What Are Compensatory Skills?

Disability-specific compensatory skills refer to the use of strategies, techniques, and adapted materials that students with visual impairments need to access the general education and common core curricula. These include the specific reading and writing methods of braille, regular print, regular print with optical devices, large print, and voice output technology.

Students who are blind or visually impaired may use one or more of these literacy media depending on the demands of a specific task or situation. Compensatory skill areas also include listening and speaking, study and organization, concept development, and spatial understanding.

Why Teach Compensatory Skills as a Specific Area?

The law has clarified that each child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) must (1) support the child’s involvement and progress in the general curriculum to the fullest extent possible alongside non-disabled peers, and (2) address unique needs arising out of the child’s disability or disabilities.

Arguably, a student who is blind or visually impaired will be unable to make progress in the general curriculum if he or she cannot access the information in that curriculum. In addition, if that student does not have the same level of organization or study skills as academic peers without disabilities, he or she will have difficulty learning, recalling, and locating information.

Finally, students with visual impairments must learn effective listening skills and receive direct instruction in concepts in order to address the unique needs arising from their inability to casually observe the larger environment.

How Do Teachers of Students with Visual Impairments (TVIs) Approach Instruction?

Students with visual impairments cannot access the same books and instructional materials provided to fully sighted children in the classroom. Therefore, teachers of students with visual impairments assess the learning strengths and needs of their students to determine which learning media are the most appropriate and efficient for each. Children with visual impairments must be able to effectively use a variety of strategies and tools to access information, including visual, tactile, and auditory materials. Otherwise, these students will be unable to access the core curriculum and make academic progress.


Many of the techniques and strategies addressed in compensatory skills are typically learned by children without visual disabilities through casual observation or incidental learning.

In the area of organization skills, for example, a child who is fully-sighted might observe classmates writing down assignments in a planner or placing papers into a three-ring-binder. The student with a visual impairment might not see these activities, effectively missing the opportunity to learn specific organization techniques. Therefore, children with visual disabilities need direct instruction in the same types of skills modeled by teachers that are seen, copied, and learned by fully-sighted classmates.

When children with visual impairments are not taught the organization skills best suited for their individual learning strengths and needs, they will have difficulty keeping track of work; resulting in misplaced, late, and incomplete class assignments.

Organization is especially important for people who are unable to casually look around and quickly find objects. Instead, materials must be organized in a consistent manner that allows the student with a visual impairment to locate desired items easily.

Again, because these students cannot casually observe how to organize their belongings and their schedules, they must receive specific instruction in effective organization strategies.

Study Skills

Study skills represent another area of the expanded core curriculum that must be addressed with students who are blind and visually impaired. Many note-taking and studying activities, such as highlighting, underlining, and outlining, are very visual and thus difficult for these students to access effectively. Therefore, they must learn strategies for taking notes in their own learning media.

Teachers of students with visual impairments also teach these students about the visual organization of textbooks: titles, chapter and section headings, sidebars, tables of contents, and indexes. This knowledge empowers students to quickly locate desired information and work at a pace competitive with peers.

Sensory Efficiency

There is a common misconception that students who are blind or visually impaired automatically have superior hearing and listening skills compared to fully sighted peers. This is not always true. Just like any skill, students with visual disabilities must learn to use auditory efficiency skills effectively. Beginning in early childhood, these children learn to associate sounds with meaning. Auditory efficiency skills continue to develop as older children using active and critical listening in classrooms.

Listening skills are especially important for students who are blind or visually impaired, providing them with access to computers and distance learning via screen-reading software as well as audio descriptions of visual information presented in class.

In addition to developing efficient listening skills, children with visual impairments may benefit from learning visual efficiency skills to maximize the use of their remaining vision. This includes techniques such as eccentric viewing, blur interpretation, and the use of optical devices.

Finally, children with visual impairments benefit from refining their use of touch to gain access to environmental information. By honing tactile skills and sensitivity, they improve their braille reading skills and increase their ability to distinguish subtle texture changes and differences. Practice with tactile efficiency enhances a student’s ability to explore and interpret the environment.

Concept Development

Another crucial component of compensatory skills in the expanded core curriculum is concept development. Students who are fully-sighted tend to learn from whole-to-part, meaning that they can see the big picture and then examine details. However, many students who are blind or visually impaired must learn from part-to-whole, as they only experience discrete parts of an object, one at a time, and then piece those parts together. Without instruction in appropriate systematic search strategies, random or unsystematic exploration results in an incomplete understanding of concepts.

Objects that are impossible to touch, i.e. cellular structures, fire, or space must also be taught to children with visual impairments in safe and accessible ways. For example, students who are fully-sighted typically learn about cellular structures and anatomy by using microscopes and looking at textbook illustrations. However, unless these concepts are explained using real objects, concrete models, or tactile graphics, a student who is blind or visually impaired will have difficulty accessing this information. Therefore, these students must learn about concepts through direct experiences, real objects, models, tactile graphics, reading, and discussion using an organized process of systematic exploration.

Spatial Understanding

Spatial understanding refers to basic concepts such as on, behind, underneath, in, and out. This is another important instructional area for students who are blind or visually impaired. These concepts should be taught early to children with visual disabilities to provide critical foundational knowledge for later experiences. Students who have a solid understanding of spatial concepts and how objects in the environment are related to their own bodies will be able to follow directions and travel independently in home, school, and playground environments. For older students, these foundational concepts empower safe and independent community travel.

Spatial understanding is also critical for classroom tasks in all areas of the common core curricula, from reading fundamentals of left to right and top to bottom, to math and science use of spatial and linear equations, arrays, grids, geometry, tables, graphs, and charts used to display data. In addition, geography, social studies, and history require the use of maps, timelines, and graphical displays of information.

How Can We Support Instruction in Compensatory Skills in Schools?

Because of the unique ways students with visual disabilities learn concepts and skills, their instruction must be designed and implemented by fully qualified professionals who are knowledgeable about disability-specific strategies and curriculum adaptations for these students. Therefore, teachers of students with visual impairments must receive thorough training in the use of appropriate assessments, identification of effective learning media, and provision of direct instruction in disability-specific compensatory skills.

Teachers of students with visual impairments (TVI) also need to receive ongoing training in new materials and best practices in all instructional areas. Finally, in order for these students to learn to use compensatory skills effectively and receive the same education as their sighted peers, TVI caseloads and district vision programs must allow sufficient time and resources to provide appropriate and meaningful instruction.