Microsoft Office Specialist Certification and Low Vision


I had the opportunity to take a class my junior and senior years of high school that allowed students to test for Microsoft Office certifications. These certifications, which are internationally recognized, included Word, Word Expert, Excel, Excel Expert, and PowerPoint. The Word, Excel, and PowerPoint certifications were done the first year, and the Expert certifications, which are two part exams, were done the second year. These certifications have always stuck out on my resume, and many people have asked me about them.

I was lucky to have a teacher who knew low vision extremely well, as they have a parent with macular degeneration. As a result, they were more than willing to help me with accommodations and to help ensure that I could access everything. Here are some of the tips and tricks we used for training and testing for the certification exams. We used Certiport for testing, and I received my Microsoft Office Specialist Master certification in 2015.

Testing Accommodations

My teacher requested accommodations for a magnification tool and for double time on the test, very similar to the accommodations I receive for other standardized tests. We never had any issues with getting these accommodations, though it was determined that it was impossible for me to use Microsoft Access, a database software, so I never became certified in that. Accommodations were filed over a month before I sat for the first exam and we did not need to re-submit them for the other exams, they were automatically approved.

Enlarging Office applications

I had my own special computer in the computer lab that no other student was allowed to use. On this computer, there were two types of magnification software, one created for testing and one for normal use. The display was scaled to 200% so images and windows were larger. Text was also enlarged as large as possible. The Microsoft applications had a colored tint as a background and high contrast buttons as a result.  For more on Windows 10 accessibility, click here.

Practice tests

For class exercises, we used a software called GMetrix, which allows students to practice doing different tasks and creating documents. Instructions can be enlarged by clicking on the white box with text and then holding down the control (ctrl) and plus (+) keys until desired text size is reached. One thing is that before submitting work for review, the user must scale the font size down to the original size from when the document was opened, or the software will mark the question as wrong- same goes for the certification exam.

How the certifications have helped

While studying for these certifications, I was able to learn a lot more about the functions of Microsoft Office. I was able to learn how to create accessible materials quickly, a skill that has benefitted me many times. In addition, I was able to learn how to create high quality projects, and have consistently had the most impressive PowerPoint class project designs. I’ve also been able to help many of my fellow students with Microsoft projects- my suitemates last year would frequently ask me questions about using Microsoft Excel.

Overall, I couldn’t have been more lucky when it came to getting my certifications. Not only were they a great addition to my resume, but I have been able to use skills I learned from them every day.  This class also helped prepare me for taking the Information Systems CLEP exam. Getting one of these certifications is way better than taking an AP class, in my opinion- after all, most employers will be more impressed that you passed an Excel Expert exam than if you passed an AP History exam. I highly recommend taking these exams, no matter what you may study in the future, as this technology is used in every career.

10 Staff Members To Meet in College


Before I even started at my university, I had already talked to almost three dozen faculty and staff members on the phone and in person to ensure that I would not have any disruptions in receiving my approved classroom and housing accommodations.  Because of this, I was able to learn what staff members would best help me advocate for myself and that would help me while I was in the classroom or in my dorm.  Here are ten staff members that I highly recommend talking to before move-in or the first day of classes.  Please note that some colleges might have more than one person in these positions.

Disability Services Coordinator

Before I even applied to my university, I interviewed the Disability Services office multiple times about how they handled students with low vision (read more about my questions here).  Luckily, the department is very proactive, allowing students to set up accommodations before any problems sink in, and I was assigned a coordinator that specifically worked with students who were blind or had low vision.  The first staff member I worked with was a wonderful resource and helped me write out an accommodation plan that ensured I would receive all of my services  I can’t say enough nice things about them.  Read more about my experiences setting up a file here.

Assistive Technology Specialist

Assistive technology will be your best friend in college, and it always alarms me when students don’t embrace it.  I was an unique case when I arrived at my university- as one of my colleagues puts it, “most college students don’t come in knowing what assistive technology is, let alone wanting to study it.”  The assistive technology department can help with assessments, scanning in textbooks, and providing access to labs.  Some assistive technology departments also organize testing centers for students with disabilities.

Testing Coordinator

The testing coordinator helps make sure that students are able to take tests, quizzes, exams, and more in an environment where they can receive their accommodations.  Students can be referred to this department either by the assistive technology specialist or through Disability Services.  Testing accommodations are typically written in to the Disability Services file, but some testing centers develop their own student files.  It helps to talk to this person before the first day of classes because some majors may require a placement test for math, foreign language, or English classes.  Read more about my experiences with the testing center here.

