A few weeks before I graduated from high school, I had a dream that I fell off the stage at my high school graduation and it was made into a viral video that also made the news. After falling off of a school bus earlier in the school year on senior night and experiencing a period of steadily declining vision, I had jokingly told people that I was going to miss a step on the stairs when walking off the stage and break my other ankle, though the dream made me think that I was actually more worried about what could happen than I wanted to admit. I am thrilled to say that my actual high school graduation went very smoothly and I was able to receive my diploma without any further injury, and today I will be sharing my tips for low vision students who are preparing to attend their own graduations.
First, talk to a staff member about any accessibility needs
Shortly after I started seriously considering the possibility of falling off the stage, I reached out to my band director and asked them if there was anything that could help me avoid falling down the stairs- I didn’t use a blindness cane at the time, so didn’t have any mobility aids that could help me figure out where the stairs were. My band director then jokingly sang me a few lines from the song “Time After Time”- specifically the lines “if you fall, I will catch you, I will be waiting time after time.”
As a more serious answer, my director offered to talk to the two staff members that would be escorting students on and off stage and say that I might need some help with walking on the stairs. Both staff members were aware that I had trouble walking due to my brain condition and previous injury, and my band director made sure that they knew I did not need them to guide me or walk me across the stage- just that I needed the extra assistance getting on/off the stage. I wanted to preserve as much of my independence as possible so that I didn’t draw attention to myself or my disability.
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Familiarize yourself with the layout of the stage/venue in advance
My graduation took place at an arena that I had visited before, so I was familiar with where the seats would be located and how I would enter the graduation area. My band director mentioned to me that there would be three to four stairs that I would need to climb to get on the stage, and that I would be receiving my diploma in the center of the stage- it would be impossible for me to fall off the stage unintentionally. One thing I would have to watch for would be the people who are standing on stage with me, though graduation rehearsals helped me figure out who was located where, and where I would be receiving my diploma. Another thing that helped was that I would be able to follow the person in front of me back to our seat, so I wouldn’t have to try to find it on my own.
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Attend graduation rehearsals
My high school required that students attend at least two graduation rehearsals so that the staff could make sure that names were pronounced correctly and students would know what to expect. While my high school graduation rehearsals did not take place at the actual graduation venue, I was able to figure out where people would be standing and meet the staff members who would be helping at my graduation. One of the staff members was a teacher I had in the past, while the other was someone who I didn’t know prior to graduation.
If needed, have items that can help prevent sensory overload
I have an entire post on clothing for sensory processing issues, which is important for loud, bright events like a graduation. At my graduation, I chose to wear a casual dress underneath my robe that did not restrict movement in any way, and also wore sunglasses, earplugs, and a soft leg brace. None of this was visible except for my sunglasses, though I typically wear tinted glasses anyway so it didn’t seem out of the ordinary.
Should I use my blindness cane on the stage? What about a guide?
I did not use a blindness cane at the time of my high school graduation, but all of my friends who use blindness canes either part-time or full-time used theirs at graduation events, since there are often a lot of wires and other obstacles on stage.
One of my other friends chose to use both their blindness cane and a human guide when walking across the stage at their college graduation- they chose to use their best friend as a human guide who was also graduating from the same degree program, as this person would regularly guide them places. When my friend gave a speech for graduation, they had the friend guide them to the podium and hold onto their cane while they spoke, as they did not want their cane in pictures.
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Request no flash photography while on stage
While it’s impossible to ban all flash photography for events like this one, I connected with the event photographers before the event and asked them not to take any flash photos while I walked across the stage, as I have photosensitive migraines. I also skipped the additional photo booth that was at the end of the stage, and instead took pictures outside of the venue with my friends, family, and favorite teachers.
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Additional tips for high school graduations and low vision
- I reached out to my band director because I knew he would be at graduation conducting the band. If I wasn’t a band member, I would have reached out to the graduation sponsor/Student Council advisor, my case manager, or my guidance counselor
- I didn’t toss my cap in the air because I was worried about getting hit in the face with falling caps or not being able to find my cap afterwards
- While cell phones are not typically permitted at graduation, students can request the ability to have captions turned on through their phone- I recommend Using Google Live Transcribe With Low Vision
- A lot of these tips can also be applied to college graduations, though I did not attend an in-person ceremony for my own graduation