Educational Issues and Resources
Navigating Higher Education with Visual Disabilities
Many years ago, I left the cozy confines of my suburban high school for the rough-and-tumble world of university life in a Midwestern college town. Before classes started, I attended a summer orientation for freshmen to learn the nuances of higher education. Truth be told, I did learn a lot about how to register for classes, which science professors were most popular with university athletes, and how to select the dorm with the best meal plan. At the time, I had not yet learned about my vision loss and therefore did not inquire about services for students with disabilities. For those of you out there who are about to embark on this magical journey yourselves next month, I would like to offer you this informational guide on how to navigate the waters. You might be saying to yourself, "Wait a second; he just said he didn't even know he had vision loss when he went to college! Who does he think he is?" In January of this year, I enrolled in the Executive Masters of Business Administration program at San Francisco State University. As far as the vision loss--well, let's just say there's no controversy these days, and I make regular use of the office for students with disabilities.
Higher Education and Your Rights
In 1973, the U.S. Congress enacted Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which in essence provided people with disabilities the same access to postsecondary education as any other person. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the law reads "No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States … shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance." Title 2 of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act expanded the scope of the law to include private institutions, including colleges, universities, and postsecondary vocational education institutions. Both of these laws provide students with disabilities equal access to higher education. Not only are institutions prohibited from discriminating against people with disabilities, they are required to furnish appropriate aides and to make accommodations to provide equal access.
Unlike your educational experience in kindergarten through 12th grade, you should be prepared to be your own best advocate or to enlist the assistance of family and friends to advocate with you. One difference you will notice right away is that you will probably be asked to prove that you have a qualifying disability that is protected by these laws. This might be a form that needs to be completed and signed by a medical doctor, such as an ophthalmologist or low-vision specialist. If you don't have a qualifying disability or cannot have a medical professional confirm your disability, you may not be able to take advantage of the office for students with disabilities, but there are still plenty of options out there to improve your learning experience. In my case, the university had just opened a new campus where the business school classes met, but there was no office for students with disabilities there. I worked with the office to make sure they would be able to furnish me with the necessary accommodations so that I could participate with my classmates. This included access to testing facilities and delivering accessible reading materials as it was not convenient for me to visit the main campus for tests or to pick up materials myself.
If you have already used assistive technology to get to this point, you may already be familiar with many of the resources that are available to you. This includes screen-reading software, screen-magnification software, video magnifiers, notetakers, braille displays, assistive listening devices, and digital book players. If you do not already own assistive technology, your school might be able to provide you with equipment that you may use while you are a student. However, it is important to remember that it is your responsibility to decide which technology will best meet your needs. One great resource is AccessWorld, but of course, you already knew that. Additionally, computer labs and libraries on campus may have assistive technology installed on their machines. Schools also provide notetakers for students unable to take notes in class, and interpreters for people with hearing loss.
Many of your learning materials, such as textbooks and handouts, may be converted to a format that you request, such as large print, accessible PDF, Word document, Braille, or MP3. It is really important to remember that you are in school to concentrate on learning and not to get bogged down in dealing with your technology requirements. During my first semester, I forgot that my portable book reader was not able to read the PDF files for the chapters of my marketing textbooks. For each chapter, I used the "save as text" feature to create text files and read them on my way to and from school on the train. This was one extra step that cost me quite a bit of time as the textbooks had a lot of chapters. When I requested my books for the second semester, I chose a file format other than PDF for that reason. Once you find something that works for you, it is probably best to stick with it. It might also be a good idea to talk to other students to find out what is working well for them. Since the office for students with disabilities is dealing with a large number of students, all of whom are on tight schedules, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to be prepared and even a bit flexible. If you already have access to your professors' reading lists, it is a good idea to notify your counselor so they can get started on preparing your materials. The office may only be able to provide the first couple weeks' worth of reading, but rest assured they'll supply the text for the balance of the class.
Another option for class reading is to use a reader--an actual human being who can read aloud your textbooks. I know, it seems so old fashioned in today's world full of technology. However, I feel for certain subjects, especially those with charts, graphs, or formulas, you might fare better if somebody is able to describe the key points of the text. In my experience so far, textbooks in courses such as accounting and statistics have not been easy to read with digital files and make more sense when read by another person who can describe the formulas, charts, and graphs in the context of the rest of the chapter.
