Changing Attitudes About Visual Impairment in the College Classroom

By Brian W. Stone and Deana Brown

Brian W. Stone is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological Science at Boise State University

Deana Brown is Emerging Trends Consultant at the Idaho Commission for Libraries


This study evaluates the effectiveness of a college course designed to change student attitudes about blindness and accessibility through a comprehensive educational intervention informed by previous research and theory. Students in an interdisciplinary course spent a semester learning about visual impairment, models of disability, blind advocacy, assistive technology, universal design, accessible education, and the design of tactile graphics and 3D printed tactile models. This learning involved extensive contact and collaboration with blind and visually impaired experts and community members. Student attitudes about blindness were more positive after the course, and students reported more confidence and knowledge relating to accessibility, inclusive/universal design, and assistive technology. Given the small sample size, this study provides preliminary evidence that an educational intervention can change attitudes about blindness. This course can serve as a model for other institutions and for similar educational interventions, and such a course could be easily scaled up and adapted, including for use outside of post-secondary education.


Attitudes, blindness, visual impairment, education, contact theory

Changing Attitudes About Visual Impairment in the College Classroom

Negative attitudes toward those with disabilities serve as a barrier that makes it harder for these individuals to participate fully in society, including in areas such as employment, education, and social interactions like dating and marriage (Chan et al., 2009). With respect to visual disabilities in particular, the attitudes of sighted individuals can create barriers and difficulties for those with blindness or visual impairment (Hudson, 1994; Wang et al., 2015; Whitburn, 2014; McDonnall, 2016; Verhaeghe et al., 2016). As a result of these disabling barriers, visually impaired adults have lower levels of educational attainment than average in the United States. For example, around 32% of all U.S. adults held a bachelor's degree or higher as of 2014 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015), compared to 14.4% of those with a visual disability (Erickson et al., 2016). Likewise, the attitudes and beliefs of sighted employers and coworkers create barriers to employment. For example, employers in previous studies have shown greater concern about hiring blind employees than persons with other disabilities (Gilbride et al., 2000). Furthermore, attitude scores about blind employees have a strong association with employers' self-reported likelihood to hire a person who is blind (McDonnall, 2016). In personal life, research suggests sighted people may be more willing to date a person who is blind than to marry that person (Miller et al., 2009). 

Researchers have studied a variety of interventions to change attitudes about disability, e.g., information and education, disability simulations, persuasive communication, affirmative actions, and contact with people with disabilities (Donaldson, 1980; Smart, 2001; Chan et al., 2009). The effectiveness of each of these interventions depends on a variety of factors, but overall utilizing multiple techniques may be more effective at changing attitudes than a single strategy approach (Link & Phelan, 2001; Chan et al., 2009). One promising avenue to institute interventions for attitudinal change exists within the educational system. For example, changing the attitudes of college students could have effects not only on the individuals' attitudes, but also more systemic effects as those students go into their careers and design products, programs, and processes with disability and accessibility in mind.

An effective intervention within the educational system may need to integrate multiple strategies for changing attitudes, as mentioned above. While evidence is mixed for the effectiveness of solely informational interventions (Shaver et al., 1989), formal and comprehensive educational interventions seem to be more effective than mere provision of information (Corrigan & Penn, 1999). Education within a classroom setting can also incorporate some of the other specific strategies for attitude change. For example, disability simulation is often used in attempts to change attitudes about disability in general (Burgstahler & Doh, 2004; Wilson et al., 2009) or visual impairment in particular (Silverman, 2015). In disability simulation, students wear a blindfold, sit in a wheelchair, immobilize a limb, or in some other way temporarily simulate (some aspects of) a disability. For example, in one early educational intervention for attitudes about blindness, Marsh and Friedman (1972) noted improved social climate for blind high school students after dedicating five lessons to educating sighted students about assistive technology, independent travel, and the normalcy of blind people; part of that intervention included practice traveling under a blindfold using a sighted guide and a long cane.

However, while using disability simulation as an attitude intervention may increase self-reported empathy for those with disabilities (Wilson et al., 2009), it can also have the effect of making negative attitudes worse (French, 1992; Nario-Redmond et al., 2017). Simulating the experience of losing sight or use of a limb—and perhaps of struggling and failing at normally easy tasks—can lead to fear, frustration, and a focus on the negative experience of disability (Nario-Redmond et al., 2017). For example, undergraduate students rated blind people as less capable of work and independent living and rated blindness as more debilitating after a short blindness simulation with sleep shades (Silverman et al., 2015). Disability simulations done poorly "can be misleading because they highlight the initial challenges and failure experiences of becoming disabled, rather than the competencies and adaptations of being disabled" (Silverman et al., 2015, p. 1). Silverman (2015) suggests that disability simulations, if used in education, should incorporate mastery of blindness skills (not just the initial struggle) and should involve collaborating with blind people (see Silverman et al., 2018 for an example of this applied to paraplegia and hemiplegia).  

