specifically, are integrating digital technologies into their everyday lives in terms of access, uses, experiences, development of digital skills and experiences of online risk and safety.

The young people I talked to were based in mainstream schools. The project was participatory to take account of what is important to the young people themselves. Discussion took place with participants to develop questions within appropriate data collection methods. Draft reports were shared before finalising. The project was underpinned by the social model of disability which makes a distinction between ‘impairment’ – based on the medical model and recognised as an individual condition; and ‘disability’ – created by the social, economic and political system in which disabled people live (Oliver 1996). This heeds the call from Disabled Children’s Disabled Studies’ academics and activists to move away from research that conflates disabled children with ‘impairment, inequality and abuse’ (Curran and Runswick-Cole 2014).

The focus of the study on a specific impairment may be somewhat at odds with the social model of disability, nevertheless, it allows for a richer and more nuanced study to be carried out than is possible when it is assumed that disabled children constitute a homogenised group (Watson 2012). Interviews and observations took place with seven young people about their activities online and the class teachers, qualified teachers of children and young people with vision impairments (QTVIs) and teaching assistants (TAs) who support them.

Opportunities for access and activities

The young people interviewed used computers, laptops, tablets, the iPod touch and mobile phones alongside assistive technologies (for example, SuperNova magnification and screenreader software installed on the computer or Braille Notetaker, a device for taking notes with a built-in braille keyboard). The young people were positive about digital technologies and carried out a wide range of activities in and out of school, typical of many young people.

Common activities for learning included:

• Internet research (e. g. Wikipedia, Google)

• Accessing textbooks

• Using Pages or Microsoft Word for writing

• Using Keynote or PowerPoint to create or access presentations sent to them by teachers

• Revision websites and apps

• Music composition and creating videos to improve performance at sport.

Outside of school, activities often complemented other interests such as:

• Sports or music

• Shopping

• Watching videos

• Playing games

• Enhancing friendships/keeping in touch with friends and family further away on Facebook or Twitter.

As an example of social media supporting communication, Siobhan, age 14, told me how she enjoyed using social media for keeping in touch with a wider group of friends she has met at ‘residentials for the blind’.

'In school I have a few [friends]. Most of my friends I meet on residentials for the blind and I like keeping in contact with them, texting, Facebook, Skype.'

This quote suggests that whilst Siobhan’s local friendships may be more limited, she has a wider group of friends who are also visually impaired. She finds social media is very useful for staying in touch.


There were other examples where the disabled teenagers used digital technologies, particularly tablets, in ways less typical of other young people. This was made possible by the built-in functions such as cameras; and accessibility functions such as magnification and speech output.

Some of the youngsters took pictures of textbooks and whiteboards when in class and enlarged them to their own preferences. Laura, age 16, said that she liked to enlarge the keyboard to see her handwriting:

'Because if I write I can hardly see my own writing.'

She said it was important to her that that she fits in with her friends in class and can learn without support. She credits tablets with supporting her to do this:

'... having an iPad and my friends have iPads as well, it just makes me feel like I’m one of them basically.'

Similar benefits were mentioned for uses outside of school. Siobhan, age 14, uses a colour detector app to help her match her clothes:

'I turn the app on and what I do is I hold it up to something depending on what colour it is. It’s really helpful if I’m going out and I need to get changed and there’s no-one in the house.'

Teenagers report having enough digital skills

For the most part, the teenagers said that they had the digital skills they needed to use technologies effectively and safely. They did talk of bullying incidents related to disability – on and off-line – but said that these had mainly occurred in primary school suggesting a need for earlier safety interventions. They had developed their own strategies for keeping safe online such as not speaking to people that they did not also know off-line. There were also signs that they had developed resilience particularly in relation to disability-related bullying both on and off-line. Laura, aged 16, explained how she had been bullied at primary school because of her disability and how she had reconciled herself to this, tried to stay positive and hold fast to her own identity.

'If you’ve got slight difference um and not one of the, I was going to say ordinary people [LAUGHS], but yeh [sic] if you have got visual impairment, I did used to get, I did used to get bullied quite a lot but I just, I very much think positively about most things. I say things happen for a reason and if I get bullied, I don’t mind, cos it’s who I am, I’m not going to change who I am just because someone doesn’t like it.'

Barriers for disabled people

Within the schools visited, emphasis was given to independence and self-management for the disabled young people by their teachers and particularly by QTVIs and TAs. Even so, there was recognition that these aspects could be improved on by class teachers taking primary responsibility for the learning of all children in the class rather than relying on specialist support to provide just-in-time solutions. While some teachers designed lessons accordingly, not all had the skills to do so either through lack of awareness generally, time constraints or not understanding how technology can help disabled youngsters.

In one lesson observed, the class teacher did not realise that the young person could not see what was written on the whiteboard at the front of the room. The TA stepped up and took a photo of the board using a tablet and shared this with the youngster. Whilst this resolved the immediate problem, it also undermined the disabled teenagers’ ability to learn autonomously and it potentially increased their self-consciousness and the stigma that comes from standing out as different. Other similar approaches by class teachers could also be seen to result in extra workload for disabled students and TAs which might otherwise have been avoided.


Overall findings were that:

• Many disabled young people enjoy using digital technologies and find them useful for learning in and out of school.

• Used well by teachers, digital technologies can help disabled young people to fit in within mainstream classrooms and access the curriculum, but care needs to be taken by class teachers to avoid creating extra-work for disabled youngsters and marking them out as different.

• Interventions to support disabled children to manage safety online and reduce bullying need to begin at primary school or earlier. Parents can help by also supporting their children to learn about online safety.

• Class teachers need more time, awareness and training in order to use digital technologies to support more inclusive teaching and learning rather than relying on teaching assistants to provide just-in-time solutions.

• More research is needed about how disabled children and young people with a range of impairments use digital technologies and can be best supported.

Sue is currently finalising a book based on this project entitled: Disabled children and digital technologies. Learning in the context of inclusive education, due out in 2020.

This post first appeared on the LSE Parenting for a digital future blog.

Sue Cranmer is a Lecturer in Digital Education and Social Justice in the Department of Educational Research at Lancaster University.

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