Special Populations Housing Coordinator

This person is likely part of the committee that handles the special housing requests, and ultimately assigns students with special housing needs to their spaces.  When I had issues with not being approved for special housing as well as my first housing assignment, this person helped ensure that I received the accommodations I requested, and assisted me in finding an accessible room.  This was incredibly helpful with my housing this year, as I am able to stay in the same dorm room that I did last year.  Read more about my housing accommodations here.

Resident Director

This is the staff member that oversees the dorm building and actually lives there as well.  My resident director has been awesome about relaying important information and is a great person to talk to if there is a problem.  They also have helped me with navigating outside and preparing for inclement weather.

Academic Advisor

Each major has an advisor that assists students with picking out class schedules, and can also assist if there is an issue with the professor.  They also tend to be very honest about which professors embrace having students with disabilities in the classroom, and which professors are more hesitant.  Some departments may have advisors also be professors, while others have one or two people that are full-time advisors.

Student Support Specialist

For students who are apprehensive about a situation or potential situation, talking to a member of the Student Support staff can be a great help.  When I was worried about a situation with another student, the staff listened to all of my concerns and helped me develop a plan to ensure that I wouldn’t have to worry about the situation anymore.  This department usually has a confidentiality agreement in place, meaning that they do not have to report what is said in the meetings unless the student requests that they do so.

Security/Police

I made a note with university police that I use a blindness cane and have low vision, so that they would be able to assist me easier if I called.  I also made a note of what room I lived in on campus so if there was a fire alarm and I couldn’t escape, they would know where to find me.  One of my friends who has a severe medical condition gave police an abbreviated medical history, so they could assist emergency medical staff in administering care.

Student Health

While I didn’t work with them until I had my first visit, having a copy of your medical history and health insurance with the Student Health office can be invaluable, especially if you have a chronic illness.  I have a note in my file that I have Chiari Malformation, chronic pain, chronic migraines, and low vision.  Read more about my experiences with Student Health here.

Mail Services Coordinator

This may seem random, but talking to the Mail Services coordinator is very important.  With my low vision, I cannot use combination locks, so I contacted this person to ensure that the mailbox assigned to me would be one that uses a key.  Another one of my friends contacted them to ensure their mailbox would be accessible to someone using mobility aids that couldn’t bend over.  In the event that it’s impossible to go get mail, you can contact the coordinator to authorize someone else to pick up mail as well- I authorized my resident advisor to get my mail after I was in a car accident, and other friends have authorized me to pick up their mail while they were in the hospital.

While not everyone may need to talk to each type of person on the list, I have been grateful for the resources that each of these people have provided me with.  They all have helped, in one way or another, to ensure that I am thriving in the college environment.

Collecting Documentation

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For every two fantastic teachers I have had, there has always been one teacher that wanted to make sure that I knew that the teacher considered my disability to be an inconvenience and would refuse to follow my 504/IEP.  Yes, this is illegal, but that didn’t stop it from happening.  Over the course of the school year, my family would collect documentation of teachers not following my 504/IEP, and have it on record to show to the school board or other agency.  Here are six of the types of data we would download and keep for our records.

Class progress reports/grades

Most school systems have a database that parents and students can access so that students can review their grades, as well as view grades for individual assignments.  Some examples of these databases are Edline, SchoolVue, Aspen, and others.  Print off every page of data available for each course, and check to see that grades match assignments.  Also check to make sure that the student was exempt from assignments with inaccessible materials, and not given a 0.

Hall passes

At my first high school, I was frequently sent out of class to go enlarge my assignments when the teacher forgot to do so.  We saved these hall passes that contained teacher signatures and times that I was gone, and used them as evidence to show that my work frequently was not enlarged for certain classes.

IEP/504 meeting notes

My mom took notes on everything that was said during my meetings, and who it was said by.  She didn’t rely on my case manager or other people present to prepare a transcript.  In some school districts, parents can record an audio transcript during the meeting, but that option was never available to us.

Emails/letters

If the school district sends it, save it.  This is extremely helpful for filling out a timeline of events, and is less stressful than trying to remember who said what, and when.  In addition to an online backup, print out emails and save the files in a backup location as well.

Graded assignments, or assignments in an inaccessible format

I saved copies of every assignment I received, as well as keeping copies of the assignments that were not in an accessible format.  We would check these grades against the grades in our school database, and save the inaccessible materials as evidence that my 504/IEP was not followed in the classroom.  For a couple of assignments, I had attached my hall pass at the top so there was a signed time/date stamp.

