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.

Why To Take Virtual Classes in College

Living with chronic illness, it can be very difficult to get out of bed, let alone get to class. While I am able to push myself to get to a majority of my classes, sometimes I just want to be able to do school work without having to move too much. Because of this, I have chosen to incorporate virtual classes into my college schedule, and it has helped me a lot in managing my time and improving my grades. Here are some of the reasons I appreciate virtual classes, and my tips for success. As of spring 2017, I have taken 13 virtual classes in four semesters of college.

Better scheduling

I’ve found that there were a few classes that either were held extremely early in the morning or late at night. Since my vision fluctuates throughout the day, these class times are not a good fit for me. With virtual classes, I can work on assignments while my vision is doing well.

Get ahead easily

Many of my professors post several weeks of class work in advance, so if I am feeling well, I will complete the assignments early,  in case I wind up feeling not-so-well later on. Professors also seem to be more flexible about students turning in late work if an emergency comes up- I was able to easily get extensions on assignments when needed.

Take classes from anywhere

The only reason I got credits my first semester was because of virtual classes. I had two separate medical emergencies happen in the span of November 2015 and spent over six weeks at home (several hours from school) recovering. Basically, I disappeared right after midterms and only came back to school because I had to take a final exam. While I was recovering at home, I was able to continue with my virtual classes and stay on track, and I didn’t even tell my virtual teachers how sick I was until after the class had ended. With the flexibility to take classes anywhere, I was able to do very well that semester.

Use your own assistive technologies

With virtual classes, I can use all of my own technology which is fine-tuned to my preferences. I also can learn which devices, applications, and extensions work best for certain classes and how to create accessible documents. Bonus- I don’t have to balance five devices on a small desk.

Less “fluff” work

One of my friends was often complaining about having to do group projects and other frustrating assignments in one of their classes. I took the same class virtually and only had to worry about reading material, answering three questions a week, and writing a total of two essays. That was it! I didn’t have to worry about investing a ton of energy into a general education class, and I could spend more time on my other classes.

Get used to working independently

One of the common complaints about virtual classes is that there is no one to reinforce deadlines and other materials. This is actually a good thing, as no one is going to be around to remind you of every little thing in the real world. Learning to budget time and research topics online are important skills to have.

You won’t be seen as a disability

While it is important to share your disability services file with your professor, you don’t have to worry about sticking out in class discussions because of your disability, if you are worried about that. In one of my classes (that I dropped immediately), lots of students and even the professor were staring at my blindness cane like it was some type of foreign object and asking a lot of strange questions. In virtual classes, no one can see you.

Take tests in your own environment

Not all virtual classes are like this, but being able to take tests and quizzes in your own testing environment is an awesome advantage to taking these types of classes. I always appreciate being able to take a quiz from the comfort of my own desk, or to take a test with one of my pain relief wraps on.

Adjunct professors

Professors can teach from anywhere in the world, and this is often beneficial as the student is able to learn information from someone in the field, or get a global perspective on a topic. For my global understanding requirement, I had a professor who had travelled to many different countries and was able to educate the class on many different topics related to global health and policy. Another one of my professors was popular at another university from halfway across the country, and we got to take a class with them. I’ve even had professors living in other countries.

Learn more about yourself

This may seem weird, but I have learned a lot about how I access materials and learn through taking virtual classes, probably because I rely on technology a lot. With the ability to take a variety of different classes, I have been able to learn how I process information best, and which technologies are most helpful. I know that virtual classes will help me a lot in the future as well, especially since I want to work with accessibility.

Virtual classes have been an amazing resource for me. I am grateful that my college has really embraced virtual education and that I have been able to take almost any class that I want.

Eschenbach SmartLux Review

I was at a low vision exam when I got on the subject of assistive technology with the ophthalmologist. He told me he had some “toys” that I could try out. At first, he brought out some colored filters to put on top of paper, and page guides. But then he brought out the Eschenbach SmartLux, and I told my mom that I didn’t want to leave that day without one of my own.

The Eschenbach SmartLux is a portable CCTV that’s about the size of a smartphone. It can zoom in up to 12x and has its own built in kickstand on the back for hands free use. It uses large buttons in order to control the device, with tactile labels to help assist users.

It has different contrast settings for the images, including natural light, white on black, black on white, black on yellow, and yellow on black. I typically work with black on white or black on yellow, unless I’m working with a photograph. In the white on black display mode, I am able to read even fine pencil marks, something I can’t do with any other device. It’s easy to operate since there are only four buttons- zoom in/out, change contrast, freeze image, and on/off. The display feels natural for me to read on, even in bright sunlight, but I also am used to reading on a screen for long periods of time.

