Not Graduating Early


My sophomore year of high school, especially the second semester, was awful. Over half of my teachers did not provide me with the accommodations in my IEP, due to a lack of resources and the difficulties that came with integrating assistive technology into the classroom. One of my teachers frequently reminded me how they wish I wasn’t in their class, another teacher would say isn’t their problem I don’t receive accessible materials, and the support staff would tell me to go away, or tell me I just need to continue to self-advocate, and everything will be better. The only class I felt included in was band, which had always been a safe space for me. I only felt included in one out of my five classes.

I was told one day that there was something I could do, something all of the staff members agreed would be a wonderful thing. I could take five more classes, and then graduate the next year, one year early, receiving a general/standard diploma instead of the advanced diploma I had been working towards. Or, I could take two more classes and graduate with a modified IEP diploma the next semester. Alternatively, I could get a GED now and graduate at the end of the semester. Basically, they decided they wanted to get rid of me.

Because I had been in an educational environment where my disability was considered an inconvenience to everyone around me, I started seriously thinking about this. I’d been given pamphlets about these options, but I couldn’t see them, so I put them in my backpack. I researched the GED, put together a mock class schedule for the next year, and told my parents all about the ideas I had been presented. They were horrified that this had even been presented to me as an option.

My family started to consider moving to a neighboring school district, which had a full virtual high school program and would provide better opportunities for me and my brother. It would involve selling our house and leaving the community we had lived in for twelve years, but it was the only way I was going to graduate. My parents started doing research, and made an appointment with a guidance counselor at what would eventually be my new high school.

My mom and I went to meet with this guidance counselor, and my head was full of the information I had been given. When the guidance counselor went to ask me about scheduling, I repeated what all of the other staff at my old school had said:

“I’m five credits from graduating, I could graduate a year early if I don’t take band and choose a standard diploma!”

“No, you’re not doing that.” The guidance counselor immediately said, very matter-of-factly. 

“You’re nothing special, it’s not like you’re a genius.  No college would take you.  Don’t get me wrong, though.  You are a very smart girl, I know you will be successful here, and you will get an advanced diploma.  Now tell me, are you interested in AP Language and Composition? How about statistics?  I remember you said you are a band kid, the director here is adorable and everyone just loves him.”

By the end of the meeting, the guidance counselor had created a mock schedule for me, with two AP classes, math, science, video production, and a Microsoft certification class. I even had band in there, the advanced band class. My guidance counselor told me I was going to have a better experience than I had in my old school district, and if things didn’t work out, I could always be switched into virtual classes.

The thoughts about graduating early completely left my head after I met my new band director, and they told me how excited they were that I was going to be joining them. The cool thing was, they were a former student of my old band director, and I was told they are “a way cooler version of them.” They said they would be happy to help me whenever needed, and I left the school that day feeling much more positive.

I don’t want to think about what would have happened if I gave up, but I’m certainly glad I didn’t. My new high school was far from perfect, but I was able to graduate in 2015 with a 3.8 GPA and advanced diploma, something I never would have been able to do in my old school district. My guidance counselor, case manager, band director, and technology teacher all helped support me and continue to encourage me, even to this day, to continue advocating for myself. I’m now entering my third year of college in a highly competitive program, and thriving. I could have very easily been one of the many students who fall through the cracks and believe they are not worthy of receiving education, but luckily that wasn’t me.

If you relate to any of my experiences right now, dear reader, let me just tell you that you belong, and you are worthy of receiving a free, appropriate public education. I know it may seem like there are staff members who hate you, but please continue to stay in school and do your best with the circumstances given. College is a completely different experience than high school, I promise.

6 Ways Amazon Alexa Can Help With Homework


I love my Amazon Echo Dot (I have a review on it here).  I use it easily thirty times a day as a talking clock, as a news source, for telling me the weather, and so much more.  Recently, I have discovered how the device, named Alexa, is able to help users with homework.  This is especially helpful for users who are auditory learners, as opposed to visual.  Here are six of the Alexa skills that I use frequently.

Spelling

Ask Alexa “how do you spell,” followed by the word you want spelled.  I had it test several different random words of varying lengths, and all of them came back correct.  Names were hit and miss, it managed to spell around half of my friends’ names correctly.  However, this does not work well with homophones (words that are pronounced the same but spelled differently).