IEP evaluations

At the end of the year, each teacher writes in an IEP evaluation, so that the special education staff and parents can see if accommodations were appropriate.  One teacher, who had not followed my IEP, wrote an evaluation painting me as the worst student to ever exist, and filled it with inaccurate information about my behavior, and the behavior of the teacher themselves.  It was unlike any of the other evaluations I had received from my other teachers, who wrote positive things about me, though noted that I had trouble remembering to hand in assignments.  All of the claims that the other teacher had made were disproven using the types of data in this post- for example, they claimed I would refuse to do my assignments and read on my eReader instead, but the grade reports showed that I was exempt from those assignments, and there was no evidence that I had been disciplined for my actions (something that would certainly happen if another student in my class did the same thing).  We also had copies of the assignments that were not enlarged.  It took months for that teacher’s comments to be removed, and it helped for us to have a copy of the original evaluation and every other piece of data as well.

In addition to these documents, save copies of SAPs, 504s, and IEPs, as knowing these accommodations will be very helpful when transitioning into post-secondary education.  In the event that the school district is investigated, all of these documents will prove to be invaluable to investigators as they learn more about the school district.

How Do People With Low Vision…Attend Political Events?

Attending college right outside of Washington, DC has a lot of incredible benefits.  One of them is that a lot of politicians come to visit campus for campaigning, or just to talk about important issues.  At first, I would shy away from attending many of these events, simply because I was worried they would be inaccessible or filled with lots of commotion.  I’m glad I got over my reservations for attending, because I have been able to see many politicians including Tim Kaine, Michelle Obama, and John Kasich when they came to visit my college campus.  Most recently, I got to talk to Joe Biden one-on-one at his “It’s On Us” event, and even took a selfie with him!  Here are some of my tips for attending these events with a disability.

Be prepared to stand in line

For Michelle Obama, I was waiting in line for the better part of three hours, and still was rather far back in the line.  I found myself sitting down on the pavement often and doing stretches on my legs to make sure I didn’t go into spasms.  I’ve heard of some people requesting chairs from event staff to sit in while they are in line, but I have never done this.

Carry earplugs

These events can get extremely loud.  To protect your hearing, bring a pair of earplugs to wear so that you can drown out feedback or the person next to you who won’t stop talking about nothing.  I found this helped me concentrate on the speaker more.

Bring something to cover your legs if you are going in the morning

This advice would have been very helpful to me when I stood in line starting at 6 am.  Wear a pair of leggings while standing in line, if you are wearing a skirt or dress.  This will save you from massive chills.  If needed, bring a jacket/sweatshirt as well.  Even moderate temperatures can feel cold after a while.

No bags, if possible

Try not to bring any purses or other bags with you to the event.  These take a while to search, and you may miss out on the good seats.  If you must bring a bag, bring a crossbody/long strap bag with as few pockets as possible, and have them unzipped/unclasped prior to going through security.  For Tim Kaine and John Kasich, I didn’t bring any bags with me and got through very quickly.  For Michelle Obama and Joe Biden, I brought a crossbody bag with my iPad, since I knew I would be standing in line for several hours on end.

The metal detector

Sometimes, the metal detector can be weirdly sensitive.  I managed to set it off once with the combination of my blindness cane, metal in my jeans, and glasses.  I then was pulled aside and they used a portable metal detector on me to confirm that it was the combination of those three items that set it off, and not an individual item.  While security staff cannot take apart my blindness cane to search it, they do send it through the x-ray machine (while the cane is folded), along with my other items.

Ask for ADA seating

To accommodate guests that cannot stand for long periods of time or that require a sign language interpreter, all the events have a “reserved” section of chairs usually towards the front for people with disabilities.  Talk to security or other event staff when you get in line about reserving one of these chairs, and provide evidence of your disability if needed (I show my blindness cane, another one of my friends shows their medical bracelet, and another friend shows leg braces).  Legally, they cannot charge you extra for accessible seating.

Sit away from media

If too many flashing lights can trigger a migraine and you are sitting right in the line of fire with the media, ask for event staff or security to move you to an area where there are fewer flashing lights.  One of my friends who did this was moved towards the middle section, on the left side.

Keep your blindness cane unfolded

I found that there was very little space between me and other people at all of the events I attended.  Having my blindness cane unfolded meant that I could easily navigate and have something to lean on if I lost my balance.  This is also helpful to security, as if they have to assist you, you don’t have to try and unfold your cane while someone is squishing you.  Bonus- you can poke people with it.

Have a backup plan if you get separated

Every single event I’ve attended has ended with me getting separated from my friends.  Some of the circumstances have included security, people pushing us, me going to the ADA section, and other factors out of our control.  Since cell phones can die during the events, agree on a meetup location to gather at after the event.  We usually choose a nearby building.

