Social distancing under COVID-19 has become an inconvenience for most Australians, but for blind people or people with vision impairment, socially isolating and distancing has presented a unique set of challenges.
Some of those challenges include shopping, and for students, online learning.
Melissa Fanshawe is a mathematics lecturer at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) who is writing a doctorate on the experience of students living with vision impairment and is a trained teacher for students with visions impairment.
The mother of four also has a 13-year-old son, Oliver, who is vision impaired. Her experience of teaching her son at home and online during the COVID-19 lockdown she says has been largely positive.
‘There have certainly been issues with the transition to online learning, for example some pictures, diagrams, and videos are not accessible. You have to spend time describing those,’ said Ms Fanshawe.
‘But most things are accessible. Using software narrator programs like JAWS, NVDA, or inbuilt accessibility software, actually a lot of material is now accessible to Oliver.
Bringing learning online is proving a major challenge for the education sector in general, but for children with vision impairment there are additional challenges.
‘While there are software narrator programs and Apple providing voiceover for all touchscreens, with schools going to Google Classrooms for example, there can be integration issues,’ said Karen Knight, Client Services Manager at Vision Australia.
Vision Australia has responded by working with the Federal Education Department to create solutions and workarounds. It has also been conducting ‘check-in and chat’ online sessions which Melissa Fanshawe has found to be invaluable.
‘Vision Australia’s online sessions have allowed Oliver to not only access tips and workarounds, he’s had access to mentors and its given him a great degree of independence,’ said Ms Fanshawe.
‘As a working mum I’ve usually got a heap of driving and time commitments. To be able to access some of the support services, including education has actually been great.’
For those studying at University there are similar challenges around accessibility to the full gamut of learning resources. Ms Fanshawe has produced videos for USQ on vision impairment and online learning.
While education departments subsidise learning technology for primary and secondary school age students, tertiary age people with vision impairment need to apply for technology assistance grants through the NDIS.
Vision Australia has recently launched a COVID-19 resource page to help not only students but all vision impaired Australians to navigate life under coronavirus.
‘We’ll be endeavouring to help the vision impaired community from every age spectrum with COVID-19 through our COVID-19 resource page at https://www.visionaustralia.org/COVID19,’ said Ms Knight.