Calculator

Ask Alexa “what is” followed by the math equation.  This is incredibly helpful for me as a student with low vision, as I have difficulty reading traditional calculator displays.  The device seems to respond well to long division problems, but sometimes it reads out over twenty decimal places for a number, much like a normal calculator would display.  Just keep that in mind for particularly long numbers.

Translation

By enabling the translation skill, users can ask “Alexa, ask translated how to say,” followed by the word, followed by the desired language.  The Alexa voice does not actually pronounce the word, the application has its own audio from native speakers.  Alexa will also send the spelling for the word into the Alexa app.  I tested this in Spanish, Japanese, Italian, and Russian with great results.

Defining words

When a familiar word is found ask Alexa to define the word.  This seems to work for any word in the dictionary and is forgiving of pronunciation errors.  There are also other dictionary skills available for more specific terminologies, such as a medical or legal dictionary.

Synonyms

Tired of using the same words over and over again?  Use Alexa as a thesaurus and ask for synonyms of a word.  I asked for synonyms of the word “hurt” and received back three words.  When I asked for synonyms of those other words, Alexa did not repeat any of the previous words given.

Wikipedia

Wikipedia is frequently used to look up information.  Ask “Alexa, Wikipedia” followed by whatever topic.  It reads the first paragraph/summary of the Wikipedia entry for the given topic.  If asked about a person, it also gives basic demographic information.

I can’t imagine living in a dorm room without my Amazon Echo Dot, which is why it appears in many of my product roundups including the ten “weird” things I packed for college, the items on my desk, and in my technology roundup.  I can’t recommend it enough for college students or people with low vision.  It’s safe to say this device has greatly changed how I access information, and for that I am extremely grateful.

 

 

 

eReaders and Low Vision


I remember when Barnes and Noble first announced they would be selling their own eReader, the Nook.  The other eReaders on the market at the time had small keyboards and the display was difficult to see for someone with low vision. But the Nook was different, as it supported large text and had a huge library of titles available.  This was a dream come true for someone with a print disability (more about print disabilities here)

Over the years, I have continued to use Nook eReaders (though I also tried out a Kindle Fire) and highly recommend them.  It may seem weird to continue to use an eReader, especially as tablets have become more prevalent.  Here are my reasons for continuing to use an eReader, and why I think every student should have one.

Bookshare compatibility

I can download books from my beloved Bookshare (read more about them here and here) from my computer and onto my Nook with ease.  This process has been immensely simplified since Bookshare started supporting downloads of EPUB file formats, which can be directly added to my Nook, no lengthy file conversion or fancy accessibility hacks necessary.  The books are perfect from the start!

Displays that minimize glare

Reading on a display with backlight can be very tiring on the eyes (read more about managing eye strain from technology here).  Many eReaders are available with a paper-like display that feels just as natural as reading from the page of a book.  Another bonus is that the displays are often off-white, meaning that there is no additional glare from the sharp contrast of the page (read more about colored backgrounds and the readability of text here).

Portable

It’s easy to throw an eReader in a backpack or purse and take it anywhere.  They’re also lightweight and can be held for long periods of time, even with one hand.  A lot of tablets start to feel heavy after a few minutes or need a stand of some sort, but not eReaders.  eReaders are also much lighter than large print books.

Easier to integrate in the classroom

When I first started using my Nook in middle school, no one really noticed it.  I attended a school that didn’t embrace technology, and while I did have some teachers complain about me using an eReader at first, once I explained how I could read anything I wanted and they didn’t have to worry about if a book was available in large print or not, they seemed much more accepting of the technology.

Almost every book is available digitally

Large print books can be difficult to find.  Often times, the large print sections at libraries  and bookstores will consist of romance novels and board books, neither which are age appropriate.  Large print books are available online, but can take days to arrive, and not every book is available in large print either.  With eReaders, almost every book in print is available in a digital format that can be enlarged.

Get a book in two minutes or less

I timed myself to see how long it takes for me to download books to my eReader.  I can quickly search titles on the bookstore or on Bookshare, click a few buttons, and then have whatever book I want in my hand.  This is incredibly helpful for when teachers decide to do surprise reading assignments, and I don’t have to scramble to find the book.

Books are less expensive

Large print books can get expensive very quickly, because of the additional resources needed.  eBooks tend to be less expensive- I have found them to be at least 50% cheaper than their physical counterparts.  There are also frequently sales and opportunities to get books for free.

Can use library resources

A lot of libraries have partnerships with other organizations that allows patrons to check out eBooks for weeks at a time, free of charge.  I wrote a post about the eBook services I have found at my local libraries in Virginia here.

