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Learning New Languages: Students with Visual Impairments

We all know that gaining fluency in more than one language is an asset, especially in a multicultural, highly diverse country like Canada. In Montreal, for instance, it is a common occurrence to roam around downtown and here a variety of languages spoken everyday. But, do blind, partially sighted and deaf-blind Canadians have access to the same opportunities to learn new languages? What barriers, if any, do blind, partially sighted and deaf-blind individuals encounter when trying to pick up a new language?

Certainly, the language class can be a highly visual environment. If someone is blind, it may be difficult for them to learn the nuances of a language – how particular words are spelled or how punctuation is used – if they are unable to read what an instructor writes on the board. Indeed, many handouts circulated to students during such classes involve pictures, crossword puzzles and other inherently visual features. Similarly, many CD-ROM programs, websites and other multimedia programs that aim to teach languages include graphics, pictures and other interactive visual activities.

I completed a few language courses while in my early days at college (Spanish and Italian) and found it to be a very positive experience. As a student with no usable vision, I had all my textbooks for these courses transcribed into braille. This allowed me to practise vocabulary, grow accustomed to proper spelling and other grammatical nuances, and refer to new terms as often as I needed to.

The concept of universal design can also lead to a more inclusive, accessible learning environment. In essence, universal design is a philosophy that advocates for attitudes and environments that benefit both those with and without disabilities. Having access to online course notes and vocabulary lists, for instance, provide students with visual impairments with an alternative to traditional print information – but other students will benefit as well, by having regular access to lecture notes as a valuable study tool.

My questions for those of you reading this post are: Have you ever taken language courses? Did you encounter any accessibility barriers, and what were some techniques you used to gain the most from your experience? Did you use braille, audio format, or another method? Do you think it’s difficult to find books in languages other than English in an alternative format, like braille?

Below is an interesting article I recently read about the importance of learning new languages. The article includes several resources that should be accessible to blind and visually impaired users. Interestingly, the article also briefly discusses some recent research findings. It states:

Emerging research suggests that the brains of children who are born blind may have greater, more robust language capacity from the start, as many of the brain’s vision centers may automatically rewire to receive language cues.

Now, that’s neat. I thought I’d share. Enjoy!



This blog is curated by the AEBC, but welcomes contributions from members and non-members alike. The thoughts, views, and opinions expressed in the Blind Canadians Blog are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the AEBC, its members, or any of its donors and partners.


I am just curious to know if there are online languages teaching services that can help visually impaired people to learn a new language.

Many years ago, specifically in 1979, I took an Italian Course as a first year university option. I was probably the only student in a class of 40 who had every book recommended by the professor. Why? Because back in the 70's, VRDP provided text book allowances but other than volunteer readers there was absolutely no way to have materials produced in alternate formats.

The end result was that I squeaked by, not because I was a good student but rather because Italian was my mother tongue and the prof liked me.

Yes, those two factors combined enabled me to obtain a passing grade. And that grade definately was not indicative of my command of Italian.

Today, sinics claim that Braille is dead. What's dying is literacy for people who depend on alternate formats for their education or livelihood.

So, to answer your question, access to appropriate format materials is essential and when it comes to learning a 2nd language I don't know of any other option other than braille that will do.

I agree. As a braille user and braille advocate, I feel that we must continuously ensure that braille is not left behind. Technological advancements are wonderful and provide us with greater access to information, but technology by no means replaces braille. As a child, I still had some usable sight and my primary literacy medium was print; yet, I learned braille three times a week with a Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI). Now, as an adult, I have the option to access information in whatever format I feel is most appropriate for the task at hand, whether it be through a screen-reader, audio or braille. If I had never learned braille, that option would not be available to me today. I often give presentations as part of my work. Without braille, I would have to memorize my points. With braille, I can refer to my notes and still face my audience.

We all know that braille is often essential for learning how to spell and for learning new languages -- but I also like to simply read a braille book for pleasure, merely because that is the format I choose to read. Yes, I use other formats. I use a computer with screen-reading software everyday. I even read audio books on a regular basis -- but none of this means that braille loses importance or is being replaced. Learning new languages is just one example of why braille is so important, and we must continue to ensure that students with visual impairments who choose to use braille have access to it when they request it, and that as time goes on, technology does not simply become a default alternative to braille -- but rather, just another option among many.


ZZ - Disregard this link; it is used to trick spammers.