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.

Google Chromecast Review

Occasionally, I have trouble focusing my eyes to read text on my phone or tablet. In these cases, zooming in is futile, and I find it easier to focus through the top half of the bifocal in my glasses. Instead of bending my head at weird angles or holding my device up higher, I use a Google Chromecast to project my screen onto the TV- no wires or cables necessary.

The Chromecast is a $35 device that allows the user to connect their computer, tablet, or phone to their TV. The device is plugged into a HDMI port on the TV, and it also uses a power outlet. By using the same wifi hotspot as the other device, the Chromecast can project internet tabs, apps, and more onto a TV. My family has at least three of these devices in the house, and I even brought one to college with me. Here are some of the ways I have used it, both as assistive technology and just as a useful resource with my various devices.

Setting it up

To set up the device, simply plug one end into the wall and the other end into the HDMI port of the TV, which is best described as a rectangle with a smaller rectangle on top. After that, go to the Chromecast set up website or app to finish the process, which includes connecting it to a wifi hotspot and giving it a name.

If you are setting it up at college, you may need to register the MAC address first, as I explained in my post about the Amazon Echo Dot, since chances are you have to use a username and password to log on to the school wifi. My school has a device registration website where the user can register up to five wireless devices that connect to the unsecured internet hotspot. By registering the MAC address on the college website, which can be found in the Chromecast app settings, it can be used on a college campus without any complicated networks to set up. I found that I am able to easily use the device no matter what wifi hotspot my other devices are connected to.

Android phone

With most later versions of Android, 6.0 and up, the user can easily cast their entire phone screen by swiping down on the status bar and selecting cast. I use this late at night when I have trouble focusing my eyes on text messages, or when I am using an app that has small font. This is also useful when I am demonstrating a function on my phone to someone, as it is more practical to look up at a screen than to look over my shoulder.

iPad

Many apps on the iPad support streaming to Chromecast, including Netflix, YouTube, Google Chrome, Google Video, and others. I use Google Chrome the most out of those three apps to broadcast tabs I am working on, watch videos, enlarge files, and more. YouTube has also been very helpful when I have to take notes on something at the same time- the video or app doesn’t have to be open on the iPad in order for it to broadcast. With the Google Video and Netflix apps, I have been able to watch movies with my friends who live in other states and iMessage or talk about the movie at the same time.

Google Chrome

With my desktop and laptop computers, I have been able to mirror tabs open in Google Chrome onto my TV flawlessly. Because some websites are impossible to zoom in on, I often will broadcast them to the TV to read information better. Extensions such as Adblock are still able to be used on the screen. Most recently, I broadcast a PDF file that I opened in Google Chrome to the TV so I could see it better.

Bonus offers

At times, the Chromecast will have special offers available for users. Some offers have included free trials, free movie rentals, and even Google Play credit which can be used to buy apps, movies, books, games, TV shows, etc in the Google Play store.

Overall review

In the two years I have been using it regularly, I have found this device to be incredibly useful and an affordable alternative to a smart TV, and it’s incredibly easy to use- my parents who describe themselves as technology challenged are able to use the device with ease. With all of the bonus offers, the device has paid for itself, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who benefits from a larger screen.

I received no compensation for this review and purchased this item on my own.  This is a completely unbiased review.

Answering Stranger’s Questions- College Edition

As college decision day approaches, prospective students and their families have been touring my college, trying to decide what school will be the best fit for them. Often times, college is the first time people are exposed to a large, diverse population, and it can seem overwhelming. Naturally, people are inquisitive and like to ask questions, sometimes not thinking about how to phrase them.

Because of all of the visitors on campus, I have been using my blindness cane more often for identification purposes, so I am less likely to be hit by a car. With low vision, it can be difficult to navigate campus when there are so many visitors driving around. As I have been walking on campus, I have had many families approach me or loudly talk about me using a blindness cane, sometimes in a very rude way. It can be difficult to answer these questions, especially when they have negative or offensive tones, but education is one of the best ways to combat ignorance. Here are some of the questions I have been asked over the last two weeks by visitors, and how I answered them. I have been requested to add a trigger warning for what may be considered ableist slurs/language and offensive terms.

Whoah! Are you totally blind?

No, I have low vision and poor peripheral vision, meaning I have trouble seeing what’s around me. I use my blindness cane to help me analyze my environment and as a cue to other people that I can’t see very well.

Can you see me?

