Authors, Stacy Kelly and Gaylen Kapperman

Northern Illinois University Visual Disabilities Program

Parents have the final decision regarding the quality of education which their child receives. Down through the decades, one major problem that has persisted is that youngsters who are blind or visually impaired have not been afforded meaningful sex-education instruction (Kelly, 2014).  This article contains information on how parents can make certain that this does not happen in their child’s case.

The American Printing House for the Blind has published a resource for teachers and administrators to use in providing high quality instruction in sex education for students who are blind or visually impaired. The title of the book is Health Education for Students With Visual Impairments: A Guidebook for Teachers (Wild, T., Kelly, S. M., Kapperman, G., Ilic, S., & Brewer, S., 2019).  This resource contains a chapter on sex education by Drs. Stacy Kelly and Gaylen Kapperman. The authors provide detailed instructions on methods to ensure that sex-education content provided to students and youth with visual impairments is both accessible and meaningful.

One major challenge is making certain that students who are blind or severely visually impaired have equal access to the information during sex-education instruction.  The vast majority of instructional materials used in sex education use pictures as the primary means of teaching human anatomy. In the case of students who are blind or severely visually impaired, limiting resources to standard two-dimensional pictures in textbooks creates a barrier to learning. In order to make certain that students who are blind comprehend the meaning of the pictures; the pictures must be put into a form which the student can understand.  While people, including some teachers, mistakenly believe that merely describing the images verbally is enough for people with visual impairments to understand pictures.  This isn’t the case.  We know that when a picture is verbally described to a person who is blind and then the person who is blind is shown several objects which resemble the picture, and only one of the objects is actually the object being shown, the person who is blind will struggle to pick the right object consistently when using their sense of touch and attempting to follow the description of the object.

To overcome the inaccessibility of two-dimensional pictures, we recommend providing accurately portrayed three-dimensional objects that emulate the figure shown in the picture. Unfortunately, in many cases, teachers mistakenly believe that if they simply use raised lines to outline the object shown in the picture then the child who is blind will be able to fully understand its configuration.  This technique is faulty. One cannot portray a three-dimensional object in raised line form in such a fashion that persons who are blind can understand it.  While three-dimensional objects presented in raised lines can be accurately understood by those who have sight, the same is not true for persons using their fingers to examine the raised lines. This is because rendering three-dimensional objects using lines on a two-dimensional plane, a flat surface, is completely a visual concept. The use of vision and subtle visual cues like perspective, shading, and relative size all combine to enable sighted people to view two-dimensional pictures of three-dimensional object accurately.  The sense of touch cannot be used to interpret all of those visual supports representing a three-dimensional object because the different tactile graphics would overlap each other making the line-drawing unreadable. In other words, a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional object is a completely visual concept that does not lend itself to interpretation by touch.  Unfortunately, many sighted individuals do not comprehend this concept.

The misconception described above results in inadequate instructional methods in sex education for blind students.  An all too common approach for students with visual impairments who are included in the school’s sex-education program is that pictures may be described verbally for them. In other cases, the pictures of, for example, sexually-related anatomy, may be portrayed in raised line form. Both approaches are completely inadequate. To facilitate the process by which students who are blind can actually benefit from their participation in sex-education instruction, they must be provided with the opportunity to examine realistic models of these human organs.  In many cases, unfortunately, teachers and/or administrators are reluctant to use realistic models of the various reproductive anatomical structures because of cultural taboos. They are reluctant to provide the youngsters with the accurate three-dimensional models because they may fear that the use of realistic models is improper. In these cases, parents can insist that appropriate methods are used to make sure that their children receive the same quality of instruction in sex education and be provided with access to the same information as their sighted peers so they will be empowered to make fact-informed decisions about their own reproductive health and safety choices.

As a parent, you can ensure that your child receives equal access to sex-education instruction by bringing this issue to the attention of teachers and administrators in Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings. Of course, the discussion of this issue does not have to be limited to official IEP meetings. Parents can make this request of the educational team at any time.  Parents can also make their teacher of students with visual impairments and/or educational team aware of resources to support quality health education for students with visual impairments.

Here is a summary of some of the major points made in the manual:

  • Three-dimensional models should be used to depict important concepts included in sex-education instruction.
  • When teachers use three-dimensional models to pre-teach human reproductive health content, they should do so in a separate room away from other students and with a second adult present in the room when the pre-teaching takes place.  The adults should be people the students know, trust, and are comfortable with.
  • The pre-instruction should occur before the regular sex-education teacher holds class in order for the student who is visually impaired to understand the concepts that the regular sex-education teacher intends to present in class.
  • Students and youth who are visually impaired should never be asked to examine the models in the presence of their sighted peers.
  • In the case of students with low vision, they should be given the opportunity to view videos or other graphical information that will be presented in class ahead of time.
  • Students and youth with visual impairments should never be asked to sit close to the screen or in any way made to look different in the presence of their sighted peers.

In closing, parents can ensure that their children with visual impairments are afforded the same opportunities to benefit from age-appropriate sex education that being provided for their sighted peers. It goes without saying that this area of health education is extremely important for many reasons.

Providing students and youth with visual impairments a quality education that includes the tools and resources to fully understand the details of human reproductive health is the only way we can empower them to make informed decisions about their health, their safety, and their own reproductive decision when they are adults.  Following the recommendations described above, parents can make sure that their youngsters are as well prepared as possible with the knowledge that is of utmost importance in this vital area.


Kelly, S. M. (2014). Guest editor. Forty years in the making: Special issue on sex education.

Division on Visual Impairments Quarterly, 59(2), 1-70.

Wild, T., Kelly, S. M., Kapperman, G., Ilic, S., & Brewer, S. (2019). Health Education for Students with Visual Impairments: A Guidebook for Teachers. Louisville, KY: American Printing House for the Blind.