This post is dedicated to Mr. S, who will never see a flashing light or a light switch the same way again.
In November 2011, two months into my freshman year of high school, I began getting chronic migraines, with one of the triggers being visual disturbances like flashing lights- not hallucinating flashing lights, actually seeing lights flash. This is commonly referred to as photosensitivity or photophobia. I went on medication to help this, but the medication ended up making me even more sensitive to flashing lights, in a similar way to photosensitive epilepsy/photosensitive seizures (this has since been resolved). As a result, my teachers, friends, and I frequently were watching for possible flashing light triggers, prepared to prevent them from happening. Here are ten of the triggers we all learned to watch for in the classroom, and why. Please note that I was undiagnosed in high school and received my diagnosis of Chiari Malformation after I graduated.
These lights often flicker for what appears to be no reason at all. Watch for lights that frequently flicker, and turn them off if possible, or move away from them. When putting in a work order to fix the lights, note that there is a student with a medical issue connected to flashing lights.
Sometimes, teachers flicker the lights to get the attention of the students. My teachers would warn me before flickering the lights, as well as when they would turn the light switch on or off. One of my teachers got so used to this, they found themselves thinking to warn me before they turned off a light switch in their home (sorry, Mr. S!).
PowerPoint animations can have flashing effects, or rapid movement across the screen. Some teachers disabled all of the PowerPoint animations for my class, which I really appreciated. Other teachers would give me copies of the PowerPoint so I could disable the animations myself.
While this will only be a problem in a band or other music class, instrument tuners tend to rapidly strobe, usually with red or green lights, to show if an instrument is in tune or not. For tuners with small LED lights, the person next to me would cover the lights with their thumbs, and watch to see if I was in tune.
Some projectors may flash or have a strobing effect as they turn on or adjust to the display. Warn the student ahead of time when a projector is being turned on, and wait until the display is stable to begin talking about what’s on the screen.
At school functions and when there were visitors in the classroom, my teachers would request no flash photography, as it can be harmful to the students. One of my teachers would go as far as to say a student had a medical condition triggered by flashing lights, but this wasn’t always necessary to disclose. Here’s my rant on flash photography.
Before playing a video, check to see if there are any strobe or flashing lights. For one of my college classes, the teacher wrote down the time in the video that there were the flashing lights, and would warn all students thirty seconds before that there was going to be a flashing light. Another teacher wrote down the dialogue that would be said right before the light, and the dialogue directly after. For certain movies, the teachers would just send me out in the hallway to work on another assignment, saying there were too many flashing lights.
Computer routers in the classroom can have rapidly blinking blue, green, or red lights. Other classroom equipment, such as portable microphones, can have the same type of lights. My teachers would cover these lights with tape, removing and replacing the tape at the end of the week.
I had a note in the nurse’s office that said I could be pulled ahead of time for fire drills. I would be called out of class about five minutes before, and went outside to sit with the nurse far away from the lights. Here is how I handle fire alarms in college.
Some mobile applications use strobe or flashing effects, and so can tools such as calculators. Check for flashing lights ahead of time, and find alternative applications if needed. Some applications use an “epilepsy mode” to disable flashing lights as well (Read more here about what makes an app accessible). Also, check to make sure the device being used is not filled with flashing lights- read more about my experiences with a strobing phone here.
Bonus- Substitute teachers
Make sure to remind substitute teachers, and write in the substitute plans, that there is a student that is sensitive to flashing lights. I had a teacher write in bolded, 72 point font, at the bottom of the plans to not flicker the lights and to announce to the class when a projector or similar device was being turned on. My fellow students were very protective of me and would frequently remind substitutes not to trigger any flashing lights.
While I have become less sensitive to flashing lights over time, my experiences with photosensitivity and photophobia gave me an increased awareness of how many flashing lights there are in the world. While I can’t assume all of the flashing lights will just disappear, or that people will stop using them so much, I always appreciate it when I have friends and teachers that can help me watch for these triggers, and help me avoid them completely when possible.