Another promising intervention to improve negative attitudes involves contact with those with disabilities. Contact theory (Allport, 1954; Pettigrew & Tropp, 2000) suggests that contact between groups reduces prejudice (e.g., contact with people of different sexual orientation or race/ethnicity may shift attitudes and prejudice about those groups). Some prior work has tested contact theory in the realm of attitudes about disability (e.g., Wozencroft et al., 2015; Silverman et al., 2018), but little research has investigated blindness and visual impairment specifically. In one example, Wells-Jensen et al. (2005) show that students taught the same linguistics material by a blind instructor rather than a sighted instructor trended toward more accepting and open attitudes toward braille. In another study, Krahe and Altwasser (2006) show that playing goalball (a sport adapted for the blind) with actual blind athletes in addition to an educational intervention improved student attitudes about disability more than the educational intervention alone.

Within classroom education, contact could be accomplished by inviting people with disabilities into the classroom or by service learning and other partnerships where students go out into the community or workplace to interact with those with disabilities. This contact should be done mindfully, however, lest it backfire similar to poorly done disability simulation. Allport (1954) suggests that successful intervention through contact should involve equal-status individuals working cooperatively toward a common goal, whereas contact can be counterproductive and increase prejudice when it is competitive, when it is unpleasant, or when members of the minority group are lower status than members of the majority group. An example of this is seen in Rousch (1986), where contact purely as a helper or caregiver is not conducive to improving attitudes about disability (see also Hazzard, 1983). Thus, student contact with people with disabilities will ideally involve cooperating on equal footing toward a common goal. Furthermore, research suggests contact is best at changing negative attitudes toward disabilities when it is combined with information provision and education (Horne, 1988; Corrigan & Penn, 1999).

The current study describes empirical research into a newly-developed university course aimed at changing student attitudes about blindness and visual impairment through a mix of formal education, minimal and informed use of simulation, and a service learning partnership involving extensive contact with blind and visually impaired community members and experts. We measured the students' preexisting attitudes and beliefs about blindness and about accessibility prior to the course and then again afterward as a preliminary investigation into whether this type of educational intervention can change how sighted people think about those with visual impairment.

A Project-Based Service Learning Course Aimed at Changing Attitudes

In an interdisciplinary course open to all majors, university students from a variety of backgrounds learned directly about blindness and visual impairment, mostly from blind and visually impaired voices. These students explored models of disability, e.g., the Social Model (Oliver, 1986) and universalism (Bickenbach et al., 1999) and the history of disability rights, focusing heavily on advocacy and the work of organizations like the National Federation of the Blind. Students also learned about assistive technology (AT), and the course specifically covered principles of universal design and Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

Furthermore, students got direct experience with AT, including using and creating tactile graphics, as well as experience with braille notetakers. One assignment involved practice using a screen reader to successfully accomplish and master everyday tasks, like web browsing and interacting with the classroom management system. While students experienced initial frustration at the lack of a visual interface for their smartphone or computer, they were forced to reflect on these challenges, to observe mastery use by blind individuals (and ask questions), and to persevere until success and comfort was achieved. In other words, this aspect of disability simulation was informed by the literature by (1) involving contact with blind individuals who use screen readers, and (2) success-based experience.

One particular focus of the course was the challenges and barriers for visually impaired individuals in the educational realm specifically. Educators often teach in ways that may be inaccessible to visually impaired students (Quek & McNeill, 2006; Stone et al., 2019; Bell & Silverman, 2019). Studies asking visually impaired students about their experience have found that many teachers "failed to provide instructions in classes in a way that included students with [visual impairments]. Often this was the case because teachers did not adapt classroom instructions, or neglected to provide them with accessible resources" (Whitburn, 2014, p. 149). In the present course, the students analyzed the use of visuals in educational practice. For example, students quantified, discussed, and analyzed the use of visuals in textbooks as well as the best practices (and limitations) of how those visuals are translated for accessible educational materials (e.g., tactile graphics, alt text, described graphs). Students also observed classroom instruction with and without visual access to the instructor and materials, reflecting on the assumptions of sightedness built into a lot of educational practice and discussing best practices for accessible teaching.

