How can a visually impaired student see the board at university?

Post date: 
Friday, 4 May 2018
Sofia looking to the left and standing against a blackboard.

PhD student, Sofia Qvarfort explains how she used technology to help her participate in lectures and seminars at university.

I have a condition called albinism, which is a genetically inherited disorder that affects the body's melanin production. It means that my skin, hair and irises have less pigment than a “normal” person. Melanin is also crucial to how the retina of the eye and the optic nerve in the brain develop, so most people with albinism have problems with their sight.

I have 15 per cent vision. This means that a sign you can read 10m away, would have to be 1.5m away from me. I’m also sensitive to light, so when I'm outside you'll often find me squinting even though the sun isn't that bright (some people with albinism wear sunglasses both in and outdoors).

The challenge

When I started my physics degree at university, my biggest challenge was figuring out how I could follow the lectures in real time.

When I was younger and still in school, I was able to follow along pretty well in lessons. I usually sat at the front of the class and could see the general shape of what was drawn on the board. I also have good auditory memory and have learned to take notes at the same time as someone speaking. By piecing together the auditory information and what I could see on the board, I was able to understand the content and obtain good grades.

When I started at university, things changed. When I’m in a lecture or seminar, I typically can't see what's written on the blackboard (yes, sometimes we still use blackboards) as the room is usually too large for me to read the text. There’s also a lot more material to get through in one single term than in school. As a result, the pace is much faster.

This might not have been a problem were it not for the nature of physics - just listening didn't work anymore since it’s extremely hard to understand by listening alone. The more complex the equations became, the harder it was to distinguish them correctly by hearing alone.

The solution

What works best for me is to use a commercial video camera connected to a small external screen. I point the camera at the board and stream the content to the screen. With a decent optical zoom, I use the camera’s zoom function to increase the size of the content on the board to such that I can comfortably read it on the screen.

I started off with quite a bulky camera that we had lying around at home, but later I invested in a smaller camera that connects to an external screen with a HDMI cable. The screen is basically a small surveillance camera screen, but it works remarkably well for this purpose too. For me, mobility is the most important thing as it means that I can easily move the equipment from room to room.

I also bought a small tripod to steady the camera and raise it up a bit. This allows me to swiftly move it around and keep it focused on various sections of the board.

Using this system, I’m granted independence and able to follow lectures perfectly.

The camera allows me to see equations written on the blackboard, the contents of PowerPoint slides (which saves me from chasing the lecturers and ask them for the slides in advance) and even small experiments carried out by the lecturers at the front of the lecture theatre. It’s sometimes a bit fiddly having to move the camera at the same time as taking notes, but it’s worth it.

The university did record lectures and make them available online and I could have used them for learning since I was able to zoom in on the board in the recording. However, I decided against it because I preferred attending the lectures in person.

The barriers

A disadvantage of using a camera can be the limited battery life. I have to remember to charge it every night, which I sometimes forget. My camera has a battery life of about 1.5h and the screen lasts for 3h. Fortunately, I rarely have more than this of consecutive lectures, which means that I can charge them over my lunch break.

Since technology does sometimes fail, my university also helps me by paying a PhD student to take notes during my lectures when notes aren’t provided. This has helped me a lot, especially when my camera battery unexpectedly runs out.

In conclusion

Using the camera to see the board in lectures and seminars has worked out really well for me. This system isn’t suited for everyone who is blind and partially sighted, but for students with low vision who need to be able to access the board, it is certainly a viable option.

Source: This article originally appeared on [email protected] and has been republished with permission of the author.

Further information

  • Sofia Qvarfort is a PHD student and owner of the website [email protected], where she and other students share their experiences and tips for overcoming the challenges that students with sight loss face at university.
  • The camera Sofia uses in lectures is the "Canon Legria HF M52" and the screen used is the "Lillput 7 Wide TFT"

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