Durable

Every piece of technology I have ever owned has been dropped before.  I would estimate some of my devices have been dropped very frequently, especially the ones I use every day like my phone.  I have found my eReaders withstand these drops extremely well, and thankfully none of my eReaders have been damaged.

Integration with accessibility features

Almost every eReader I have encountered since 2012 has supported large print for all books, as well as changing the font style for increased legibility.  There are also many devices that support screen readers and audiobooks- some systems even let the user read along in the book while the audio plays.

I love my eReader, and consider it one of my most amazing inventions for people who have print disabilities.  It’s amazing to see how such a simple device can change the world of a student who previously couldn’t read standard print materials.


 

Here Is Everything I Bought For College


Below, I have outlined everything I purchased for my college dorm room, organized by store.  Not all of these items were purchased at the same time, but this is probably 90% of the stuff in my room.  Note that I live in a single room, meaning no roommate, and have a suite style bathroom I share with 1-3 other people.  I also excluded most technology from the list- read about all of the technology in my dorm room here.

Target

5 towels

Plastic bath tote

Collapsible hamper

Chromecast

2 sets of pocket sheets

6 individual pillowcases

2 fuzzy pillowcases

Dorm comforter

Fuzzy throw

Small blackout curtains

Curtain rod

Shower rings

Shower curtain

Remote controlled outlet

Small fan

Bed, Bath, and Beyond

Pillowtop mattress topper

Step ladder

Amazon

Fuzzy blanket

6 pillows

1 cooling pillow

1 bamboo pillow

Headset stand

Marble contact paper

Command hooks/strips

USB hub

Echo Dot

Chair support

Velvet hangers

Furniture corner guards

Scarf organizer

Walmart

Bedrail

Cork board

TV stand

Large trash can

Plastic bins

The Container Store

2 hanging shelves

7 Urbio boards

8 Bitsy containers

3 Stumpy containers

4 Twiggy containers

2 Biggy containers

Earrings storage

Yogibo

Caterpillar roll

Support

Moon pillow

Cozybo

 

For more on why I chose these items, check out these posts:

My College Bed

My College Desk

Ten Weird Things I Brought to College

Yogibo for Chronic Pain

My College Desk


If I’m not sitting in my bed, chances are I am typing away at my dorm desk.  Between running a blog, taking virtual classes, working on assignments, and talking to friends, it’s no surprise that I can easily spend several hours reading, typing, and browsing (learn more about reducing eye strain here).  Here are the various tools that help me with productivity, just in time for back-to-school shopping.  Links to products are included throughout the post.

The desk

My desk tabletop measures 22″ x 43″, and is 30″ tall.  There is a bottom opening that is 24″ wide, and three drawers on the side (note that they do not have drawer pulls).  Originally, my desk had a hutch screwed on the top of it, so to fit my computer, my brother unscrewed the hutch and we put it in a closet.  I did not have to file any accommodations to get this type of desk- more on filing housing accommodations here.

Marble contact paper
I wrapped the entirety of my desk in marble contact paper to protect against spills, scrapes, and other minor damages.  It took about three rolls to cover my entire desk.  A cool bonus feature is that I can write on it using dry erase markers.  Here are the rolls from Amazon.

desktop computer
Because I have low vision and type all of my assignments, I have a desktop computer that takes up a large portion of my desk.  I have an entire post on why I chose to bring a desktop computer to school here.  I have an HP Sprout, an unique computer with a large touchpad and 3D scanner that runs Windows 10.

headset
A few of my online classes required that students purchase a headset for interactive sessions, as well as recording audio for assignments.  I also purchased a headset stand that plugs into the computer via USB, and has a few USB ports built in as well.  Here is my headset stand– my headset was discontinued, but it is a wireless model by Logitech.

usb hub
I have a fifteen port USB hub that allows me to plug multiple devices into my computer at once.  Normally, I plug in things that I don’t need to unplug often.  Currently, I have my headset stand, cables for my main electronics, my wireless mouse, Echo Dot, printer, and my wireless keyboard plugged in, and I have extra ports as well.  Get a similar device here.

urbio perch
I have one of the Urbio Perch magnetic storage systems hanging on the side of my desk.  I have two of the “Bitsy” cups and one of the “Stumpy” cups.  These cups hold my highlighters, sharpies, markers, and pens easily, and I’ve never had any issues with them falling down.  Here is a link to Urbio products available.