Finally, the course involved partnership with the university library's Maker Lab, which houses a variety of 3D printers. As a semester-long project, groups of students learned 3D design and 3D printing, then collected input, feedback, and user data from blind and visually impaired community members to design 3D printed hands-on educational models. For example, one group created a tactile model for understanding stereoisomers in a chemistry class, while another group designed an interactive tactile histogram for interpreting and creating graphs non-visually. In turn, these designs could be shared online as free open educational resources for teachers with visually impaired students. Given the limited selection and the expense of existing accessible hands-on materials—especially for specialized and upper-division college courses—it may be beneficial to provide ready-made designs online for free that a teacher anywhere can 3D print on demand at their campus or local library for little to no cost.

Thus, students in this course were involved directly in collaborating with blind individuals to work on a real-world project which could have further downstream benefits to the visually impaired community. Given the benefits of direct interaction predicted by contact theory, the course included guest speakers who were blind, visits to the state Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and meeting with blind community members to collect feedback and data on student designs. Furthermore, at the end of the semester, student groups presented their work in a mini-conference (a tactile-accessible poster session presenting their work); the session was attended by stakeholders including campus administrators, students, and faculty, but also visually impaired participants, community members, and service learning partners. Additionally, readings in the course were generally from visually impaired individuals, including blind researchers, National Federation of the Blind presidents, and blind podcasters, vidcasters, and bloggers.

We predicted that the course would serve as a successful intervention to change student attitudes about blindness and visual impairment, accessibility, and universal design. If so, this work may serve as a model for other institutions looking to train students into citizens who are more aware of disability and social barriers, of their own biases, and of how to design a more universally accessible world.


Participants in the course were 17 (8 male, 9 female) upper-division undergraduate students at a public university in the northwest United States from a wide variety of majors (psychology, biology, graphic design, health science, visual arts, communication, criminal justice, English, and gaming and mobile media). The blind community members who collaborated with the students for their 3D printed designs were recruited by word of mouth via employees at the state's Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired and the student groups met with community members at the Commission offices. Blind guest experts, speakers, and panelists that visited class included employees from the state Commission (including those with expertise on orientation and mobility, teaching activities of daily living, and advocacy experience) as well as an employee of the campus educational access center (who has worked with a great many visually impaired college students and is himself blind).

All aspects of the study were approved by the university's institutional review board. The study involved a pre- and post-semester survey and participation was completely optional for the students: the instructor was not informed of student participation until after the semester had ended, and an unrelated faculty member administered informed consent. The pre-semester survey was sent out prior to the first day of class, while the post-semester survey was sent out after instruction had ended for the semester. The community member collaborators heard the informed consent information and then consented using a signature guide.

The primary measure of interest was the Social Responsibility about Blindness Scale (SRBS), a psychometrically validated 20-item measure of attitudes toward blindness (Bell & Silverman, 2011; Rowland & Bell, 2012). Example statements include "Blindness is just a normal characteristic like being tall or short" and "It is irresponsible of blind people to have children." A previous study of 497 college students taking the SRBS found adequate internal validity, Cronbach's α = .76 (Rowland & Bell, 2012). Following the SRBS, students were also asked a series of questions (Table 1) developed by Teach Access, a non-profit accessibility collaboration between higher education and industry ( Students also consented to their coursework being used for this study, and we include some written excerpts below.

All 17 students consented to participate, though one did not finish the pre-semester SRBS and one failed to submit any post-semester data; these students (both female) were removed from the relevant analyses. Data were analyzed using SPSS version 25. Given the clearly directional hypothesis of our primary planned comparison (that SRBS scores would be higher—less biased—after the intervention), we used a one-tailed paired t-test. Since the supplementary questions (Table 1) were not part of a psychometrically validated scale, they were analyzed individually using a Wilcoxon matched-pairs signed-rank test, with a conservative Bonferroni correction applied to address the issue of multiple comparisons.


SRBS scores can range from 20-100, with higher scores representing more positive attitudes about blindness and lower numbers representing more biased attitudes. We found that SRBS scores were higher (more positive attitude) at the end of the semester (M = 69.2, SD = 9.1) than the beginning of the semester (M = 64.4, SD = 6.8), paired t(14) = 2.04, p = .030, which corresponds to an effect size of Cohen's d = 0.53.