If you get to meet the speaker

So far, the only speaker I have been able to meet was Joe Biden, and he was an incredibly kind person- seriously, he’s one of the nicest people I have ever met!  Right before he came over to talk to me, I alerted a Secret Service agent that I was using a blindness cane, and they made sure to pass along the information so that nothing awkward would happen.  Luckily, Joe Biden was very understanding and was more than happy to talk to me, saying that I looked like I would be a wonderful advocate for people with disabilities (something I am still smiling over!).

These events are so much fun, and I want to encourage as many people as possible to attend them. Show your support and gratitude for the disability legislation that has been passed, and support candidates that continue to influence it in the future.


 

 

 

SAT Accommodations for Low Vision

I remember when I walked in to take my SAT.  The day before, my mom and I, along with the testing coordinator for the school I was taking the exam at, spent at least an hour filling out a variety of pretesting forms and filling out my information on what seemed like several dozen pieces of paper.  Keeping track of all those forms seemed to be more stressful than taking the exam.  When testing day came, the testing coordinator gathered all of the forms and signaled for my mom and I to come to the front of the line so I could be escorted to testing.  As my mom and I walked forward, a bunch of parents started yelling at us for cutting the line and seeming like we were more important than everyone else.  They started asking what was wrong with us as I was walking away with the testing coordinator.  To answer their question, there isn’t anything “wrong” with me, I was just a student who received accommodations for my vision impairment.

We filed for my accommodations at least twelve weeks in advance.  While I had taken an AP Exam in the past, the College Board had us resubmit my accommodations because we had to make some minor changes.  My accommodations were approved in a reasonable amount of time, and I didn’t have to worry about rescheduling.

I took my test in a small classroom where I was the only student, with at least two staff members present.  The overhead lights in the classroom were turned off and replaced with lamps to help with my light sensitivity.  I had a giant table to work on my test, and there were computers in the classroom for when it came time to type my essay.  I received short, frequent breaks to stretch my legs and walk around the classroom, since I was prone to leg spasms.

The test itself was in 22 point Arial font and came in a spiral-bound book on 8.5″ x 11″ paper.  The paper was thick so I didn’t have to worry about the colored Sharpie pens I used bleeding through and obstructing my view of answer choices.  Images were enlarged 250%, and math notation such as exponents were enlarged as well.

As for assistive technologies, I used my personal iPad with the app myScript calculator, a calculator that calculates equations that the student writes with their finger and that supports large print.  There were no graphing capabilities on this calculator.  Guided Access was enabled for the duration of the exam so that I could not access the internet or other apps during the test.  I also had access to Microsoft Word 2013 with the dictionary, encyclopedia, and internet functions disabled, for the essay portion of my exam.  The essay was printed after I finished typing.  If I could go back in time, I would have also used a CCTV device as an extra support during my exam for when I had trouble seeing smaller items.

I received time and a half on the exam, which was adequate for me.  I also did not fill out the bubble sheet for the exam, instead having a paraprofessional do it after I had completed testing and left the building.  It’s worth noting that I did not receive my scores at the same time as everyone else who tested on the same day as me- I believe I had to wait an additional 4-6 weeks, as is common with most standardized tests that are in an accessible format.

Below, I have outlined my official accommodations for the exam:

  • Large print, size 22 Arial point font
  • Graphics enlarged to 250%
  • Extended time- 150%
  • Use of pens on the exam
  • Word processing software
  • Extra/untimed breaks
  • Use of alternative calculator
  • Small group testing environment

Overall, taking my SAT exam went incredibly smoothly, and I was able to score very well and get into my top choice college, as well as my second choice.  I am grateful that it was a relatively stress-free experience in taking my exam…well, about as stress-free as taking a SAT can be.

Requesting Extracurricular Accommodations

I’ve never had much of a problem with students telling me that I can’t be a part of a club or organization, because they see me as a person who can actively participate and contribute to the group. However, there have been many adult leaders who have worried about how the group as a whole would be perceived if there was a student with a disability in it- they saw me as a disability. I’ve been told my large print book might stick out from the other books, my blindness cane would make me appear to be helpless, and that my sensitivity to flashing lights was super inconvenient for them. Luckily, I have been able to make many friends through these activities that help me in different clubs. Here are some ways I have been able to encourage inclusion in extracurricular activities.

Explain things as simply as possible

No need to go into detail about diagnoses here. Explain your disability as it applies to receiving accommodations. For example, I tell people that I have issues reading small font and require size 22 font and equivalent picture size on materials. I also mention I have a case with the Department of Blind and Visually Impaired, so that way no one tries to argue with me if my low vision actually exists.

