Educational Issues and Resources
Educational Resources and Tips from AFB's Information and Referral Center
The American Foundation for the Blind's Information and Referral Center receives over 250 inquiries every month related to vision loss. Tara Annis, AFB's information and referral specialist, answers these inquiries, which come from people with visual impairments, their family and friends, teachers, social workers, medical and rehabilitation professionals, employers, high school and college students conducting research, and the general public.
The questions cover a broad range of topics, including locating services for people who are blind or visually impaired, assistive technology and daily living products, assisting parents of visually impaired children, books in alternative formats, and assisting seniors who are losing vision as they age.
Tara has a wealth of experience in the field of vision loss, due in part to the fact she has been legally blind her entire life. When she was younger, her visual acuity was around 20/200 to 20/400, and she was considered to have low vision. At that time, she used her limited vision and magnification aids to accomplish tasks. As her vision decreased during high school, she learned non-visual techniques, such as braille and how to use a screenreader.
Tara graduated from Marshall University in 2006 with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology. During her college years, she was employed by the Department of Chemistry's Computing Center as an online course designer and traveled for a summer internship at the University of Rochester to work in a genomics lab, studying how diabetes affected the activity of specific genes.
Since her hiring by AFB, Tara has learned even more about assistive technology and has aided AccessWorld authors by helping to test the accessibility of cell phones, notetakers, and GPS software for cell phones.
Because of her broad knowledge and experience, I asked Tara to pull together a list of her most frequently asked questions (FAQs) related to the pursuit of higher education. She agreed, saying, "I would love to share my expertise and knowledge of available resources with as many visually impaired students as possible in the hope they can learn how to adapt their education to meet their unique situation." Although the information Tara provided is geared toward high school and college students, parents, teachers, administrators, and rehabilitation counselors will benefit from the material as well.
FAQs from the Desk of AFB's Information and Referral Specialist
Question: What should I tell my instructors about my visual impairment?
Answer: It is important to speak with your instructors as soon as you know you are going to be in their class. Many students with vision loss fear speaking to their instructors, worrying he or she will not believe they can complete the course work due to ignorance about the capabilities of people with vision loss.
Try to schedule meetings with all of your instructors as soon as possible. It is best if you talk about your vision loss openly and honestly. Instructors may fear asking questions, not wanting to offend you. As a student, you have to be proactive, explaining how you accomplish tasks. It may be beneficial to bring your assistive technology and adaptive products to this meeting, explaining how these devices will help you. For example, you could say something to the effect of, "This is my laptop with screen-magnification software, and this is an electronic magnifier. When I place the textbook under the camera, all of the material is enlarged. I have some usable vision, so I am able to read the textbook, complete written work, and view the syllabus using this equipment. Using my laptop's screen magnification software, I am able to write term papers and use the Internet to conduct research. I wanted to show you this equipment in order to assure you I can handle the material in this class and I am serious about doing well."
You could also direct your instructor to AFB's website and to other websites on vision loss if he or she would like further information. You should then ask for an overview of the class structure. Will he or she write on the board or use an overhead projector? Will he or she use PowerPoint slides or hand out a good deal of printed material? Will there be in-class assignments or pop quizzes? What is the structure of tests? Will there be off-campus field trips? Knowing answers to these types of questions will help you to better prepare for the class.
Question: What types of services does a Disabled Student Services (DSS) office offer?
Answer: Most colleges have a DSS office, which can vary from school to school in the scope of services offered. The DSS office may offer people to assist with taking notes in class, personal readers, proctors for tests, or someone to assist you in a science lab. However, personal assistants are sometimes in short supply or are not skilled in the material covered in your particular class. This is especially true for subjects such as music, science, math, and higher levels of every subject, where technical terms are commonplace.
The DSS office may also have some assistive technology for loan, such as braille notetakers or video magnifiers. The DSS office can also assist with legal matters, such as if a student is experiencing discrimination. They may also be able to transcribe textbooks into large print or braille, or make tactile diagrams.
In addition to the DSS office, many college departments have hired graduate or teaching assistants who offer student support as part of their job description. You may also want to check with your school's tutoring center. Many tutors are willing to serve as a reader rather than as an actual tutor.
You may choose to find someone on your own and pay for their services. Sometimes the vocational rehabilitation department in your state will give you a stipend for readers. You can advertise for help in the school newspaper, at the career services center, and on bulletin boards in dorms and other places on campus. You may also want to seek help from volunteer groups, such as local places of worship, the local Lion's Club, women's groups, and campus service fraternities.
Question: Where can I get textbooks in alternate formats?
American Printing House for the Blind offers the Louis Database, where you can search for agencies that carry your textbooks in alternate formats. Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic offers textbooks from preschool to the doctoral level. You can get them on audio cassette or the Daisy format, which works with Daisy audio book players.
The Bookshare website offers textbooks for primary, secondary, undergraduate, and post-graduate study. Recently, Bookshare began offering students with documented legal blindness free access to its collection, waiving the usual $150 fee.
Project Gutenberg offers a smaller collection of books, mostly classics, which could come in handy for students taking a literature or classics class.
Many works of literature, especially classic short stories and poems, can be found using a search engine. While in college, I was able to locate online versions of pieces such as "The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost, and "To Build a Fire" by Jack London.
The Library of Congress is another great place to search for novels and poetry for your English classes. You can find audio cassettes, braille-ready electronic files, and digital audio versions of the works you need.