Table 1 provides the pre- and post-semester median scores from the supplemental questions asked following the SRBS. Students ended the semester significantly more confident in defining accessibility (p = .004), giving examples of inclusive/universal design (p = .001), giving examples of assistive technology (p = .003), and explaining guidelines for accessible design (p = .004). The proportion of students who reported having ever used assistive technology like a screen reader increased significantly from 12.5% to 81.3% (McNemar's X2(1) = 7.692, p = 0.006).

In the open-ended responses students gave for late-semester assignments, a common theme seemed to be students emphasizing the importance of contact, of directly working with and getting input from blind users of products or processes. For example:

  • "Talk to blind/visually impaired users themselves. Hear from the ones it would affect, impact, and who would benefit from a design."
  • "Be willing to think completely outside yourself and if possible have someone from the community assist. The more people from the target community the better."
  • "Get info from actual BVI people."
  • "You must test your product with the people you want to use it."
  • "Take a lot of time to determine that the product or process that you are creating is going to benefit the target audience. Not everything that sounds great will be helpful."
  • "Talk and interview someone about being blind or visually impaired to get some insight."
  • "Do targeted user research to get the best, most relevant feedback. Don't assume to know problems."
  • The biggest impact came from "[a]ctually sitting down with blind users and talking about blindness in day to day life."

Another common theme in student reflection assignments was comments about how the course would affect their behavior in their future career and personal life. For example:

  • "What we’ve learned in this course & the interactions we've had with individuals who really do benefit from accessible design resonates with me now & makes me more consciously aware of how designs/products could improve to serve the needs of more people."
  • "My design work will now be filtered through accessibility guidelines/standards."
  • "Being more considerate of the factors associated with new technologies and trying my best to help others think about accessible design."
  • "I will be more mindful of the accessibility shortcomings of my environment and the ways they might be improved."
  • "I now understand that things in our world need to be universally designed for everyone to use. We don't know what disabilities someone may have so we need to make it right for everyone."


This study provides preliminary evidence that a course like this can change attitudes toward blindness and visual impairment. Overall attitudes (as measured by the SRBS) improved with what would generally be considered a medium effect size (Sawilowsky, 2009). Confidence related to accessible technology and design also improved significantly. However, the small sample size—due to limitations of enrollment—means these results should certainly be considered exploratory and further work with larger sample sizes should confirm these analyses.

A previous non-intervention study of 497 sighted undergraduate college students found a mean SRBS score of 56.2, which is noticeably lower than both the pre- and the post-course SRBS scores in the present study (Rowland & Bell, 2012). There are many possible reasons for this difference. For example, our sample was self-selected (random assignment to university courses is, obviously, not feasible in most scenarios), so perhaps students with more positive attitudes toward blindness were more likely to sign up for such a course. Alternately, general attitudes may have changed in the intervening seven years between the two studies or attitudes may differ by geographic location and other institutional characteristics. Regardless, we certainly did not run into a ceiling effect since student attitudes in the present study still increased significantly above their baseline.

Given the small and self-selected sample, generalizability of the current findings is unknown until more research is done. One way to get a larger and less self-selected sample would be to perform a much smaller intervention within courses unrelated to the topic. For example, rather than an entire semester of hands-on experience, learning, and contact for the student participants, researchers could find instructors of general college courses willing to allow a one-hour intervention in their classroom, or researchers could use a general pool of student research volunteers as is common for general psychology experiments.

However, these small scale interventions—allowing larger sample sizes and tighter experimental control like randomization—may not have the desired impact of a large-scale intervention like the current study. For example, our lab (unpublished) has tried short-term interventions on SRBS attitudes like randomizing a large sample of college students to view different media portrayals of blind individuals (e.g., a victim portrayal, an inspirational porn portrayal, an everyday portrayal using assistive technology, and a control condition) and we found no significant change in attitudes.

Future research on small-scale, short-term interventions certainly will be valuable and could attempt to disentangle which elements of an experience like this are most important for changing student attitudes. For example, to isolate a test of contact theory more specifically, experiment participants could be randomly assigned to either a traditional educational intervention without contact or to an intervention with contact. Krahe & Altwasser (2006) did something close to this design over a two-session, three-hour total intervention; however, (1) they measured attitudes toward physical disability, not blindness, (2) they also involved elements of disability simulation in the relevant condition rather than just contact, and (3) the effect they found is hard to interpret since the group assigned to the active control condition started with less biased attitudes at baseline.