printer
While this is technically not on my desk, I got a Brother printer and paper on super sale, and it is fantastic for when I have to print a class assignment at the last minute.  The printer sits on top of my mini-fridge about five feet from my desk.

amazon echo dot
I have an entire post on the Echo Dot here, and it has been amazing to see how much it has helped me in college.  I most frequently use it to listen to music, check the weather, perform calculations, and listen to the news.

surge protector
I have a lot of electronics in my room- see the whole round up here.  A surge protector is a definite necessity!  Please note that some colleges may require students to buy a certain brand, or have a limit on how many outlets the protector can have.  In addition, my college bans extension cords from dorm rooms.

medication drawer

Medication

In order to help me figure out how many pills are in a dose, I added tactile labels to the lids of pill bottles so I would know how many to take at a time (get the labels here).  Some of the over-the-counter medications I keep in my apartment include allergy pills, Neosporin, Ibuprofen, and Aleve.  I keep all of my medications in their original containers, and have copies of prescription labels stored to my computer, where my name is clearly displayed.

Band-aids

Part of life with low vision is constantly bumping into items and falling over.  As a result, I have amassed quite the collection of band-aids, and store them in small fabric pouches for easy access.

Spare glasses

My glasses are an absolute necessity for me- if I’m not wearing them, I’m either asleep or something is horribly wrong.  I keep my spare glasses in my top drawer for easy access, and my friends also know this so they can grab the glasses if need be.

Braces

I keep an ankle and wrist brace for helping me deal with spasms, as well as various copper-infused compression sleeves.  I believe I got these from the local drug store.

First aid kit

My first aid kit was a prepackaged kit from Target- get it here.  It contained 140 pieces when I bought it- items like gauze, tweezers, band-aids, tape, gloves, instant cold pack, and wipes.  I probably could have purchased all of these items separately, but I like having the plastic box.  Inside the box, I also have medication that may be more likely to spill, such as ear drops and eye drops.  I also have a smart thermometer that synchronizes with my iPad and Android phone, and while I may not use it a lot, I purchased it in a flash sale on Amazon for less than $10, and appreciate having a thermometer I can see.  Get it here.

Pain relief

I have various pain relief devices to help me with my chronic migraines and chronic pain.  If there is one that I couldn’t live without, it’s my portable TENS unit by IcyHot.  It feels like a massage and delivers powerful relief on my back, shoulder, and legs.  I have two units because I thought that the unit for knees was different than the one for back pain, but it’s only the pads that are different.  I literally recommend this every time someone says they are in pain.  Aleve makes a similar device as well, and both frequently go on sale- I got mine for $20.  Get it here.

Extra cables

I keep extra microUSB and lightning cables in case one of my cables suddenly breaks.  I get these from Amazon, and I get free two hour delivery as well.  There is also a vending machine on campus that allows customers to purchase cables and AC (wall) converters.

Assistive technology devices

I keep smaller assistive technology devices like magnifiers, eReaders, and iPad cases in here for easy reference.  I have more assistive technology devices than average because this is what I am studying.  My E-Bot Pro does not fit in a drawer, and instead is next to my desk.

Headphones

I keep a couple of pairs of earbuds that I received with various devices, as well as a wireless Bluetooth headset that can connect to my phone.  In addition, I have a pair of ear plugs that I use for band and for taking tests.  Get them here.


My bottom drawer is where I keep all of my printer paper, cardstock, printer supplies, and other bulky items.  I also store a sliding table for my E-Bot Pro in here that I received from the Department of Blind and Visually Impaired.  This is twice the size of the rest of my other drawers.


At my desk chair, I have a back support pillow that wraps around the back of the chair.  The support level is amazing and I can type for hours without aggravating my back.  I love it so much, I got it for my dad for Christmas, and he uses it while sitting on the couch.  Get it here.

I am very lucky to have so much technology accessible to me, as well as a quiet place to work.  I did not receive any form of compensation for reviewing any of these items, I genuinely love them and recommend them to everyone.

Two of Everything: My Life with Double Vision


Following John McCain’s diagnosis of glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer, a lot more people have been asking me about how double vision is managed, as glioblastoma can cause vision problems such as double and blurred vision, as well as a variety of other symptoms.   It is a fairly rare form of cancer, though other politicians such as Beau Biden and Ted Kennedy had the same type of cancer.  Here are a few things I have learned from my experiences with double vision as a result of a non life-threatening brain condition that heavily mimics glioblastoma in terms of vision loss.

