I’ve had many opportunities to be a classroom volunteer and classroom visitor in a variety of different classrooms in my community and across the country, my favorite experience being when I was part of a high school mentorship program in an elementary school technology classroom. One of the requests I have received frequently from teachers I work with is for tips on supporting classroom volunteers with low vision, and how older students with low vision can volunteer or help out in classrooms with younger students. Here are my favorite tips for supporting classroom volunteers with low vision, including tips for blindness cane users.
If possible, allow the volunteer to orient themselves to an empty/mostly empty space
When I first started at my high school mentorship, I spent time walking around the classroom so I could familiarize myself with the table layouts, where items were located, and where students would be sitting. While there were still a few students in the classroom at the time, it helped for me to have a mostly empty environment so I didn’t run into anyone by mistake, and I could understand the different pathways in the classroom before teaching a full class of students. My mentor also shared additional navigational information with me such as how to get to the equipment closet, where the nearest bathrooms were located, and other nearby classrooms.
- Elementary School Classrooms And Low Vision: Designing Accessible Classrooms Series
- High School Mentorships
- High School Hallways and Low Vision
Don’t be afraid to talk about disability
The students I volunteer with generally understand that I have low vision, or vision loss corrected by glasses, and will ask me questions about my disability or assistive technology. While some teachers will say it is rude to ask people questions, I believe it is more rude to make incorrect or stereotypical assumptions about someone’s disability, so I welcome questions from students about things like how I use my blindness cane, why I wear tinted glasses, or why they need to read me text on their screen sometimes.
I recognize that students may not be the best at phrasing questions, so they may accidentally ask something that sounds very rude or impolite, such as “what’s with the stick?”, “do you have eyes?”, or “can’t you see the screen?”. In these cases, I answer their questions by sharing the correct names for items (i.e blindness cane, tinted glasses, etc) or explaining my condition in a simple way. Alternatively, I will rephrase the question before giving my answer, so if a student asked me “waht’s with the stick?” I would respond by saying “Are you asking about my blindness cane?” before giving an answer.
- How Tinted Glasses Help My Light Sensitivity
- Seven Places I Don’t Take My Blindness Cane
- Answering Stranger’s Questions- Children Edition
Tell the volunteer what they will be doing so they can plan accordingly
When I volunteered in a first-grade classroom, the teacher would greet me at the door and tell me what I would be doing for the day, such as reading to kids or working with a small group on math problems. With that information, I would be able to get my magnifying glass so I could read the assignments if needed or go to the classroom library area and find a few books in large print that I could read. Knowing what the teacher expected me to do also gave me an opportunity to let them know if I would need to modify the activity- for example, I can’t supervise the class dodgeball game, but I can watch kids on the swings or lead a craft activity instead.
Have students identify their name and location
While I can see students raising their hands in the computer lab or can reference the seating chart/nametags on their desk, I might not notice them if they are outside of my peripheral vision or walking up to me to ask for help. One of the things I would have students do is say their names and where they were before asking a question- for example “Veronica, this is Sara H, I’m on your left.” After I acknowledged the student, they then knew they could ask me whatever they needed. Students realized quickly that telling me to “come over here” or “look over there” was not effective, as I frequently did not know where “here” or “there” was when a student or other teacher was shouting across the classroom.
Get familiar with classroom technology
Since a lot of my classroom volunteer duties often revolve around technology, it helps to be familiar with what technology is being used in the classroom, as well as what is available. Some examples of helpful information include:
- Operating systems for computers and if there is assistive technology software installed- in our computer lab, two computers had ZoomText and JAWS installed
- How to operate the classroom projector, and where to sit/stand so that the display isn’t blocked
- Where specialty equipment is located- for example, video cameras for the school news program were inside a specific drawer
- Locations for tablets/laptops and their charging station
While it helps to know what technology is available, knowing how to make it accessible or more usable is just as important! Some of my favorite tools I’ve used as a classroom volunteer include:
- Microsoft Immersive Reader for reading simplified versions of web pages or documents
- Screen mirroring tools for tablets and laptops that pair with the teacher’s computer or projector
- eReading apps for following along with digital or physical copies of books
- Picture editing apps for scanning in copies of students work and adding contrast filters to make it easier to read
- Keyboard shortcuts for high contrast mode and screen magnification
- Computer Lab Accommodations For Low Vision Students
- Eight Ways To Read Handwritten Cards With Assistive Technology
- 5 Apps That Help Students With Low Vision In The Classroom
More tips for supporting classroom volunteers with low vision
- Avoid making assumptions about what tasks a volunteer might be able to complete, follow their lead and ask them directly if they would be comfortable completing task A or task B
- For volunteers, be transparent with the teacher or classroom supervisor about what activities you feel comfortable leading. I would tell teachers I am happy to pass out work to complete, help with lessons or reading time, or similar tasks
- Many people with low vision find it difficult or impossible to read pencil markings on white paper due to poor contrast
- Make sure that students do not touch mobility aids such as blindness canes without permission