Talk to students in the group

When I was in a play my freshman year of high school, I was surrounded by cast members I had known since elementary and middle school, or that were in band as well. Because of this, no one ever really acknowledged I had a vision impairment, because they were so used to me needing large print or running into objects. Encourage members of the group to ask you questions if need be, but don’t worry about bringing up your disability every thirty seconds. I’ve found that students tend to be more accepting of people with disabilities than adults are.

Avoiding flashing lights

Flashing lights are a migraine trigger for me, and it’s impossible to shut out all flashing lights in the world. In a music ensemble I’m in, I wear very dark sunglasses and a wide brimmed hat to block out most of the flashing lights, and tend to keep my eyes closed when not playing. In other ensembles I’ve been in, the director would request the audience to avoid flash photography for the duration of the performance. Some directors would even tell the audience it was a migraine or seizure trigger. Chances are, you aren’t the only one who is sensitive to flashing lights, so it shouldn’t be a problem to request that they be limited.

Isolation is not the answer

A leader of a group decided that my disability was inconvenient to the other students, and moved me so that I was all by myself while everyone else was allowed to talk with others. As a result, a lot of students thought I was “the weird blind girl” and I had lots of difficulty making friends because people thought there was some deep reason as to why I was stuck alone. This problem was solved when a group of students noticed I had been outcast and asked me to join them. They didn’t mind that I needed large print or had trouble navigating. After that, I became much happier and felt more like a valued member of said group.  If a leader is concerned about having a student with a disability, schedule a meeting where other staff members and students will be present so they can address their concerns.

Remember your rights

You have the right to be able to see, and to receive accessible materials. Do not let anyone say that the large print is too distracting or that they don’t think you need it, or that they don’t feel like providing it. It’s discrimination, after all, if they don’t let you be a part of a group because of your disability.

I have made many of my closest friends through extracurricular activities, and am grateful for the many things I have learned. With these tips, hopefully you will be able to succeed in whatever clubs interest you.

How To Create A Disability Services File

I chose what college I was going to attend during my junior year of high school, a year before I even submitted my application (read more about how I made my choice here). The Office of Disability Services was/is very welcoming and answered all of my questions. They have a dedicated staff member that handles all the low vision/blindness cases, and they know exactly what accommodations I need and what to ask for. I am incredibly lucky to have so many resources available to me, and I was excited to be part of this university.

Since IEPs expire the moment the student graduates from high school, it’s important to meet with Disability Services before school starts to ensure that the student continues to receive services in college. Most of the accommodations listed in an IEP can continue to be used if the student adds them in their Disability Services file. One thing that does transfer to college is 504 plans, though you still will need to create a file to receive services. It is highly recommended that you convert your IEP to a 504 plan before you graduate, something I did two hours before my graduation (though giving your case manager advanced notice is a must). Here is how to create a Disability Services file with your school. This also applies to students attending community/junior colleges, though the plan might not transfer when the student moves.

Start Early

I investigated what services were available to me before I applied to the school. While visiting other colleges, I planned my visits around interviewing staff members from the Disability Services offices in a one on one setting, spending thirty minutes or more at each interview. If your accommodations will not be met, this is not the school for you. The important thing for the student is to be proactive, not reactive, and that is also true for the Disabilities Services office. Some colleges won’t help you until you are in trouble, and it’s better to avoid the problem than to have to figure out how to solve it later (read more about scheduling here). Don’t wait until there is a problem in a class to open a Disability Services file. I opened mine while I was still in high school after I had received my acceptance letter and committed to attending in the fall.

Get notes from your doctor prior to the Disability Services meeting

If you bring a doctor’s certification that you have a disability, you can set up the file at your first meeting with Disability Services. Usually you can find the forms the doctor needs to fill out on the school Disability Services website. My school required a recent ophthalmologist report, which I brought with me. Some schools may also require a physical, but mine did not.

Bring all documents you think might be important

I met with Disability Services in April to set up my file that would be used starting in the fall semester. I brought in my current IEP, my prior 504 plan from eighth grade (since I wasn’t converting to a 504 until the last day of school), and documents from my ophthalmologist that described my diagnosis- read more about collecting documentation here. Other helpful documents to bring, if available, include Department of Blind and Visually Impaired case files, assistive technology evaluations, orientation and mobility files, occupational therapy assessments, medical diagnosis from other doctors (i.e neurologist) and similar documents. All of my papers were in a giant binder so I could easily reference them during the meeting (pro tip- get a rolling backpack to carry everything around).