For some reason, I often hear this when people are standing right in front of me.  I usually respond with “sort of” or “yes.”  If it is someone who is convinced I can’t see anything, I usually find some feature that I can mention to them, for example a blue shirt or green backpack.

Look kids, a blind girl!

I was walking with a friend when someone yelled that in our direction. We didn’t want to yell back that I had some vision, because that would waste time. Instead, my friend yelled back”check it out, a sighted person!”

What’s with the sunglasses inside?

I wear tinted glasses to help with light sensitivity and glare. No, they aren’t transition lenses, they always are this color. And yes, I guess I do wear sunglasses at night, like the song.

What’s your major?  Oh, that’s not a real major

I’m studying assistive technology and software engineering, which is a fairly uncommon major but there are many different careers available, so I will not have an issue finding a job after graduation.  I have learned to give an example of what I will do after college, so when I say my major, I add that I am “studying to create tools for people with disabilities.”  Often times, people then think my major is really cool!

How come she can see but uses a cane?

Another friend was asked this by an employee while we were at a restaurant. My friend explained I have some sight, but still rely on the cane frequently. A different friend responded by saying “she runs into less walls this way” or “it’s easier to figure out where she is based on the taps of the cane.”

You’re too pretty to be blind!

While I’m not blind, I have low vision, my favorite response to this statement is “apparently not!”

You’re too young to not be able to see!

See above- apparently not!

Why do you disableds think you can just parade around campus?

This was said to me earlier this afternoon, and I just wanted to shove my post “You Belong” in their face. People with disabilities fought very hard to be able to attend college, and we deserve to be here, just like everyone else.

I didn’t know blind people could go to college!

I’ve answered this a couple of ways. For people that seem pleasantly surprised, I say that there are laws that make this possible, and I am grateful for the opportunity. When someone seems surprised in general, I just say “here I am!” And when someone seems greatly upset that someone with low vision can attend college, I just smile and move as quickly as I can from the situation.

You’re taking education away from someone who can see!

I got into this college not because of what I have, but who I am as a student. It had nothing to do with my low vision- my essay to admissions wasn’t even about my eyesight, it was about volunteer work. I’m not here because I can’t see.

Hey, can you give us directions to…oh nevermind

I’ve had several people approach me for directions, look at the cane, and quickly try to move away. I actually know this campus extremely well, and would be happy to help you find your way to wherever you need to go!

How bad is your eyesight?

I used to explain a lot more, but now I just say “it could be worse, but it’s still not great.” This question doesn’t really bother me, as often it is how people start conversation when they first meet someone with low vision, but it still can be an interesting question to answer.

I hope these answers help you when dealing with questions of strangers. Feel free to add more questions/answers in the comments below!

Amazon Echo Dot Review

Last month, a new device joined my technology collection, and has quickly become one of my new favorites. I don’t have to worry about making it accessible, because it is perfect right out of the box. I can control it with my voice and get more information about the world around me. This little device is the Amazon Echo Dot, with Alexa technology. Here are some ways it has helped me as a college student with low vision.  This post is in no way sponsored by Amazon, and I received no compensation for writing about it- I just genuinely love this product.

What is Amazon Echo?

The Amazon Echo ($180) and Amazon Echo Dot ($49) are two devices that use Amazon’s voice assist technology, called Alexa. The only difference between the Echo and Echo Dot is that the Echo has a large speaker built in, while the Dot does not. When the device is summoned by saying the name Alexa (or Echo or Amazon, depending on the set wake word- my brother uses the word Computer), the user can request it to complete several different tasks.  I have the 2nd Generation Amazon Echo Dot in white.

How do you set it up?

If you are using the device at home, simply connecting to the wifi hotspot is sufficient. However, if you are setting it up at college, where the wifi requires a username and password, the setup is a little different. My school has a device registration website where the user can register up to five wireless devices that connect to the unsecured internet. By registering the MAC address on the college website, which can be found in the Amazon Echo app, the Amazon Echo can be used on a college campus. I keep my Dot across from my bed, on top of my printer, and it can easily pick up my voice no matter where I am standing in my dorm room, without picking up on my suitemates’ voices in the hallway.

What common functions do you use the most?