Given the dearth of clear success for short-term, small-scale interventions in the literature about attitudes toward blindness, it is unknown but possible that large-scale interventions like the present study are more effective. As mentioned in the Introduction, comprehensive interventions that involve multiple strategies such as information provision plus contact tend to be more effective than a single intervention (Horne, 1988; Corrigan & Penn, 1999; Link & Phelan, 2001; Chan et al., 2009). While studies of smaller interventions are very valuable, if more institutions incorporate accessibility into their curriculum and if others replicate and scale up courses like this one, we can begin to gather more detailed and generalizable data about larger interventions like the present study.

Implications for Practitioners and Families

This course can serve as a model for other institutions and for similar educational interventions. Such a course could also be easily scaled up (by simply adding more teams) or adapted, including for use outside of post-secondary education. An educational intervention that changes biased and stereotyped attitudes about blindness and visual impairment promises to have systemic impacts as those students enter their careers and as those changes propagate through social and professional networks (Daly, 2010).

A course like this could likely be a valuable experience to most majors, and in many cases may make them more competitive on the job market (PEAT, 2018). Unfortunately, formal education often involves little or no direct instruction related to disability and accessibility. For example, a survey of computer science faculty across United States higher education found that few taught accessibility in their courses, often reporting a feeling that it is "not in my area" (Shinohara et al., 2018, p. 201). A survey of colleges found less than 3% of engineering and computing course descriptions reference accessibility or disability (Teach Access, 2018). Most software designers and engineers are simply not taught about accessibility in their training (Velasco et al., 2004). University students training to become teachers generally receive inadequate training related to disability and study after study shows that teacher trainees do not feel prepared to meet the needs of students with disabilities (Carroll et al., 2003). This dearth of disability representation in the post-secondary curriculum is especially surprising given that employers are increasingly valuing accessibility skills. For example, a survey of technology sector leaders documented a major gap between the accessibility skills employers seek and what they can find in job candidates, and the demand for accessibility skills is expected to increase (PEAT, 2018).

While not central to the overall goals of the course and current research, the 3D design and 3D printing element would have significant value if scaled up and replicated elsewhere, leading to a much larger collection of accessible educational tactile models as open educational resources (Stone et al., in press).


Supported by The Association for Psychological Science Fund for Teaching and Public Understanding of Psychological Science, The Reader's Digest Partners for Sight Foundation, The New York Community Trust, and members of Teach Access. Thanks to Earl Hoover and the Idaho Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired for the service learning partnership. Thanks to Amy Vecchione, Head of Web and Emerging Technology at Boise State University's Albertsons Library. Additional thanks to participants in the MakerLab and members of the Creative Technologies Association at Boise State University.


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Table 1

Teach Access Questions


Pre / Post Mdn



1. How confident are you that you could give an example of a type of disability?

5 / 5

z = -1.1414

p = 0.157

2. How confident are you that you could define "accessibility" as the term relates to technology and media?

3.5 / 5

z = -2.873

p = 0.004*

3. How confident are you that you could give an example of inclusive or universal design?

3 / 5

z = -3.370

p = 0.001*

4. How confident are you that you could give an example of how accessible technology is used by people with disabilities?

3 / 4

z = -2.699

p = 0.007

5. How confident are you that you could give an example of how assistive technology is used by people with disabilities?

3.5 / 5

z = -.2994

p = 0.003*

6. How confident are you that you could give an example of a technological barrier somebody with a disability might face?

4 / 5

z = -2.373

p = 0.018

7. How confident are you that you could define the purpose of the Americans with Disabilities Act?

3.5 / 3

z = -0.660

p = 0.509

8. How confident are you that you could explain the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) (or other guidelines for accessible design and development)?

1 / 3

z = -2.914^

p = 0.004*

9. How much interest do you have in learning more about designing and developing technologies for and with people with disabilities?

4 / 4

z = -0.905

p = 0.366

10. How much interest do you have in pursuing a job or career in accessible technology?

3 / 3

z = -0.942

p = 0.346

11. How much interest do you have in pursuing research in the development of accessible technologies?

3 / 4

z = -1.408

p = 0.159

12. Have you ever used assistive technology (such as a screen reader for blind or low vision users)? [Y/N]

12.5% / 81.25%



13. One a scale of 1-5, how familiar are you with the accessibility features built into devices (such as smartphones, computers or smart TVs)?

3 / 3

z = -1.540

p = 0.124

Note: For questions 1-8, the scale was: 1 is not at all confident, 5 is extremely confident. For questions 9-11, the scale was: 1 is no interest, 5 is very high interest. * p < 0.0042 (significant with Bonferroni correction for family-wise alpha of 0.05). ^ n = 15 for this question since one student left it blank.

The Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research is copyright (c) 2021 to the National Federation of the Blind.