Tara Annis and Lee Huffman, edited and updated by Aaron Preece

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the July 2010 issue of AccessWorld. Because it provides valuable evergreen information, we have republished it here with updates to reflect the significant changes in available technology since the original publication. Note that the Information and Referral department referenced in this article is now housed at the American Printing House for the Blind.

The American Foundation for the Blind 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 screen reader.

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."

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 an instructor as soon as you know you are going to be in their class. Many students with vision loss fear speaking to their instructors, worrying that, due to ignorance about the capabilities of people with vision loss, the instructor will not believe that the student will be able to complete the course work.

Try to schedule meetings with all of your instructors as soon as possible. It's 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 that I'm serious about doing well."

You could also direct your instructor to the AFB website and other websites on vision loss if they would like further information. You should then ask for an overview of the class structure. Will they write on the board or use a projector? Will they 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 who can assist with taking notes in class, be personal readers or proctors for tests, or who can 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 Optical Character Recognition (OCR) equipment 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 braille or accessible digital formats, and 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. If your institution has a student-specific social media platform, group, or hashtag, you may also be able to seek a reader using those avenues. 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?

Answer: The American Printing House for the Blind offers the Louis Database, where you can search for agencies that carry your textbooks in alternate formats. Learning Ally offers textbooks from preschool to the doctoral level. Books are offered in digital audio format and can be played on traditional computers, tablets, or smartphones as well as specialized 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 fee. Bookshare books can be obtained in a variety of digital formats that can be read on computers, tablets, smartphones, and chromebooks, as well as on specialized digital book players.

It is now possible to access Amazon Kindle content on most mainstream digital devices. In addition, Amazon has added support for alt text for images and the ability to read math equations using a combination of the NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA) screen reader and the Kindle for PC software.

Project Gutenberg offers a smaller collection of books, mostly classics, which could come in handy for students taking literature or classics classes.

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' National Library Service is another great place to search for novels and poetry for your English classes. You can find 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 it yourself using optical character recognition software such as Openbook or Kurzweil. If you can't 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. Using the accessible textbook I found, I could look up something like "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 can also contact the book's publisher and request an electronic version, which, by law, the publisher should send to you. The publisher might require that you verify your disability, which can be a time consuming process, so try to find the names of textbooks you will be using during the upcoming school term 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, smartphone, tablet, or electronic notetaker. If you use character echo with your screen reader, you may wish to turn this feature off when taking notes so that the screen reader audio does not drown out the instructor's voice. Students with low vision can use a portable video magnifier. You can use 20/20 pens, which create a bold line or 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, electronic notetaker, smartphone, or tablet.

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 device of choice. 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 can't 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. If the DSS office provides in-class human notetakers, having the notetaker read the assignment and act as scribe can be helpful.

Question: How do I handle taking tests?

Answer: You can 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 the student to use their device of choice 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. These are 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. The Talking LabQuest 2 is another possible option. 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 Association of Blind Citizens (ABC) offers an assistive technology fund.

The organization Computers for the Blind offers laptop and desktop computers with assistive software preinstalled at a reduced cost. For more information on the organization and information regarding the included JAWS, ZoomText, or Fusion license, see this article. The Used Low Vision Store offers assistive technology for a reduced cost.

Each state also has an assistive technology project. These organizations often have low-interest loans available and if not, may be able to direct you to other sources. To find the organization for your state, see this page.

Question: Where should I look for scholarships?

Answer: There are a vast number of scholarships for college students, and some are geared specifically for people with vision loss. Check with local and national agencies for the blind, such as the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and the American Council of the Blind (ACB) chapters. Both of these organizations offer national scholarships but most state affiliates also offer scholarships. Local organizations will offer scholarships in some cases, such as the Lighthouse Guild. Another organization that offers scholarships for those with vision loss is Learning Ally.

Though not a direct college scholarship, the company Aira offers scholarships that provide free Aira service to students with vision loss. If you are unfamiliar with the Aira program, you can learn more in our 2 part article series: Part 1, Part 2.

Question: Where can I find useful information about college-related issues?

Answer: You can find helpful information on the FamilyConnect website, which has a section specific to college students on the "transition to independence" page. Here you can read articles such as "Caitlin's Top Ten Rules for Incoming Freshman" and "College Life Begins."

The CareerConnect website also contains a wealth of information about employment. At first glance, this content may not seem suitable for people 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.

The Perkins E-Learning site also has many resources related to education and transition. Examples include 10 Tech Skills Every College Student Needs and 10 Questions to Ask when Choosing a College. Other blindness-related organizations and websites have college related information as well, such as this article from the NFB and this article from the ACB.

This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.

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Tara Annis
Lee Huffman
Aaron Preece
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Access Issues