Some background

I was diagnosed with accommodative esotropia at three years old, a common childhood eye problem that causes double vision, issues with depth perception, and reading.  It is characterized by crossed eyes, with one eye turning inward towards the nose, although vision issues can start before the eyes actually cross.  For a lot of children with this condition, glasses can correct vision to 100%, and the condition naturally goes away by age nine.  Unless there’s something else.

My vision got rapidly worse around when I turned nine years old- on my ninth birthday, I was unable to see a parade going on less than ten feet away.  My vision continued to sharply decline when I was eleven, and I had a one muscle eye surgery in 2008 to prevent my eyesight from getting worse.  Around when I was 14, I started to experience chronic migraines, chronic pain, worsening eyesight, and several other symptoms, and was diagnosed with Chiari Malformation at age 18, a congenital brain condition that often isn’t diagnosed until teenage years.  Because I had vision loss as a result of the accommodative esotropia as well as Chiari, I received the additional diagnosis of decompensated strabismus, meaning I have low vision issues originating from my eyes as well as my brain (read more about my eye surgery for this condition here and here).

What my glasses look like

My glasses prescription does not fully correct my eyesight, no prescription exists that can.  In the past, I wore thick prisms in my glasses, which are similar to magnifying lenses.  These are extremely common for people with double vision following brain injuries or other neurological conditions.  After my eye surgery, I no longer wear prisms.  My glasses are also tinted a dark gray color due to my photosensitivity.

It’s not always two separate images

Depending on how my eyes focus, I can see two distinctly separate images, or two images blended together.  If a person is standing in front of me, I may see two completely separate images, as if identical twins are standing in front of me.  Alternatively, the images may appear as a shadow, as if one image is floating above the other.  The most common for me is to see the images blended together side-by-side, so a person appears to have two heads and three arms/legs.

It can be hard to figure out which is the original image

Sometimes, I can figure out which image is actually there, and which is the mirror image.  However, my friends will tell you, I spend a lot of time grabbing onto thin air thinking I found something, when it is actually right next to whatever I’m grabbing.  I usually realize this within a second or two, mostly because I have had this vision issue all of my life.

Can you drive with double vision?

While a select number of people may be able to drive with double vision, I do not drive due to my other visual issues.  None of my other friends with double vision drive either.

Reading and double vision

With double vision, letters run into each other or form shadows, and I have difficulty reading long words as a result of this.  Thankfully, when processing information, the brain does not read every letter, and normally I can infer what the word is based on context clues.  It is more difficult if I am reading an unfamiliar word, or working on a math problem where every letter and number is crucial.  In addition to the double vision, I also have blurry vision that makes reading standard print sizes impossible.

What’s a print disability?

A print disability is the inability to read standard text, usually due to a learning or visual disability.  Some examples of accessible text include large print, weighted fonts, Braille, and audiobooks.  Read more about print disabilities here.

Large print

Large print helps my eyes to focus better and helps me understand words easier.  I typically ask for size 22 Arial font, as it is clear to read.  I had an IEP all through school to receive large print services- more on my print accommodations here.  All of my devices have large print on them as well- learn how to make Android accessible here, iPad accessible here, and Windows 10 accessible here.

Contrast

Sharp white paper with black text provides a large amount of glare and can make the double images seem much more intense and difficult to decipher.  I prefer to use tinted backgrounds to increase the readability of font, and actually did a science project on this to show which colors work best.

How I read

In high school, I received textbooks through AIM-VA, a state organization that provides accessible educational materials to students with print disabilities free of cost.  I receive other books through Bookshare, a national accessible library that allows people with diagnosed print disabilities to read almost any book they want, from New York Times Bestsellers to classic novels for school (it also receives federal funding).  For college, I purchase digital textbooks and carry them on my iPad.  I love living in a digital age where I can find accessible print for almost anything in an instant.  I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything.

Assistive technology

I also use a few devices that are specifically designed for helping users with double vision/low vision.  Portable closed-circuit televisions, or portable CCTVs, are some of the most common high-tech devices used for low vision.  I have an E-Bot Pro that I use to read larger documents such as tests, and a smaller Eschenbach SmartLux that is the size of my cell phone.  So even if I am presented with a document that isn’t in large print, I can access it easily with these devices.

Double vision takes some adjusting, but it is in no way a catastrophic condition that will dramatically alter someone’s life.  Technology has come a long way, and people with double vision/low vision can easily continue to work as long as they have assistive technology and other accommodations.  Besides, sometimes it’s fun to see two of everything- after all, it’s better to see two ice cream cones than one!

