How Remote Learning is Causing Visual Fatigue in BVI Students and What You Can Do to Help

    As many of our students with low vision are adjusting to online learning, it is becoming more and more apparent that the screen time is causing some eye strain.  Many parents and TVIs are wondering why this is happening.  After all, the student has been using the device all year and not had a problem.  This article will attempt to explain why and provide some possible solutions. 

    Often, students who have low vision experience visual fatigue which can lead to eye strain, headaches, blurred vision, and other symptoms.  This is obviously very uncomfortable for the student, who may not understand why he/she is having difficulty when they never have experienced these symptoms (at least this severely) before. 

    There are many factors that contribute to this problem.  Though the student has likely been utilizing the same device successfully in the school environment and in the evenings to do homework since September, how and when the device is used has probably changed.  For example, many schools are suggesting that students engage in schoolwork at specific times.  If that time is in the morning and lasts for three hours without a break, the student is likely spending too much uninterrupted time in front of a screen.  During the school day, visual tasks are naturally broken up as the student takes visual breaks while participating in instruction.  Examples include listening to the teacher without the need to read or write, engaging in class conversations, moving between classes, taking stretch or bathroom breaks, or other activities that take place in the school environment.  Whether or not it is intentional, the student is taking a break from the visual tasks that might cause visual fatigue.  Likewise, homework in the evening may be broken up by dinner breaks, family time, or other activities that allow the student to have time away from visual tasks. 

    Aside from needing to cram six hours’ worth of education into a three-hour timeframe, the equipment being used may be contributing to the issue.  Though the student’s Chromebook, video magnifier, or iPad may have been working well for him or her while school was in session, it might not meet the needs of the student for longer term use.  The light emitting from the screen may be too much for those who are sensitive to glare and bright lights and the resolution of the screen may not be as clear as units being used in the classroom.  The lighting in the home may be harder to adjust, so the student may be doing schoolwork in a bright area that makes reading the screen more difficult.  The opposite could also be true.  Quite a bit depends on the needs of the student and the environment.

    Lastly, but certainly not least, screen time plays a huge role in entertainment for students while they are spending more and more time in the house  Sure, they can and do play outside, but there is likely limited access to parks or play areas where they can socialize with peers.  Using screens for three hours of education and then attempting to have “fun” while in front of a screen may cause additional visual fatigue. 

    These are by no means the only factors contributing to the students’ challenges, but they are probably the most likely.

    Following are some low tech and high tech solutions for TVIs and parents/caregivers to consider:

    1. Allow the student to break up visually demanding tasks.  The amount of time a student participates in online learning before experiencing symptoms may vary.  Additionally, some days the student may have few visual challenges and the next day, challenges may be more prevalent.  Regardless, providing breaks away from tasks the cause visual fatigue may be helpful.  Ten to fifteen minutes every hour is a common accommodation, but the student may need more or less break time.

    2. Darken the study area and control the amount of light entering it.  A popular method is to use curtains to cut off light sources and turn off overhead lighting.  That may make screens easier to see.  If needed, bring a lamp to provide task lighting that the student can control.  This lamp is relatively inexpensive example of a multipurpose task-lighting solution.

    TaoTronics Dimmable Office Lamp with Five Color Modes

    3. Adjust the brightness of the monitor the student is using.  Many students with light sensitivity prefer a lower brightness setting while others may prefer increased brightness.  Allow your student to experiment.  The method of adjusting the brightness may vary from unit to unit.  Most laptops use the Function Keys along the top of the keyboard to access common settings such as brightness, volume, and mic settings.  If you are using an external monitor, consult your owner’s manual.

    4. If you have a television and computer/laptop that allows HDMI input, consider connecting your student’s laptop to that larger screen TV.  This may be especially helpful when the student needs to see details in a picture, graph, video, or other media that does not appear large enough on the laptop monitor.  If text input is needed, setting a table up near the TV that is displaying the computer content and allowing the student to sit close enough to see may help him or her and ease visual fatigue.  This method may not work for some students who have difficulty keeping attention away from their keyboard while typing or shifting gaze.  It may also require a bit of practice for the student to adjust to this method. 

    5. It is relatively simple to enable accessibility settings for students with low vision.  Examples include turning on reverse contrast, increasing dynamic text size, or increasing screen resolution.  Following are some articles containing information on how to do this on popular computer platforms:

    Make Windows 10 Easier to See

    Make Chromebook Easier to See

    Chromebook Accessibility Extensions

    Change Display and Text Size on your iPad

    Vision Accessibility on your iPad (note that many of the low vision settings are included below VoiceOver descriptions)

    6. Take advantage of apps or programs that allow the student to listen to content rather than visually read it.  It is true that your student may not have needed to use this method before, but the increased reliance on screen based instruction and reading text either in a book using a video magnifier or presented on a laptop screen may make taking this step necessary.  Here are some resources that may help get your student started with accessing audio content:

    Getting started with Bookshare

    Getting started with Learning Ally at Home

    o This website is for families whose districts do not offer Learning Ally subscriptions for their students with print disabilities.  However, many schools have Learning Ally accounts for their students already, so check with your district to see if an account exists)

    Reading text on your screen using Narrator (from PC Mag’s Work from Home Edition, April 28, 2020)

    Speech Settings on an iPad (Enabling Speak Screen, Speak Selectin, etc)

    Hear Text Read Aloud on your Chromebook