This device is worth its eight ounce weight in gold. Last year for my literature class, we had to read a graphic novel that was not available digitally. Using the SmartLux, I was able to easily read the novel from a paper copy I got from the library. I’ve also used it in restaurants to read menus and to read forms, and it’s been fantastic.  Because of its ability to detect pencil in high contrast displays, I’ve also  been able to use it to view drawings from my highly talented friends.

Even though it was expensive, costing $600, this little device has been perfect in situations where my E-Bot Pro would be too large or too heavy for me to transport. I can’t use conventional magnifying lenses due to the prism in my glasses, so these digital magnifiers have given me the freedom to access print materials along with my peers, something I am very grateful for.

E-Bot Pro Review

Over the summer, I had the fun of visiting the assistive technology lab affiliated with the Department of Blind and Visually Impaired. The day I visited, a vendor was demonstrating a new CCTV that had been approved for use on standardized tests and that used my beloved iPad. I was super excited to see what it was.

E-Bot Pro system with iPad and projector with book underneath

The E-Bot Pro by HIMS inc., is a relatively new CCTV that looks like a projector. It can be cast onto an iPad screen via the E-Bot Pro app or plugged into a larger monitor, though I typically find myself using it on my iPad. It is controlled using either a joystick or on the touch screen of the iPad using familiar gestures like pinch to zoom in and dragging a finger across the display to move the camera. Speaking of display, it can accommodate several different color modes such as white on black, yellow on black, black on green, and more, as well as allowing the user to adjust for contrast. It takes up only about 12″ of space on a desk, though I would recommend having a two desk setup or a large table to use it on just so you don’t risk knocking it over.

I was blown away by how clear text reads on the E-Bot Pro, especially with fonts that tend to be blurry for me such as Times New Roman. The images are shockingly clear and the zoom (up to 50x) is very easy to adjust. The system also is able to OCR documents and use its own built in screen reader and voice guide to help the user. I did find it had some issues with images that were very light gray, like pencil, and also with fonts smaller than 6 pt. In cases like this, I just ask someone to trace over the image using a high contrast marker or pen. Other than that, the camera works flawlessly, and I appreciate the automatic scrolling mode that allows the camera to move while I read information on the screen. Another cool thing the camera does is rotate. I’m not limited to seeing just what’s directly below the camera- it rotates about 270°. I find this especially helpful when the professor is drawing on the board, and have also used the functionality to read signs outside my window. The camera isn’t loud at all and it doesn’t distract other students.

Teachers and school administrators alike may panic over having a wireless device in the classroom. However, the E-Bot Pro is not connected by Bluetooth, but by its own wifi hotspot. While the device is connected, the user cannot access any other internet sources, and if guided access is enabled, the device is restricted to only the E-Bot app. I used this device to take exams in the classroom for my geology class this semester, and my professor not only embraced it, but was fascinated with the technology. I was able to complete assignments at a large table with my screen facing a wall so people couldn’t see over me.

If you find yourself not being able to afford the E-Bot Pro (after all, it is $3500), there are still opportunities for you to be able to use one. I received mine at no cost to me as part of my vocational rehabilitation services through the Department of Blind and Visually Impaired, since it helps me succeed in school and achieve my goal of employment. Another option is to talk to your school district’s assistive technology or vision impairment coordinator about buying the system, and say that you and other students to benefit from. Alternatively, look at other school districts or organizations that may have one for you to use, like an accessibility library, state assistive technology system, or similar.

Overall, the E-Bot Pro is one of my favorite high-tech devices, and I would recommend it to anyone who is semi-proficient with technology, or at least with the iPad. 

Note- This post is not sponsored nor was I paid to write it, I just genuinely love this device!

  

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.