Happy 2nd Anniversary


Today, I would like to wish a very happy anniversary to someone that has really become an extension of who I am, and has helped me through many situations that I would have had to walk through all alone otherwise.  They help understand what is going on- it’s a relationship unlike any other.

We met about a week after my freshman orientation at college.  We were introduced by my case manager from the Department of Blind and Visually Impaired, who had been telling me for weeks that I really should meet them, since they would help me so much in college.  I was reluctant at first, wondering what other students would think of me if we were seen together.  Would they think I was totally blind?  Would my friends think I lost my mind?  And would we look strange walking around together in public?  I then remembered that I had fallen down a flight of stairs at orientation, twice.  I shouldn’t care what people think of me.

I’m not sure how I would have gotten through my freshman year of college without them.  They were there to make sure I didn’t fall down the stairs as spectacularly as I had before.  They helped me get to class, the post office, the dining hall, to my dorm building, and so many other places.  It didn’t matter the time of day or night- if I needed them, they were there.  We also got to go explore other cities, taking trips to Washington DC, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, and more.

My sophomore year, they inspired me to create a blog about my experiences with low vision and chronic illness.  I realized that I had so much to share, and I had always wanted to be a writer.  They appeared in many of my blog posts, even in my profile pictures.  I wanted to show others that our relationship was nothing to be ashamed of, even if others would point at us and stare sometimes.  This blog eventually went beyond what I imagined, allowing me to share my thoughts on life and managing my conditions.  I’ve also gotten to talk about my experiences with public schools, college, virtual education, and everything in between.  I’ve become a contributor for different websites, met Joe Biden, and even had an article written about me by the organization that inspired me to study assistive technology.  They have been with me through all of these things and more.

It’s hard to believe it’s been two years since we first met, and I can’t even begin to imagine what would have happened if we had never met.  Well, I can sort of imagine- I would have probably embarrassed myself a lot more frequently in public.  We have walked many miles together, and I know I can always count on them to be by my side in the future.  To anyone who is scared of having someone like this in their life, I say that they should take a chance, as something truly amazing could happen.  I know I never saw myself with someone like this before, and I can’t believe I ever thought that way.  I can’t go anywhere now without thinking of how much they have helped me.

So, happy second anniversary to my blindness cane, the tool that has saved me from so many obstacles and helps me see the world around me.  I will always be grateful that we met.

How Do People with Low Vision… Use the Bus System?


Like a lot of students, I didn’t bring a car with me to college.  Unlike a lot of students, I didn’t bring a car because I have low vision and use a blindness cane to travel around.  Needless to say, I won’t be getting anywhere close to being behind the wheel of a car, so I have learned to master the public transportation available to me through my college and the city bus system.  Here are some techniques and applications that have helped me in learning to travel around my city.  Note that this post does not cover using the Metro, as that is for another day.

Bus fare

All public transportation affiliated with my college is free for students, and the college also has an agreement with the county that allows students to ride for free if they show their student ID.  Some counties also offer free or reduced fare for riders with disabilities.  For example, the MetroBus system in Washington, DC, allows people with disabilities to apply for getting reduced fare, though a doctor’s note is required.

Get on the right bus

The buses I ride on announce their location and the name of the line they are on- for example, blue line to shopping center.  I also check with the driver when I get on the bus to confirm where we are going.

Make friends with the bus drivers

I have gotten to know many of the drivers that work at my college, and they are awesome people!  Often times, they will wait for me if I’m not at the bus stop on time, and help me figure out where I am going if I’m unsure.  I’ve also had many awesome conversations with them about low vision and disability life.

NextBus

Some bus systems use the app NextBus, or something similar.  This app allows the user to track when a bus will be arriving, and adjusts for traffic delays as well.  My college uses this system for tracking their different buses, and the text enlarges well on my Android phone.

Phone numbers for transportation

I keep the following numbers in my phone in case there is an issue with transportation:

  • College transportation office- For checking bus arrival or other issues related to college buses
  • Bus company- in case it is after hours for the office or a bus is not tracking on NextBus
  • City transportation office- for assistance in locating bus or for transportation resources
  • Next stop checker- type in the bus stop number and hear when the bus will be arriving

Google Maps

Google Maps can provide directions to many locations via bus.  One of my favorite features is that once I am sitting on the bus, the app will show the bus moving on a map and let me know exactly when to get off.  In addition, it also shows a countdown to when the bus will be arriving at another stop.

