Veronica With Four Eyes

Navigating The Dining Hall: College O&M

Shortly before my second year of college, I received a few orientation and mobility lessons for learning how to navigate with low vision and a blindness cane. These lessons were helpful for learning general travel skills, but I noticed they didn’t get into specifics about navigating college campuses or using university resources available for students with vision loss. One lesson that would have been really helpful is tips for navigating the dining hall with a blindness cane, so I’ve created the College O&M series to share my most-used tips and strategies for learning about this topic and others. Here are my tips for learning how to navigate college dining halls, which are the buildings I visit the most often outside of my dorm.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Take multiple trips to carry things

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 holding 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, but they might turn around if you dump an entire glass of ice water on yourself when trying to balance multiple items.

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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 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.

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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

My favorite tips for navigating the dining hall on a college campus, from a blindness cane user with low vision