Know what accommodations you need the most

For me, having access to my assistive technology devices, receiving digital copies of assignments, and preferential seating were the most important accommodations. I made sure those were the first I mentioned to Disability Services. Other accommodations in my file include time and a half on tests, extended time on assignments when requested, copies of notes, using a word processor for written assignments, large print on handouts, and the ability to attend class remotely if needed. Once I was on campus and worked with Disability Services, I added additional accommodations, such as noting that I would be using a blindness cane (yes, I did encounter a professor who was very confused over my cane).

Ask if your school has a disability testing center

My school has a multiroom lab where students are able to take their tests in a quiet environment with their assistive technologies. I had to fill out a separate form for these accommodations. I receive time and a half on tests, a laptop with ZoomText and JAWS, use of my E-Bot Pro, reduced light, and use of a word processor as well as a calculator app on my phone. An accommodation made available to everyone is the use of earplugs during tests as well as a white noise machine to help drown out background noise. This testing center is invaluable to students with a range of disabilities, not just sensory ones.  Read more about the disability testing center here.

Ask about other services for students registered with Disability Services

My school offers a writing center for students with disabilities who need extra help. I have not needed it, but students who struggle with writing have greatly benefited from these services. Ask if there are other tutoring opportunities or groups that help students with disabilities.

Request special housing, if needed

The sooner you request this, the better! Housing arrangements tend to fill up quickly. My freshman year, I lived in a single room that was adjacent to the resident advisor’s room so I could reach her quickly if there was a problem. This year, I live in a handicapped accessible apartment (on campus) with my own bedroom and I am able to navigate easily around the apartment, as well as being able to get to my classes and, most importantly, the dining hall. In order to get special housing, my primary care doctor had to fill out a form to certify my disability, which was in addition to the form to certify me for Disability Services.  Read more about disability housing here.

Get a referral to the assistive technology specialist or department

At my school the Assistive Technology department is different than Disability Services. By receiving a referral, you can access services such as enlarged textbooks, assistive technologies, computer labs with built in accessibility software, and more. This is the most important department for me because while Disability Services can identify a problem, Assistive Technology solves it.  Read more about staff members to talk to before college starts here,

Make sure your file is ready for the first day of classes

Get copies of your accommodations sheet (which Disability Services will provide) as soon as possible to pass out to professors, and know how to explain the accommodations as well (post on that here). Be sure all your testing accommodations are set before the first exam. Don’t wait until you fail to set yourself up with the tools you need to succeed.

How To Explain Accommodations

Welcome! In this series, I will discuss how to start the semester off right, with all of the tools and tricks I have learned. Topics covered will include scheduling, navigation, textbooks, and more. If you have a specific request for a topic, please comment below and I will do my best to accommodate your request. Speaking of accommodating, here is how to best explain your accommodations and Disability Services file to your professors.



First impressions are more important in college than high school. Back in high school, teachers thought they could handle anything and everything, and then suddenly would express their worries about having a student with a disability, after it was too late for the student to transfer classes. Some teachers could handle IEPs and 504 plans really well, and other teachers preferred to focus on the class as a whole instead of accommodating one or two students. Legally, teachers must comply with these plans, but things happen, so students learn to work with it.

In college, professors are upfront about how the semester will go, and aren’t afraid to tell you if they can’t accommodate you. In order to figure out if the professor is open to having a student with a disability, I write an email before the first day of class, as well as talk to them on the first day to make sure we are all on the same page. Here is how I structure these conversations.


Email
– I begin the email by introducing myself by saying my name, my class year, and my major. Next, I inform them I have a file with the Office of Disabilities on campus, and that I also have a 504 plan. Then, I summarize my accommodations as simply as possible, and talk about any assistive technology I use. Finally, I sign off the message asking if there is any textbooks or class materials I need before class begins, as I want to make sure that I can get the materials in an accessible format. Here is a sample email:

Dear Professor Lastname,
My name is Veronica, and I am a sophomore studying software engineering and assistive technology. I have a file with Office of Disability Services and a 504 plan for low vision and testing accommodations. I need materials in a digital format so that I can enlarge them to a font size I can read, and I will be taking tests in the Office of Disability Services testing center. I use an iPad, Microsoft Surface Pro 3, and/or Android phone in order to access digital materials, in addition to my SmartLux magnifier and E-Bot Pro to access paper materials when needed. I also use a blindness cane with a rolling tip when walking to and from class as well as when walking around the room when obstacles are present.
Before the semester starts, may I get the name/ISBN of the textbooks and other materials for the semester? I want to make sure I can have them in an accessible format for the first day of class.
Thank you in advance, and I can’t wait to be in your class!
Veronica

The professor usually replies within a week, if not much sooner, with the textbook information and says they look forward to having me in the class. Some professors don’t respond, so I make sure to include extra details when I talk to them on the first day of class.


