Welcome to my Navigating College Campuses series, where I talk about all of the different ways I use Orientation and Mobility (O&M) techniques and my blindness cane as a student with low vision at my large public university. After spending four years living on my college campus, I’ve learned a thing or two about navigating in several different conditions and situations, and am so excited to share my tips and tricks with other students and future students. Today, I will be sharing my experiences with blindness canes and dining halls, as well as how I navigate my college dining halls- my favorite buildings on campus!
Learning the layout of the dining hall
One of the most helpful things I learned during my first week of freshman year was the layout of the dining hall. I learned which types of food were served at each station, where different seating areas were located, and how to find items such as silverware, plates, and the dish return. My first time at the dining hall, someone walked me around to show me where everything was so I could familiarize myself, and I haven’t needed any additional assistance with learning the layout of the dining hall since, with the exception of when a building was remodeled.
- How Do People With Visual Impairments Use Human Guides?
- Ten Questions To Ask For Hotel Room Familiarization
How to find an accessible menu
There are a couple of different ways to find an accessible menu that can be read with large print or a screen reader. Since my college uses Sodexo dining services, I typically use the Bite by Sodexo app to figure out what is on the menu. Other colleges list their menus online or send out copies of the weekly menu via email. Some of my friends prefer not to check menus in advance and instead prefer to be surprised as to what is available, but I like to compare menus at different dining halls to figure out where to go.
- App Accessibility Checklist for Low Vision
- How To Use Select to Speak on Android
- How To Find Accessibility Emoji In iOS 13.2
Reading labels with assistive technology
A lot of the food labels in the dining hall are not available in large print, so I use image recognition apps to read labels out loud, so I can see what is available. I prefer to use apps like Google Lens or Seeing AI to read short text, though some people may prefer to use a service like Be My Eyes or Aira to have labels read out loud by a live person. I’ve also watched one of my friends who hated technology use a magnifying glass to read the labels, but I’ve never tried that myself.
- Using the Google Assistant Camera with Low Vision
- Microsoft Seeing AI And Low Vision Review
- Be My Eyes App Review
- Aira For Low Vision Review
- Magnifying Glasses For Low Vision
Using Google Lens to identify food
Did you know the Google Lens app can identify food? I tried this out at the beginning of the semester and was excited to have the app figure out whether there was lasagna or enchiladas at one of the meal stations. It’s also incredibly helpful for identifying different vegetables and grains on the salad bar, which don’t always have labels and tend to look very blurry to me.
Asking staff for assistance
While I don’t frequently ask for assistance, many of my friends who have less usable vision than I do will ask for someone in the dining hall to help them figure out what food is available and to help them carry items to an available table. Typically, dining staff will recognize students who use blindness canes and ask them if they need any help, and will offer an arm for assistance. Students can also request assistance after swiping their meal card- typically a staff member will meet them at the register and guide them through the dining hall. Periodically, staff will approach students who asked for help and ask if they need anything else, and can help with taking items to the dish return- more on that later.
- 10 Staff Members To Meet in College
- Ten Things To Know About Going To College With A Blindness Cane
- How To Approach Someone with Low Vision
Don’t be afraid to take multiple trips
I feel like every college student has a story about the time they thought they could carry everything and ended up spilling something in the dining hall. Because my blindness cane takes away one of my hands, I have more stories like this than the average college student. From spilling ice cold water on my head in front of my English study group to missing the table and dropping hot pasta on my shoes, I’ve probably spilled everything that the dining hall has to offer. Moral of the story is to not be afraid to take multiple trips to carry everything, as the dining hall is all you can eat, not all that you can take in five minutes. No one will judge you for grabbing lots of food or taking a small amount at a time.
Secure your blindness cane while eating
One of the easiest ways to damage a blindness cane is to leave it in the middle of the floor for someone to trip over and break. Whenever I’m eating, I typically collapse my blindness cane and put it on my chair behind me, and unfold it before I get up to go somewhere. My friends who do not have collapsible canes will rest their blindness cane on their shoulders while they eat, which helps dining staff note who might need extra help getting food or a drink refill.
Learn to find the dish return
Remember how I mentioned spilling food everywhere? One of the worst feelings is accidentally dumping half eaten food on yourself because of issues with the dish return. One of the most helpful things I learned was to listen to hear how fast the dish return is going, and to put my plates/cups on the appropriate tray. If a tray is full, I wait for the next available tray since I have trouble lifting my arms, or ask for assistance from a staff member or other student if someone is nearby. I have found that people are happy to help me ensure that I don’t break dishes or cause a backup in the dish return system.
Other tips for navigating a college dining hall with vision loss
- If there is a severe weather forecast (i.e snowstorm) that would make getting to the dining hall difficult, ask about getting food in advance that can be stored in a dorm refrigerator
- Some dining halls have iris scanning tools that students are required to enroll in unless they have a documented medical reason for why they can’t use the system- at my college, low vision/blindness was a valid reason
- Find out when off-peak hours are so that you can avoid crowds if needed
- Students with food allergies or medical conditions can meet with the campus dietician to figure out what foods are available to them