Veronica With Four Eyes

Blindness Canes and Dorm Buildings: Navigating College Campuses

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 tips for learning how to navigate dorm buildings with a blindness cane, and how I learned to walk around my dorm building without the use of a blindness cane.

First, make a list of important areas in the building

When I first move into a new dorm building, it helps me to make a list of important areas in the building and how to get to them. Since all of the dorm buildings I lived in had different layouts and amenities, writing the list during move-in week would help me orient myself to my new space and familiarize myself with different aspects of the building. Examples of important areas I include on a list are:

  • Building entrance/exit(s)
  • Laundry room
  • Common room
  • Kitchenette
  • Vending machines
  • Filtered water station
  • Resident Director office
  • Trash/recycling room
  • Resident Assistant office/room
  • Hall bathroom

This may seem like a long list of locations, but often times dorm buildings have multipurpose spaces and these items aren’t all scattered across the building- for example, the kitchenette was part of the common area in my friend’s dorm, or there were vending machines in the laundry room.

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Locate the elevator and stairs, if relevant

Except for freshman year, I always lived on the ground floor of my dorm building and never had to use the stairs or elevator since all building amenities were available on the first floor. For students who live in a building with an elevator and/or stairs, it helps to walk back and forth from the dorm room to the elevator/stairs a few times so that it is easy to locate these items before the first day of classes (or before hitting the dining hall).

Make sure you can identify your dorm room

All of the rooms on a hallway can look very similar, so it helps to have a unique identifier so that students can identify their own dorm room. This can include door decorations, adding tactile dots to a door handle, or large print name labels. My dorm door was actually distinctive in that my name was not on my door due to safety concerns- the resident advisor would decorate my door like the others on the hall and just not have a name label attached.

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Have important information documented on a device- or an Alexa skill

When I first moved into my freshman dorm, I had a list on my phone of all of the information I needed to know about my dorm building and the surrounding area- how to use the washing machines, the emergency contact for the resident advisor, how to file a maintenance request, dining hall hours, and more. While this list was helpful, I eventually upgraded the list and turned it into a custom Amazon Alexa skill so that I could ask Alexa various questions while I was sitting in my room. I have an entire post dedicated to creating Amazon Alexa skills for dorms linked below.

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Make use of visual landmarks when learning routes

One of the things that helps me learn routes around a building as a blindness cane user with low vision is to take note of visual landmarks. For example, to get to the filtered water station I would walk past the fire safety board, turn left at the school logo poster, and turn right at the green couch before arriving at the water station. I would try to plan routes with items that were not likely to change during the school year- for example, the poster with move-in information might go away, but the fire safety board or the framed photo of campus likely would stay in the same place.

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Figure out where emergency exits are

Fire drills are inevitable in on-campus housing and knowing how to locate the closest emergency exit from a dorm is incredibly important. The resident advisor will likely go over this in the first building meeting, but for students who are moving into a new building partway through the semester, it helps to know where the nearest flight of stairs or building exit are, or if there are multiple exits.

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Learn to navigate the building with and without a blindness cane

As I become more familiar with different parts of a dorm building, I don’t feel the need to carry my blindness cane with me, especially if I am doing a task that requires the use of both of my hands or that only requires a short walk, like taking out the trash or going to do laundry. This is a skill students will likely pick up on their own over time as they adjust to living in their new building or find people that they can use as human guides when needed. I am not any less visually impaired just because I am not always using my cane, and I’ve never had any students in my dorm building express confusion over me not having my cane.

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Other tips for navigating a dorm building with vision loss

  • Students can apply for early move-in so that they can become more familiar with their dorm before all of the other students show up
  • Many students prefer to live in the same building year after year so that they do not have to learn a new building every year- this may not be an option for freshman housing, but upperclassmen can typically apply to stay in the same building/dorm room
  • When visiting a friend’s dorm in another building, it helps to have the friend meet you outside, since wandering around a strange building or dorm hall can be confusing
  • Students with vision loss may qualify for disability housing or priority housing selection to get access to specific housing locations

Tips for learning how to navigate dorm/on campus housing from a college student with low vision who uses a blindness cane. Part of the Navigating College Campuses Series