You can also purchase the print copy of a textbook, and scan them yourself using optical character recognition software, such as Openbook or Kurzweil. Even if you cannot locate a particular textbook, check for earlier editions; usually the changes from edition to edition are minimal.
You can even order a completely different textbook on the same subject. I have done this for Physics classes as most general physics books cover the same topics. I could look up something such as "calculating velocity" and learn the same material as my classmates. I have even searched the Internet for topics covered in my textbooks, such as locating boiling and melting points for chemical compounds.
You could also contact the book's publisher and request an electronic version, which, by law, the publisher should send you. This process, however, can be time consuming as you sometimes must verify your disability. So, attempt to find the names of textbooks you will be using during the upcoming school tern as early as possible.
Question: How do I take notes in class?
Answer: Several methods may be employed. You may choose to use a personal notetaker employed by the DSS office or ask a classmate to take notes for you. You could also use a laptop or electronic notetaker. Students with low vision can use a portable video magnifier. You could use 20/20 pens, which create a bold line. You could also try using bold or raised-line paper. Another method is using an audio recorder, either a separate piece of hardware, or one that is built into your laptop or electronic notetaker.
Question: How do I complete in-class work, such as pop quizzes or worksheets?
Answer: You can handle in-class work in several ways. If the assignment or quiz is short, you can stay after class and have the instructor read it to you. The instructor may allow you to use an electronic version on your laptop or notetaker. Be sure to bring your portable video magnifier to class if you have enough usable vision to take assignments and quizzes in this manner. Some people with vision loss, even though they cannot read print, learn the print alphabet, allowing them to use raised-line paper for short assignments. I've done this for short multiple-choice quizzes.
Question: How do I handle taking tests?
Answer: You could contact the DSS office and use one of the office's personal readers. Some DSS offices will transcribe tests into braille, convert them to electronic format, or reproduce them in large print. Another option is using a video magnifier if you have enough usable vision. Many low-vision students have difficulty reading Scantron sheets, and choose to write directly on the test itself or on a separate sheet of paper. Some instructors will give a visually impaired student the test on a USB drive or via e-mail, allowing him or her to use a laptop or notetaker to answer the questions. This is especially handy for essay questions, which can be difficult to answer by dictating to a proctor or writing under a video magnifier.
Question: What about classes of a more visual nature, such as those in the fields of science, engineering, and math?
Answer: Several agencies have created adapted products for the science, technology, engineering, and math fields, including braille and large-print periodic tables of the elements; raised-line drawings of the human body systems; talking and large-font calculators; raised- and bold-line graphing paper; large-print and braille rulers, yardsticks, and tape measures; braille protractors, 3-D representations of shapes for geometry, and raised-line drawing kits.
The color video magnifier is great for viewing specimens, such as the veins on leaves, the wings of insects, and details on rocks and shells. You can label lab equipment, such as measurement marks on beakers and test tubes, with large-print or tactile labels, allowing you to perform lab experiments using this glassware independently. Some lab work may not have a logical way to be performed independently. For these circumstances, students who are visually impaired may choose to use a lab assistant. The instructor knows the student with vision loss is responsible for telling the assistant what to do, such as stating the amount and type of compound to pour into a beaker. The assistant may also describe color changes, temperature readings on the thermometer, and weights on the balance scale. The lab assistant does not write lab reports, take tests, or do any of the written work submitted for the course. This is the responsibility of the student.
Some adaptive lab equipment is also available, such as talking thermometers, voltmeters, micrometers, color identifiers, and balance scales. The Independent Laboratory Access for the Blind project is one source for such equipment. Some microscopes have the ability to connect to a monitor, displaying specimens under the microscope lens onto the monitor's screen. This allows for much larger magnification and eliminates the need for the student with low vision to focus the microscope lens by looking through the lens, which can be quite an eye strain.
Question: What if I do not have the funds to purchase assistive technology?
Answer: The vocational rehabilitation department in your state may purchase assistive technology, such as video magnifiers, electronic notetakers, or laptops. Your school or a local public library may have an assistive technology room for visually impaired students to use. Check with local agencies for the blind or teachers of the visually impaired to see if you can borrow equipment.
Community groups, such as the Lions Club, may offer grants. The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) has implemented a technology loan program with a low interest rate, and the Association of Blind Citizens (ABC) offers an assistive technology fund.
The following organizations distribute low-cost computers with adaptive technology, either a screenreader or screen magnifier, included:
Texas Center for the Visually Challenged
11330 Quail Run
Dallas, Texas 75238
The Used Low Vision Store offers myriad assistive technology for a reduced cost.
Question: Where should I look for scholarships?
Answer: There are a vast number of scholarships for college students, and some are geared specifically for persons with vision loss. Check with local and national agencies for the blind, such as the NFB and the American Council of the Blind chapters. Also, note that AFB offers scholarships to students pursuing higher education; visit our website to learn more.
Question: Where on the AFB website can I find useful information about college-related issues?
Answer: You can use the search option on our main site to locate information, or browse the FamilyConnect website, which has a section specific to college students under the "transition to independence" link. Here you can read articles such as "Caitlin's Top Ten Rules for Incoming Freshman" and "College Life Begins."
Our CareerConnect website also contains a wealth of information about employment. At first glance, this content may not seem suitable for persons pursuing an education (as opposed for those looking for careers), but the mentor database in particular will be of great assistance. I know from personal experience because I located mentors in the science fields, specifically chemistry, physics, and biology, in order to ask questions about adapting laboratory material. So, please take time to review the AFB main website, FamilyConnect, and CareerConnect. Great information is literally at your fingertips!
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