Unfortunately, there is some bad news when it comes to the accessibility of the websites that accompany many textbooks. Soon you will discover that many textbook companies have added additional videos, audio content, quizzes, practice problems, and study materials online for students to use in addition to their textbooks. It has been my experience that the websites and the supplemental materials are not very accessible. One suggestion is to ask the office for students with disabilities to gather the content and try to make it accessible, but this may not always be possible. For my classes, I was not able to use all of the materials, but I did work with some classmates together at the library. If you find inaccessible materials online, I suggest you contact the textbook company and let them know you are unable to use the site.
Laptop or Notetaker
This is not an easy question to answer and I'll probably receive dozens of angry letters from AccessWorld readers who think I am crazy. I started using screenreaders and laptop computers well before I had ever picked up my first notetaker. For hours and hours, I struggled to learn all the hot keys and shortcuts to use with my screenreader and Microsoft Word, Excel, and Outlook. Because I am studying business, I use Excel every day and it is important to be able to share documents with my classmates. Additionally, having a screen for my sighted colleagues comes in handy, especially if we are working on a group project. All that being said, most laptops take at least a minute or longer to boot up and they have a pretty lousy battery life compared to notetakers.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, notetakers have some great bells and whistles, such as media players, Daisy reading software, notepads, address books, calendars, and calculators. Usually, notetakers boot up instantly and it makes it easy to get to work right away. It is also really convenient to remove the SD or compact flash memory card to transfer files between multiple machines using a card reader. Many notetakers and digital book players include audio recorders and built-in internal microphones that can be used for recording class lectures. It is probably a good idea to ask for the professor's permission before you start recording to avoid an uncomfortable situation. Some professors might be wary of students posting recordings on YouTube, Facebook, or other websites.
Regardless of which direction you choose, always make sure to carry your power adaptor and a USB flash drive for easy transfer of files. Don't forget, your homework this summer before you arrive on campus is to learn how to use your assistive technology with popular software packages such as Microsoft Office. You will be expected to submit assignments and papers either as typed documents or electronic files. Go online and practice your keyboarding skills with one of the typing tutor websites so that you can type quickly during class. I can say without hesitation that all of your classmates will be familiar with using their computers and you'll be able to join in right away if you too are up to speed with technology.
The Campus Experience
Many schools will provide you with a mobility instructor to show you the campus before classes if you ask for this service. Don't think for a second that you should just wing it. Most schools are much larger than your high school campus and usually there are multiple classroom buildings, administrative offices, libraries, dormitories, and recreational facilities. In my experience, campuses are not necessarily planned out in an easy-to-follow grid, so even with orientation, it will probably take a few weeks for you to become very comfortable. Make sure you inquire about the safest routes through school, the location of emergency telephones, and the schedules of campus shuttle services. If you are using a dog guide or plan to have one by the time you start school, you will want to inquire about ideal locations for relieving your dog. Even if you are not using a dog guide, many schools require first-year students to live on campus, so it is a good idea to speak with someone from the housing department to discuss dormitory options.
In the Classroom
One thing that has changed dramatically at schools across the country since I completed my undergraduate degree is the heavy use of online learning environments. You might have professors who post all of their assignments online and expect their students to check in regularly for updates and to submit homework. You should be prepared to go online to download homework and reading assignments. Additionally, your professor will likely post your grades online. The accessibility of these environments will probably vary greatly depending on your school. At San Francisco State University, I am able to log onto iLearn to read class syllabi, download documents, and most significantly, find out the dates of spring break in an accessible environment that works well with my screen-reading software. It is very important for you to communicate with both the professor and the office for students with disabilities to ensure that your professor is posting accessible learning materials. Most schools will offer assistance to professors who are unfamiliar with creating accessible documents.
Because you will probably communicate with your professors and classmates via e-mail, you'll want to know your options. In my experience, many Web-based e-mail programs are not optimized for accessibility and they may be very difficult to use with assistive technology. As this article goes to print, my school has migrated to Microsoft Live mail, but I have not had enough time to judge how well it works with assistive technology. If your school allows students to access e-mail using POP3 or IMAP clients such as Microsoft Outlook or Apple Mail, this could be an option. Additionally, notetakers such as Braille Note, Braille Sense, Pacmate, and the Braille Plus/Levelstar Icon have e-mail clients. I have even heard of students forwarding their school e-mail to their Gmail, Hotmail, or Yahoo accounts.
