When I started middle school, my family and I had thought about several things related to the disability accommodations process, including large print assignments, the use of a scribe, and other common classroom accommodations for low vision. While everything was set for accommodating low vision inside of the classroom, we forgot about a few accommodations for low vision for things outside of the classroom. More specifically, we forgot to consider how I would use a locker at school when I couldn’t see the built in combination lock. Here is how I received disability accommodations for school lockers and low vision, and how to make a locker accessible for students with vision loss.
Why I couldn’t use a standard locker
As part of having low vision, I also have a print disability that makes it impossible for me to read standard font sizes. School combination locks are printed with small numbers and require a lot of precision to use, and these two factors made it impossible for me to open a locker independently. As a result, we added locker accommodations for low vision to my Student Assistance Plan (SAP) in sixth grade, which later evolved to a 504 Plan and Individualized Education Program (IEP) as the years went by.
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Locker modifications for low vision, and agreements with staff
My official disability accommodations listed that I could use an alternative locking mechanism for my locker that would be provided by my family, and that copies of keys to my locker would be retained by school staff as well as my parents. The school reserved the right to search my locker at any time or gain access to my locker, just like all other lockers at the school, and I did not receive any other accommodations for the contents of my locker.
One additional informal accommodation that I received was access to lower-level lockers since I had trouble reaching the upper lockers and balancing multiple items at once.
Choosing a lock with low vision
My family chose a padlock with a key as a way of securing my locker, and I had a distinctive keychain that made it easy for me to locate the key in my backpack or pocket. If I locked the key in my locker by mistake or left it at home, I would borrow a backup copy of the key from a staff member- these copies were made by my family at the hardware store.
Staff members that had access to a copy of my locker key included:
- Homeroom teacher
- Another trusted teacher (in case my homeroom teacher was absent or unavailable)
- Guidance counselor
- Principal/Assistant principal
- School secretary/school security officer
Another option for alternative locks is a speed dial lock or directional lock, which requires the user to set a pattern that they manipulate with their thumb. I knew someone who used this instead of a padlock with a key, and they shared the combination with school staff who were in charge of enforcing lockers.
Setting up a locker for low vision
At the beginning of the school year, the custodial staff would disengage the locking mechanism of the combination lock, and I would hook the padlock through the hole in the locker handle to secure it. A student’s homeroom teacher determined school locker placement when I was in middle school, while high school lockers were chosen by the student and could be located anywhere in the school. I preferred the lower-level locker placement because students were less likely to mess with the lock when walking by.
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Alert security staff to the locker modification
When I was in eighth grade, a new security staff member noticed that I had a padlock on my locker and that it looked different from the others, and accused me of hiding illegal items and sent me to the principal’s office, demanding a search on my locker. At the time, I thought it was ridiculous that I would make my locker look different from the others if I was trying to hide something, but I was late for class regardless and had to have my locker searched anyway. School staff should be made aware of modified lockers so that students are not put in a situation where they are accused of faking a disability or unauthorized modification of school property.
What if the padlock is cut off?
In another memorable situation, a member of school security cut off the padlock to my locker as they had assumed I had illegal items inside my locker, and replaced it with a different padlock that did not work with my key. I was left wondering why I suddenly couldn’t open my locker and had to get someone to cut off the lock so I could retrieve the items inside. The assistant principal worked with me to resolve this situation, and new keys were distributed when I got a replacement padlock.
Responding to questions/comments from other students
I received a handful of questions/comments from students and unfamiliar teachers asking why my locker looked different from the others, and found it helpful to practice answering these questions for when they came up. My typical responses would include:
- “I can’t see the numbers on the combination lock”
- “I can’t open the locker by myself, so I use this lock instead”
- For teachers/school staff- “I have an IEP accommodation to use a padlock, there are copies of the key in the office.”
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Getting over the stigma of having a different locker
Admittedly, I was embarrassed in middle school over needing to use a different locker, because of incidents like having my locker searched, and tried to get away with not using my locker by carrying items in a tote bag from class to class instead, or storing bulkier items in the band room. This was not very practical, but I was in denial that my vision was getting worse and this was how I chose to deal with it.
One of the strategies that helped me get over the stigma of having a different locker was having a friend with me whenever I used my locker for a while, whether that was me befriending my locker neighbor or one of my friends standing with me when I grabbed items. This helped me feel less like I was “sticking out” and over time I became more comfortable with going to my locker alone.
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Other tips for school lockers and low vision
- Certain backpack types, such as rolling backpacks, may not be permitted in school lockers due to size constraints or fire hazards
- Some students may prefer to add tactile dots or bump dots to their locker for easier identification
- Large print textbooks that feature larger page sizes may not fit in lockers- these will need to be stored in a classroom