The first day of class-
On the first day, bring every piece of assistive technology that could potentially be used in the class (I typically bring a rolling backpack in addition to my normal bag) and read through the syllabus seeing what devices will be needed for future classes. Pay attention for phrases from the professor such as “I really embrace pencil and paper,” “I don’t like electronics in the classroom,” or “I will not allow any devices in the classroom.” If you hear these phrases, start looking for a new class to transfer to. If that is not an option, go to the teacher after class with your accommodation sheet from the Office of Disability Services, or a similar document that simply explains the services required. Try to explain everything in thirty seconds or less, as a long list of accommodations can be daunting. Here’s how the conversation usually goes.

“Hi, I’m Veronica. I have a file with Office of Disability Services for low vision. I need to receive materials digitally when possible. You can email me them at the beginning of class or post them on the class website. I also take tests in the Disability Testing Center. And in icy or extremely rainy conditions, I might be a bit late to class, but I will try to make it!”

Almost all of my professors have been surprised over how simple my accommodations are and are more than willing to work with me. If asked, I also do a brief demonstration of my devices that I use in the classroom- I put a piece of paper under the E-Bot Pro to show it enlarges on my iPad and can’t access the internet or other apps, or I run the SmartLux over a book to show how the text enlarges. I’ve only had one professor who seemed apprehensive over my technology, and I was thankful for their honesty, as I didn’t want a semester of frustration for both of us. I was able to transfer to a new class with a professor, who worked in disability policy prior to becoming a professor and embraced my assistive technologies, especially the SmartLux. It was a win-win for everyone.

This experience highlights another key thing to remember, which is to pick your battles. Yes, you can force people to follow your accommodations, but it may not be the best solution, as it can be stressful for not only the professor, but for you as well. This is especially true in classes that are in the core curriculum/general education requirements (i.e, not your major), as there are always different professors and different classes you can take to meet these core requirements. Find the professor that understands your accommodations and sees how simple they truly are, and that helps you to thrive in the classroom environment. They might even forget you have a disability.

Feel free to link to my posts on the E-Bot Pro, SmartLux, and education apps in order to explain the technologies to your professors. Remember, your disability is not to be viewed as an inconvenience, rather just another component of the student you are.

Testing Accommodations For Low Vision Students

Finals week is fast approaching for college students and I have to say I’m not nervous at all for my finals. It helps that my first college final week last year was a whole new level of stressful because I had just been in a car accident two weeks prior and couldn’t think straight because of neck pain, so any finals week in comparison is remarkably less stressful. Another thing that helps is that I have testing accommodations that allow me to focus on the test, as opposed to stressing my eyes out trying to process the material. Here are the accommodations I receive through disability services in college, and some that I received in high school that were written into my IEP.

Colored paper and Arial font

I did a science project in eleventh grade about how colored backgrounds were easier to read for long periods of time as opposed to sharp white, and I have found it’s easier to focus my eyes on a shaded background than white. I usually received tests in high school on light blue or light yellow paper. Arial font is important because it reduces the risk of mistaking letters for one another and it’s clear to read, as well as the fact it scales well on the paper.

Single sided paper 

So one day in tenth grade, the paraprofessional enlarging my work decided to print my tests double sided, something that had never happened before. When I started writing on the test, the sharpie pens I wrote with bled through so I didn’t notice there was information on the back. My math teacher approached me after looking at my test and said “great news! You did really well on half the test…you just didn’t see the other half.” Thankfully, she let me redo the other half, and I never received double sided papers again for testing.

Ear plugs

I have what my family calls super sonic hearing, meaning that my sense of hearing is elevated to compensate for my lack of sight. As a result, I can get easily distracted in testing environments by water dripping from a faucet, the air conditioner, and even voices from halfway across the hall. As a result, I would wear ear plugs, or sometimes just headphones unplugged from my iPod, to muffle background noise and help me concentrate better.

Time and a half 

For timed tests, I receive time and a half so that if there is a problem during the test or if I just need the extra time, I have it. While I don’t often use it, it was extremely helpful during my SAT and ACT tests

iPad apps, when necessary

I rely on certain apps for my learning on the iPad, including a calculator. I have been able to use the myScript Calculator for the state standardized tests, called the SOL in Virginia, the SAT and ACT, and in the classroom as long as guided access is enabled on my iPad.

Sharpie pens

Most tests require students to use pencils, but I am unable to see pencil due to the very faint gray color of the lead. While this is no problem in college to use, I had it specifically written into my IEP that I could use pens. Obviously, I did not use Scantrons.