My Blindness Cane

It’s the ultimate statement accessory. No matter what you wear with it, it’s always the first thing people notice. You can’t leave the house without at least someone making a comment on it. And when you don’t have it, people will ask why.
The accessory I’m talking about today is not some necklace, a pair of shoes, or even a pair of glasses. It’s a blindness cane, or white cane. I started using one regularly when I started college. I resisted it, because I wanted to pretend my vision wasn’t actually getting worse, but after I became known as the girl who fell down the stairs, twice, during freshman orientation, I realized that I needed it more than I thought I didn’t. In the year and a half I’ve used it, I’ve gotten so many bizarre comments, assumptions, and questions from people around me. Quite simply, people don’t know a lot about canes.
One time, an employee at a bagel place I went to with my friend pulled her aside and asked why I could see when I had a blindness cane, and started asking how well I could see. She explained that I had low vision, and while I could see a little bit, it still wasn’t great. I found out about this after we left and while I appreciate how my friend handled it, I was a bit surprised at the employee’s assumptions. Not everyone has to be totally blind to use a cane, and many members of the low vision community use canes to get around. A low vision doctor once told me that you can see 20/20 on the eye chart, but still be legally blind and need a cane to get around, and that’s okay. One does not have to see, or rather not see, a certain percentage to get a blindness cane. If they need it, they need it.
I have other well-meaning people tell me about their friends or family members with low vision or blindness who get around without canes perfectly fine. That’s amazing, and I am always so impressed when I meet people who can do that. Sadly, I can’t tell the difference between flat ground and stairs, so the cane really isn’t something I can go without. Every person with blindness or low vision is different, and it hurts when people start questioning how well someone can see. Another thing that is equally annoying is when random people approach me and start doing a makeshift eye test to see how well I can see. When you look like society’s view of normal, suddenly it’s hard to believe that you could be wearing such thick glasses and everyone turns into an eye doctor, trying to diagnose what’s wrong with you and if you really need that cane. And while it is well-meaning, I don’t like hearing that I’m too pretty to have to use a blindness cane either.
My best way of fighting the stigma of using a cane is to answer anyone’s questions or concerns about me using one in the most polite, appropriate way I can at the time, even though that may be difficult sometimes. Humor really helps, especially when the questions get crazy. Some odd things my cane has been mistaken for include a selfie stick, a lighter, a sword, a knife, a golf club, and a pair of mallets when it was folded up. My typical reaction is to smile and explain it’s a blindness cane and not whatever object they thought it was. When little kids ask me why or how I use my cane, I tell them I don’t see the world like they do, and for especially curious ones, I have them grab down on the bottom segment of my cane and I move it around to show them how I feel different vibrations. And for the strangers on the metro who ask if I can see them, I just say I have low vision.
While there are some days I wish I didn’t need it, I am glad I have my cane. When I first started using it and ran into former friends who told me I was exaggerating about my vision being so bad, I considered trying to go without it. But then when my cane alerted me to a pothole ahead of me, I realized how helpful it is and how much I need it. I can’t imagine going anywhere without my cane, except maybe face first on the ground or into a wall because I didn’t notice something. My cane has helped me see more of the world than I ever imagined, and for that, I am grateful. So although it is a statement accessory that says I have low vision, I try to rock it the best I can. After all, I am not my disability or my assistive technology- I am a person who just happens to have a disability and uses assistive technology.

My Blindness Cane

How Do People With Low Vision…Use The Bathroom/Take A Shower?

A very common question from little kids is how people with low vision use the bathroom or shower. It’s not just little kids who ask, as I have had teachers, friends, random adults, and even college suite mates that I share a bathroom with ask if I am capable of using the bathroom on my own, or if I even use the bathroom. Yes, just like sighted people, those with low vision are capable of using a bathroom independently with the help of assistive technology. Here are five products I use to help me look and feel my best.

Tactile labels

I put these on bottles in the shower so that way I can distinguish which bottle is which. These are hard adhesive plastic dots that I got a sheet of for about $4 from Maxi-Aids via Amazon.

2 in 1 shampoo/conditioner

Speaking of bottles, I was always having trouble putting too much conditioner in my hair and having it look awful. By having the two pre-mixed together, I don’t have to worry about putting too much conditioner in my shoulder-length hair. I use Garnier Fructis and it can be purchased at almost any store that sells shampoo.

Shower railings

I live in a handicap-accessible dorm where we have built in metal support rails in the shower. However, portable railings with suction cups can easily be purchased, so users can easily stabilize themselves and have a point of reference in the shower as to where to stand or where objects are located such as the faucet.

Toothpaste dispenser

Often marketed towards little kids, these plastic devices hook up to a toothpaste tube and allow for someone to use one hand and push their toothbrush against the plastic slot and have the perfect amount of toothpaste dispensed. These can be found for about $7 on Amazon.

Three sided toothbrush

These were amazing when I started having neck problems and had trouble brushing my teeth. They have toothbrush heads on the front and sides of the brush so the entire tooth can be brushed at once without having to move the head or neck. It is also to use if you have to brush someone else’s teeth. I got a pack of three for $8 from Maxi-Aids.

All of these tools are beneficial in my daily life, but I have recommended them countless times to friends who are dealing with injuries such as broken ankles, sprained wrists, and more. It shows that assistive technology can help almost everyone!