Veronica With Four Eyes

Middle School Classrooms and Low Vision: Designing Accessible Classrooms Series

Last semester, I had the opportunity to work with an elementary school-aged student and their teachers to help implement various accessibility tools within the classroom. After observing how the student moved around the classroom, I created a plan to help make their classroom more inclusive and accessible for the student, and it was incredible to see the transformation and how much these things helped the student be more independent. Now that the student is transitioning to middle school, it’s important to ensure that their new classrooms will be configured in a way that they can independently navigate, with or without a blindness cane. Here are my tips for how to make a middle school classroom accessible for low vision and blind students, as part of my Designing Accessible Classrooms series.

Allow students to use personal devices as assistive technology

While I recognize that not all students have access to personal devices that they can use as assistive technology, it is helpful to have this option available as they may not be able to get school-issued devices in time for the beginning of the school year, or just feel more comfortable using their own device. I remember as a teen student that I felt more comfortable using my phone to magnify text instead of a video magnifier that made it more obvious that I had visual impairment or reading books with my friends on an eReader that my parents had purchased for me so that I could have access to books in large print, instead of having to carry around a bunch of heavy books. Using mainstream devices can help tremendously with helping students to be more independent in the classroom, especially those with visual impairments.

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Create accessible copies of helpful posters that other students can easily see

When I was in seventh grade, my teacher decided to hang up posters all around the classroom with helpful information for open-note quizzes on them that students were allowed to look at. The teacher did not allow students to get out of their seat to see the posters, so I wasn’t able to get close enough to see them and often received low grades on these quizzes as well, because I didn’t self-advocate or ask for the posters in a different format. With the elementary student I was working with, we asked their teacher to make accessible copies of classroom posters that contained important information that we stored in their desk so they could access as needed, and they plan to request the same thing when they get to middle school so they don’t make the same mistake I did. As for how the poster copies will be stored, the student plans to keep them in the classroom in a place where they can grab the booklet as needed without disturbing other students.

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Add a tactile dot so that desks can easily be identified

In elementary school, desks often have large name tags that are easily identified by students, while many middle school desks are blank due to the students rotating through the classroom during the day. One of the ideas that a TVI gave me was to add a tactile dot to the student’s desk so that it could easily be identified when the student walked in the room, such as a bump dot. These are inexpensive and a great way to help students find their desks when they are first starting in a new classroom and learning to navigate a new place.

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Add PVC pipe to the leg of a desk to store a blindness cane

While many students tend to stay in one place or travel in a line when they are in elementary school, middle school is often the first time that students are walking to different classrooms, and may even be the first time that they regularly use a blindness cane on their own. Since it can be difficult to store a blindness cane inside a desk and most middle school students don’t carry backpacks with them everywhere, I worked with a teacher in an elementary school classroom to come up with a better storage solution. We added a piece of PVC pipe purchased for less than $2 to the leg of the desk, so that the student could easily store the cane and grab it as needed- we lifted the desk leg and put it inside the PVC pipe. The exact size of PVC pipe needed will depend on the size of the cane and the cane tip, though these things are easy to measure.

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Use high-contrast markers that show up well on the board

When I was in middle school, I didn’t realize how much that light-colored or poor contrast markers affected how I would take notes. I would think that I had copied down all of the information on the board, but as the markers became more faded, I would miss out on critical information and not realize what was happening. For this reason, it is helpful to ensure that information is written out in high-contrast, dark ink markers or pens so that students can easily see what is on the board. I have an entire post about making information easier to see on the board linked below.

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Adjust lighting as needed

When I was in eighth grade, I began to develop an intense sensitivity to light that was exacerbated by the fluorescent lights on the ceiling. I would frequently wear non-prescription sunglasses over my regular glasses in class, and by the end of the day my eyes would be in so much pain that I was practically crying. Getting prescription tinted glasses helped tremendously with this, though I purposely had a lighter tint than I needed because I didn’t want to admit my vision was changing. One of the things that helped me a lot was having teachers that were willing to adjust the lighting in a way that didn’t affect other students. This would include partially dimming lights and opening curtains for natural sunlight- one teacher who also had a sensitivity to light used lamps around the classroom so we wouldn’t have to worry about turning lights on at all. Of course, there are some students with low vision who prefer more light, and having a small portable desk light can be a great solution for this. I suggest working with the student to figure out what lighting system will work best when doing various classroom activities such as taking notes, watching videos, and completing assignments.

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Follow student accommodations and the advice of other professionals

While this is meant to be a guide for making classrooms accessible for low vision and blind students, it isn’t a guide for making classrooms accessible for all low vision and blind students that one might encounter. It’s important to look at student accommodations documents such as IEPs or 504 plans to determine what students need, and follow recommendations from special education staff, parents/guardians, and the Teacher of the Visually Impaired. What works well for one student may not work well for another.

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Final thoughts

A lot of the ideas in this post were generated by me talking to various students I’ve worked with over the years and asking them what ways they would make their middle school classrooms better. It was a very interesting experience, and I hope this post on designing accessible classrooms is helpful for others as well!

here are my tips for how to create an inclusive and accessible middle school classroom for students who are blind, low vision, and visually impaired