Managing blindness cane

If I am riding on a bus affiliated with my college, I will collapse my cane and rest it in my lap.  If I am riding on any other bus, I will keep my cane upright, holding onto the grip of it.  This is a cue for the other riders and driver that I am visually impaired.

Orientation and Mobility

I did not receive any orientation and mobility (o&m) training for using the bus system, though it is available through the transportation offices or state department for the blind and visually impaired.  It isn’t just for the totally blind, either.  For sighted students who have difficulty using the bus system, some colleges may offer a seminar on how to use the bus system.

Where to go?

I mapped out a lot of the common places I frequent in the community, along with what buses to take.  For example, I wrote on my phone that I take the G bus to Target, the name of the shopping center I get off at, how long it takes to get there, how often the bus stops there, and what times usually work best.  I also write down the first and last time the bus departs from these locations.  The first couple of times I used the bus system, I took a friend with me, but now I am fairly confident navigating on my own for most places.

Places I recommend mapping out

Some of the places I recommend mapping out:

  • Pharmacy
  • Target/Walmart
  • Mall
  • Grocery store
  • Post office
  • Library
  • LensCrafters/other optician
  • Local restaurants (bonus if they have student discounts!)
  • Common student hangouts

 

I’ve been very grateful to live in an area with lots of public transportation options available.  One of the things I looked for when researching colleges was how easy it was to get off campus, and my school makes it very easy for students to travel around (for more on navigating campus, click here).  After all, no one wants to be stuck on campus or trying to figure out how to walk somewhere that’s two miles away.

Microsoft Office Specialist Certification and Low Vision


I had the opportunity to take a class my junior and senior years of high school that allowed students to test for Microsoft Office certifications. These certifications, which are internationally recognized, included Word, Word Expert, Excel, Excel Expert, and PowerPoint. The Word, Excel, and PowerPoint certifications were done the first year, and the Expert certifications, which are two part exams, were done the second year. These certifications have always stuck out on my resume, and many people have asked me about them.

I was lucky to have a teacher who knew low vision extremely well, as they have a parent with macular degeneration. As a result, they were more than willing to help me with accommodations and to help ensure that I could access everything. Here are some of the tips and tricks we used for training and testing for the certification exams. We used Certiport for testing, and I received my Microsoft Office Specialist Master certification in 2015.

Testing Accommodations

My teacher requested accommodations for a magnification tool and for double time on the test, very similar to the accommodations I receive for other standardized tests. We never had any issues with getting these accommodations, though it was determined that it was impossible for me to use Microsoft Access, a database software, so I never became certified in that. Accommodations were filed over a month before I sat for the first exam and we did not need to re-submit them for the other exams, they were automatically approved.

Enlarging Office applications

I had my own special computer in the computer lab that no other student was allowed to use. On this computer, there were two types of magnification software, one created for testing and one for normal use. The display was scaled to 200% so images and windows were larger. Text was also enlarged as large as possible. The Microsoft applications had a colored tint as a background and high contrast buttons as a result.  For more on Windows 10 accessibility, click here.

Practice tests

For class exercises, we used a software called GMetrix, which allows students to practice doing different tasks and creating documents. Instructions can be enlarged by clicking on the white box with text and then holding down the control (ctrl) and plus (+) keys until desired text size is reached. One thing is that before submitting work for review, the user must scale the font size down to the original size from when the document was opened, or the software will mark the question as wrong- same goes for the certification exam.

How the certifications have helped

While studying for these certifications, I was able to learn a lot more about the functions of Microsoft Office. I was able to learn how to create accessible materials quickly, a skill that has benefitted me many times. In addition, I was able to learn how to create high quality projects, and have consistently had the most impressive PowerPoint class project designs. I’ve also been able to help many of my fellow students with Microsoft projects- my suitemates last year would frequently ask me questions about using Microsoft Excel.

Overall, I couldn’t have been more lucky when it came to getting my certifications. Not only were they a great addition to my resume, but I have been able to use skills I learned from them every day.  This class also helped prepare me for taking the Information Systems CLEP exam. Getting one of these certifications is way better than taking an AP class, in my opinion- after all, most employers will be more impressed that you passed an Excel Expert exam than if you passed an AP History exam. I highly recommend taking these exams, no matter what you may study in the future, as this technology is used in every career.

