Veronica With Four Eyes

How I Talk To Professors About Photosensitivity

I receive disability accommodations in college for two different medical conditions- an eye condition that causes low vision and a neurological condition called Chiari Malformation. Both my eye and brain condition cause me to experience light sensitivity, sometimes referred to as photosensitivity, and my accommodations sheet doesn’t do a very good job of explaining how to support a student with photosensitivity in the classroom. Since I’ve lived with light sensitivity since I was fourteen, I’ve come up with several strategies for how to self-advocate and talk to others about my condition, and today I will be sharing how I talk to professors about photosensitivity and photophobia in classroom environments.

First, how does photosensitivity affect me?

I have both photophobia and photosensitivity, which in this case means that I have sensitivities to bright lights and adverse medical reactions to strobe, flickering, or flashing lights. More specifically, I have photosensitive migraines that can be triggered by strobe, flickering, or flashing lights, as well as a history of photosensitive non-epileptic seizures. If I see certain types of flashing lights, I get disoriented, and prolonged exposure can trigger a migraine that lasts for hours. Bright lights are not necessarily a migraine trigger for me, but can make it more difficult for me to focus my eyes or contribute to eye fatigue- I wear tinted prescription glasses to help mitigate the effects of environmental lighting.

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Examples of classroom accommodations for photosensitivity

A lot of my classroom accommodations for photosensitivity are unwritten/undocumented and are simple things that I would request from professors to help me avoid flashing lights or animations. Some examples include:

  • Announcing before turning the lights or projector on/off
  • Not leaving the projector on a blank screen
  • Mentioning when they are about to go to the next slide in a presentation, and providing a copy of the presentation so students can follow along on their own device
  • Asking professors not to flicker the lights to get students’ attention
  • Having some lights on in the room when watching a video instead of turning all of the lights off
  • Watching movies with audio description, which can provide warnings for flashing lights, or allowing students to watch movies with audio description outside of class
  • Turning off overhead lights and using lamps or natural lighting
  • Sitting away from windows that face the road- flashing lights from emergency vehicles can be a migraine trigger

I don’t ask my professors to do all of these things at once, but I do disclose my light sensitivity on the first day of class and ask for certain accommodations when appropriate. If the projector is always on by the time I get to class, I might not mention that they need to announce when they are turning the projector on, but I always mention the light switch flickering because I had a teacher in high school who had a habit of flickering the lights.

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Talk about unexpected photosensitivity triggers, if needed

When I took a computer modeling class, I discovered that one of the digital models we were studying for a project had a strobe-like animation when the reproduction rate was increased, which led to me getting disoriented during class and needing assistance to get back to my dorm. I’ve also been in classes where a strobe light GIF was used in a class presentation, and a special Halloween-themed class where a student showed up dressed as a strobe light. These photosensitivity triggers were totally unexpected and weren’t something I had ever considered.

For the modeling class, I sent my professor a message asking if there was a way I could adjust the frame rate of the simulation so that way it would not trigger the strobe effect, and my professor worked with me to figure out a solution, and during future class presentations they would give verbal warnings before increasing the reproduction rate of a simulation and narrate the changes in real time. From that point on, I would ask my professors if I could have copies of code so I could run simulations on my own device without having to look up at the board.

In the case of the strobe light GIF, I immediately raised my hand and asked the professor to disable the animation for the GIF as it was making me nauseous, and they turned it off immediately. I learned to ask my professors in advance if a presentation we were watching contained any flashing animations, and if it did, if they could warn me before getting to that section. Some of my professors also made a rule for student presentations that said they could not use strobing or flashing animations for items that would be presented to the class.

As for the Halloween costume, it is difficult for me to tell another student what they should or should not be wearing, but I have had professors who hosted Halloween-themed classes send emails to students requesting that they avoid costumes with strobe or flashing lights without me asking.

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Arrange a meeting or send an email that provides details

Before the first day of classes, I send a copy of my Disability Services file to my professors that provides more information about my disability accommodations, and offer to arrange a meeting or provide additional information about how my disability accommodations apply to their class. While students are not required to disclose specific medical conditions, I tell my professors that I have photosensitive migraines and a neurological condition that is adversely impacted by flashing lights, and ask if they use flashing animations or lights in any course materials. By finding out this information on the first day of class, I have time to get modified or accessible copies of materials that do not contain flashing lights.

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Don’t be afraid to ask for extended time to watch content

Instead of watching movies or videos in class, I often will ask if I can watch content on my own in another location, or ask if I can have someone else screen content for me first to write down any time stamps for flashing lights. All of my professors have been fine with this, and I typically would leave the room while other students watched a video. Sometimes I will watch videos before class if it is a shorter video or something that will be discussed during the class period, while other times I will watch it once the class period is over.

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For events, request no flash photography

When attending class events or departmental gatherings, I would request no flash photography whenever possible so that I didn’t have to worry about a surprise migraine. I would make this request to event photographers or the department manager, and never had any issues with having this enforced.

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Additional tips on how I talk to professors about photosensitivity

  • Students who experience adverse medical reactions from strobe or flashing lights may want to tell their professors what these reactions look like, and if there is anything they should do, i.e time a seizure or call a security escort to help the student get back to their dorm safely after class
  • When taking virtual classes, I had to get a disability accommodation approved to wear my prescription tinted glasses for photophobia, since sunglasses/tinted glasses are typically not permitted
  • I refer to lightning storms as “nature’s strobe lights” and do not attend classes in-person if there is lightning outside- my professors are okay with this and would allow me to attend classes remotely or attend another class session to catch up on missed information

How I Talk To Professors About Photosensitivity. I have an eye and brain condition triggered by flashing lights. Here is how I talk to professors about photosensitivity and photophobia in the classroom