Low light testing environment

I have pretty intense photosensitivity and bright fluorescent lights are one of my enemies. For my standardized tests, ACT, SAT, and college tests that I take where I am the only one there, the lights are dimmed 50% so my eyes don’t burn from the light. In college, the overhead lights are not used and I have a lamp next to me instead.

E-bot Pro

I have a more in depth review, but this little machine is the reason I have done so well on tests this semester. It is a CCTV that broadcasts to my iPad so I can adjust contrast and zoom in from my iPad. It also can read text when needed. It uses its own personal wifi connection so the iPad can’t access any other apps or the internet. According to a vendor I spoke with, it is approved for state standardized testing in Virginia as well as the SAT and ACT. It is a relatively new device, and one I wish I had in high school.

Large table

All of this assistive technology starts to pile up very quickly on a normal sized desk. While I don’t believe this is written into my accommodations, taking a test on a larger table in the classroom is always something I request. My geology professor lets me set up all of my technology on her desk, and there’s always been a large table lying around somewhere back in high school.

High contrast images, graphs, and maps

When I took geography as a ninth grader, my teacher noticed I had trouble reading the maps and enlarged them on PowerPoint for the entire class to use so that the symbols were clearer. He noticed test scores went up because everyone found it clearer to see. Having images that are easier to read benefits more than just the student needing the accommodation.
While it may seem like I receive tons of accommodations to take a test, most of these are very basic. Although I had one teacher say that me receiving testing accommodations was unfair to the other students, none of my other teachers have said that these give me an unfair advantage. Testing accommodations just help me to show what I know on a test, just like the other students get to do.

Why I Prefer My Schoolwork Digitally

We live in an age where it’s easy to go paperless, but many people have wondered why I embrace having all of my schoolwork digital, when possible.  Since I have low vision and a print disability (more on that here), I have a profound appreciation for the availability of digital materials, and have seen the tremendous effect they can have on my learning. Here are ten reasons as to why I love being able to hold a wealth of information on a device.

It’s much more lightweight.

As someone who has neck, back, and shoulder issues, I’m not interested in having to carry a heavy backpack filled with papers or textbooks. Carrying around several ten page large print worksheets can add up very quickly, and having to sort through several packets can get frustrating very quickly.

I can add color filters easily.

Before I started getting all my work digitally, I would get my work enlarged on stark white paper that would cause glare on a page. Alternatively, when I got my work enlarged on colored paper, my backpack would look like I was carrying a rainbow and at times the colors of paper that I could see the easiest weren’t available. I can easily change the background of a page to be blue or put a red filter on my screen to reduce glare and eye strain.  Read more about how color affects the readability of font here.

 Easy to enlarge text.

Quite simply, you can’t zoom in on a piece of paper. And when magnifying glasses give you a headache, if you can’t read something on paper, you have to get over it.

Technology can fit on a desk.

One day in science class when I was 14, a piece of classwork had to be enlarged to eighteen point font, the smallest size I could read at the time. To accomplish this, the assignment had to be enlarged so large, that I couldn’t work at my desk, and instead had to work on the floor of the hallway because the paper was so large. With digital tools, a user can simply scroll across the page to read information.

People won’t forget about it.

I had several teachers forget to enlarge my work in middle and high school. By sharing a digital file, I can have assignments at the same time as my fellow students instead of having to wait for an assignment to be enlarged.

No one has to attempt to read my terrible handwriting.

I have dysgraphia, and typing is much easier than attempting to read whatever I wrote down.  I can’t read my handwriting, so typing is much more efficient.  For when I do need paper copies of an assignment, I follow these guidelines for creating accessible materials.

I can use applications on my computer to enhance my learning experience.

It isn’t uncommon to see me using a screen reader and magnification at the same time so I can make sure I retain all the correct information.  Read how I made my iPad accessible here.

There’s less of a stigma.

I’ve had students and teachers give me very funny looks for having to use large print, and some would be downright rude about it. I’ve even heard someone say that me large print was unfair to the other students. Nowadays, it isn’t weird to be seen typing on an iPad or using other technologies, as chances are, others are using them too.

It’s often easier to balance.

Having to carry twenty sheets of paper around a science lab as opposed to an iPad was much more unpleasant and difficult to organize. Plus, I accidentally set my paper on fire once in a lab- as you can imagine, the teacher was not very happy.

Having access to it prepares me for the “real world.”

By having access to technology in high school, I am prepared to adapt to any situation when it comes to requesting materials I can view. Anything can be found digitally now, and by knowing how to access it, I can adapt the world to my needs, instead of demanding the world adapt to my needs because I don’t know what to do. This is a skill I had the opportunity to practice by taking several virtual classes in high school- more on that here.  I am grateful for learning how to adapt digital material to my different needs, so I can feel like I can do anything now.