Virtual Classes in High School


At both high schools I attended, teachers often took a pencil-and-paper approach to learning. It was common for teachers to have students complete paper worksheets, take handwritten notes, and read out of textbooks. Any sighting of technology in the classroom was rare, minus the occasional graphing calculator or once a year iPad assignment. Assistive technology was an even rarer sight. Because of this, teachers were not provided the necessary resources to have a student like me, who could not read standard print materials or write clearly, and who frequently used technology. It was easy to see their frustration, and while some teachers did manage to include me in their classes, it was too difficult for others to integrate assistive technology into the classroom. So what is a student to do?

Enter, virtual classes.

Virtual classes in high school are offered through many different platforms, and can be taken full-time or part-time, for short or long term periods. These classes allow students to use their school’s or their personal technology to learn material and complete alternative, digital assignments. There are still class assessments, AP exams, and state standardized tests for classes, and students still receive the same amount of credit on their transcript. Here are ten of the reasons I am glad I took virtual classes. I took a total of sixteen virtual classes across all core subjects using the platforms Moodle, Desire2Learn, Rocket Learning, and Brigham Young University Independent Study, and graduated in 2015.  Permission to take virtual classes was not written in as an accommodation in my IEP.

Using my own technology

Often times, it was difficult to enable accessibility settings on school computers because of the restrictions set in place for students. Since virtual classes can be accessed on any internet-enabled device, I can use my own computer or iPad with settings exactly how I like them, and the school doesn’t have to worry about it.

Ability to get ahead in class

With chronic illness, there are weeks where I feel like I can get everything done and be on top of everything, and other weeks where I am spending a lot of time asleep. My teachers would post assignments early and encourage students to work ahead, which I would do when I was feeling great. As a result, it was uncommon for me to fall behind.

Practicing technology skills

It always surprises me how many students aren’t proficient in using technology. By taking virtual classes, I was able to practice researching topics on the internet with different tools, use Microsoft Office applications easily, and create my own accessible materials. This really helps me in college, as I have had professors that require all assignments be completed and submitted digitally, and have also taken virtual classes in college (more on that here).

Access class anytime

My senior year of high school, over half of my classes were virtual, and scheduled for the beginning and end of the day. Because of my chronic migraines, I was sleeping a lot more, since sleep is the only cure for my migraines, and would often do my assignments outside of traditional school hours. As long as the assignments were submitted on time, my teachers never minded this, and encouraged students to complete assignments whenever was most convenient for them.

My IEP was always followed

While I did have many teachers who followed my IEP in the classroom, there were teachers like I mentioned that had very few resources and couldn’t integrate a student with low vision into their classroom. In my virtual classes, my IEP was always followed, since I learned to self-advocate and make things accessible myself.

All materials can be enlarged

Sometimes, there would be a classroom assignment that was impossible to be made accessible. Since virtual class assignments are created with technology in mind, it is easy to change a font size or background color, zoom in on an image, or use a high contrast display.  Why I prefer digital materials here.

Take any class

There were times I was strongly encouraged not to take certain classes, as the teacher was skeptical about having a student with an IEP. For one of these classes, I took it virtually through a state program and had a teacher who was experienced not only with IEPs, but also with having students with low vision. I know I wouldn’t have had such a great experience if I had taken the class in the classroom, and I was thankful that I was able to take it virtually.

Another example is that I completed my PE and health requirements online, since being included in traditional PE classes would be near impossible- and being included in Driver’s Ed would have definitely been impossible! For more on my experience in taking PE virtually, click here.

Summer classes

I took a virtual class every summer in high school, but this setting was especially helpful when I had to repeat Algebra 2, due to my IEP accommodations not being met the first time I took the class. I found accessible graphing applications and a large print calculator, and was able to get an A when I retook the class. Best of all, I didn’t have to worry about being in the classroom environment again, where it would be more difficult for me to integrate technology.

Quiet testing environment

I remember for one of my classes, the testing environment was always very noisy, and it was difficult to concentrate. While I could take some tests at home, I also took tests at my school, traveling to quiet testing locations so I could concentrate.

Improved grades

Because I was able to access all of the materials and had my accommodations followed, I often received higher grades in my virtual classes than in my traditional classes. My senior year, when I had four virtual classes, I was able to get straight As!

Because I still attended school for electives, I never had to worry about missing out on the social aspect of being in the classroom. My virtual teachers were also just an email away, if I needed them, and there were also virtual education specialists based at my school. The virtual high school setup was perfect for me, and allowed me to eventually take virtual classes in college. I would not have graduated unless I had the opportunities I was given in virtual classes.