Finally, there is no shortage of PowerPoint presentations in the college classroom and this is unlikely to bring smiles to the faces of students using assistive technology. PowerPoint presentations are not inherently inaccessible, but if the person creating the slides is not familiar with accessibility, they are liable to prevent assistive technology from accessing the content. There are two alternatives for working with this type of technology. The first alternative is to make sure the professor provides a copy to the office for students with disabilities to be converted to an accessible version so you can follow along during class. The second option is using Serotek's Accessible Event software, which allows you to follow along remotely while your professor goes through the slideshow. You can use this software with your screenreader, Braille display, or make the print larger with screen-magnification software. If you are going to be presenting in class, it is a good idea to become familiar with the techniques so you do not exclude anyone from your presentation. Check with your school's office for students with disabilities for helpful hints for creating accessible documents.
In addition to having the office for students with disabilities scan your books or request them from the book publisher, I wanted to provide additional resources for finding reading materials on the Internet. Bookshare is a Web-based library that specializes in providing digital files of books and text books. Students can download these files and use a portable device or their personal computer to read them with speech. Bookshare is available to all students with print disabilities. The Internet Archive is a treasure trove of archived digital files, including large book and music collections. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped is a division of the U.S. Library of Congress charged with providing accessible content to people with print disabilities. Through a network of lending libraries, eligible patrons may request various types of content in braille or audio format, including new digital files that use real human voices and allow readers to navigate by various levels. Project Gutenberg is an online depository of more than 30,000 titles that can be read on a variety of devices. For those students who prefer human readers to synthesized speech, Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic offers nearly 60,000 titles for students, including textbooks. If you are having a difficult time finding your books, you may want to try commercial book sites that offer audio, electronic books, and large-print copies, such as Amazon, Audible, or Read How You Want. Although I have not had the chance to sit down and play with any electronic book readers, such as the Amazon Kindle 2, Apple iPad, or Sony Reader, readers might find that these devices may meet their needs. Of the three mentioned, only the Apple iPad has a screenreader for navigating the device and all three have various controls for adjusting font size and color contrast, but proceed with caution. You can read more about the accessibility of e-book readers in Darren Burton's AccessWorld
What Else You Can Do
Going to a college or other institution of higher learning is a huge step toward independence, and it is really important for individuals to recognize that being independent does not mean doing everything alone. The fact of the matter is that you are going to need the support of your instructors and classmates to pursue your education. It would be really naive of me to think that all students with vision loss are going to be as open and honest as I am advocating, but I do believe it is important to at least consider some of your options. It may not be cool to sit in the front of the class because you cannot see the white board or to use a video magnifier in front of the other students, but remember that you are supposed to be in school to learn and not to win a popularity contest.
I strongly encourage you to sit in the front row, type on your braille notetaker, and ask your instructors to describe the diagram or formula they have written on the white board. Chances are, there will not be a lot of students who have had much experience socializing with people with vision loss. This won't be anything new to you, but I feel that it is important for you to recognize the importance of communicating with your peers. This is a perfect opportunity for you to educate people about vision loss. When I stood up for the first time to introduce myself to my classmates, I asked everyone to introduce themselves to me by letting me know their name and invited everyone to gather around my laptop so I could give them a screenreader demonstration on the Internet. This really made my classmates feel comfortable around me and they asked me all kinds of questions about vision loss and accessing technology.
Like many of your friends from high school, you may be leaving your hometown to attend college. This might be the first time you are going to be away from your family and friends for such a long period of time. Never fear, social websites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Skype are here. These interactive websites will give you plenty of opportunities to keep in touch with real-time chat, status updates, and of course photos and videos. Plus, all the new people you meet are probably already using these sites, so it's a good idea to brush up over the summer and make sure you are familiar using them. If you are looking to get started with an internship right away, you may want to create a professional profile on LinkedIn and start building your resume. This is the world's largest social networking site dedicated to professionals, and it will help you to develop some of the skills you'll need after school.
Four More Years!
If you are reading this article as you prepare to become a first-year student, get ready to have the time of your life. Higher education is much different than high school. Finally, you'll be able to select your own classes and study subjects that grab your attention. More than likely, you will meet people from all walks of life and maybe even someone from another country. Campus clubs and organizations try to expose students to a variety of cultural viewpoints and you might find yourself completely out of your comfort zone. I encourage you to embrace the experience or learn from it and try something different next time. This is a chance to grow and develop as a person and contribute to the world around you. All of the extra time you spend learning about assistive technology and services offered by the office for students with disabilities will enhance your experience in the long run. Challenge yourself and challenge those around you to realize that vision loss will not prevent you from reaching your goal of an education and a place in society.
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