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Students with low vision feel more socially excluded at school than their peers with blindness or their sighted peers, new research shows.

A study led by psychologists from the University of Birmingham examined the influences of social inclusion on self-esteem and academic inclusion – which encompasses both classroom participation and academic performance.

They found that a sense of belonging at school had a significant influence on students’ self-esteem, while forming social relationships with close friends was important for academic inclusion. Students who were blind or those who had no vision impairment were likely to have a higher sense of belonging than those with low vision, the researchers found.

Lead researcher, Dr Ifigeneia Manitsa, said: “Adolescence is a challenging time for young people as they navigate cognitive, emotional and biological changes, while also seeking to develop their personal and social identity and the challenges are even greater for adolescents with vision impairment. Our findings offer some useful insights into the social inclusion of this student population that has been underrepresented in previous research and practice.

“It’s important to note that this population has diverse and complex needs and there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. We need to develop innovative, creative and evidence-based interventions to support both the socio-emotional and academic pathways of students with vision impairment.”

....the challenges are even greater for adolescents with vision impairment.

Dr Ifigeneia Manitsa

The research, published in the British Journal of Visual Impairment, included two studies, focused on around 40 adolescents. The students had sight impairment or severe sight impairment and just under half the participants had no vision impairments at all. The participants came from a mixture of mainstream schools, mainstream schools with special provision for students with vision impairment and special schools.

Sense of belonging

Participants completed a series of interviews and questionnaires, focusing on self-esteem, school belonging, and social relationships developed at school.

In the first study, the researchers found significant differences in the sense of belonging among the three groups, but students with severe vision impairment had higher belonging scores than those with less severe vision impairment. This could be connected with the additional support they may receive from teachers and support staff, or they may have come to terms with their disability to a greater extent, with a positive impact on their feelings of belonging and acceptance.

The findings in the second study showed links between the negative aspects of relationships with closest friends and academic inclusion. Experiences such as criticism, antagonism or bullying can affect classroom participation, with students who are visually impaired valuing acceptance, in particular, in their friendships.

The researchers also concluded that adolescents with vision impairment and their sighted peers may be more alike than different in their socio-emotional needs and traits, and in the social relationships that they formed. This could be because of the social factors, independent of vision, which affect social inclusion such as parental and habilitation support.