I’m constantly asking Alexa what time it is, as I don’t have to worry about focusing to read numbers on a clock. I also can easily set timers and alarms, though it isn’t as easy to get the alarms to turn off, which I think is a good thing because I am prone to sleeping through alarms. I also have found the weather forecasts to be very accurate and helpful. In addition, I have used the Echo to add items to my Amazon Fresh shopping list and place orders through Amazon, or just add a product to my wishlist, something that’s especially helpful when I am reading something. I also love Amazon Music and have that on frequently.

How do you use it as assistive technology?

The talking clock has been a great feature, but the Amazon Echo can be used for other assistive technology purposes. I installed a calculator function on it from the Alexa App Store, and can use it to perform basic calculations, much faster and less frustrating than a traditional calculator. It can read daily news stories from several different news outlets, sometimes with a live feed of the news channel, so I don’t have to worry about reading or flashing lights on the TV. I can also perform simple Google searches and other tasks.

What about those other devices you can hook up to the Alexa?

I haven’t tried any of the lightbulbs, thermostats, or other environmental control devices yet, but I’m hoping to set some up in my room next semester!  They look awesome.

Can you create your own Alexa functions?

Yes! Stay tuned, I will have a separate post on this soon. By using the app If This Then That (IFTTT), you can sync the Amazon Echo with several other apps and devices. I have mine hooked up to my Android phone and iPad.

When do you mute the Amazon Echo?

I mute the device when I will be leaving the apartment for more than three hours or when I’m on a voice or video call with someone who enjoys summoning the device (shoutout to my friend that frequently asks Alexa to add bananas to my shopping list while we are on voice calls together). From where it’s sitting, the Dot can’t pick up on anything going on in the hallway or any other room, only in my room. It can hear if someone on speaker says “Alexa.”

Does the Amazon Echo Dot use strobe or flashing lights?

I have never seen the device use strobe light effects. It uses a mild flash effect when processing information, but not one that is intense enough to cause a migraine or seizure- it’s similar in frequency to a car blinker. Sometimes it may cycle through the color gradient at a slow speed when loading information or syncing, but it will not flash.

Aren’t you worried about the device spying on you?

Not really. My other devices are spying on me anyway. I have taken cybersecurity classes and understand that the device is always listening to me, but I don’t say anything that would cause alarm, or anything particularly exciting.

Overall Review

I love this device and it has greatly helped me with accessing information. Almost anyone can learn to use it in two minutes or less, and it has many great functions that can replace more expensive assistive technology devices, such as talking clocks. I would recommend it to anyone, especially college students and people with low vision.

How to Deal With Being Sick in College

I seem to get sick once a semester, and because of my existing chronic illness, I am more miserable than a majority of my friends, who just have whatever sickness is going around. One of the main reasons I am so miserable is because with Chiari Malformation, my head pain gets worse every time I sneeze or cough, and my vision also becomes extremely difficult to control. Thankfully I’ve already been sick once this semester, so I shouldn’t have to worry about getting sick again. Here are some of my tips for dealing with being sick in college.

Have a pre existing file with Student Health/Campus Clinic

My file contains information like my drug allergies/intolerances and a summary of my low vision and Chiari Malformation, as well as other chronic conditions. I also have a list of medication I am on and an abbreviated medical history. This helps the doctors because they don’t have to ask for a lot of information from me.

Skype into class

Since no one else wants to get sick either, ask to Skype or phone call into class for the day. If this is not an option, ask the professor for guidance on class attendance.

 

Have food delivered or ready to be picked up

 

The dining hall at my school has special prepackaged meals that can be picked up by a friend or RA for a student who is sick. If that isn’t possible, try to visit the dining hall during the off hours, and avoid touching things as much as possible.

 

Have over the counter medication delivered

 

I stocked up on over the counter meds when I got sick by ordering them using Amazon PrimeNow. At the time, everything was sold out on campus because so many students were sick, so this system worked. If you must travel somewhere off campus, try not to take the bus, and instead ask for a friend to drive you. Bonus points if this friend has already been sick and/or is the one that made you sick.

 

Spend time recovering

 

Don’t just mask the illness, make sure to treat it and spend time resting. The last time I was sick, I found myself sleeping for several hours, something that helped my migraines and eyesight tremendously. By spending time away from others, you will be able to relax and focus on getting better.

To anyone reading this out of necessity, I hope you feel better soon!

How To Prepare for Extreme Weather on Campus

On President’s Day weekend in 2016, a large amount of snow came to visit my college campus right outside of Washington, DC. I wasn’t prepared in the slightest for the incoming snow- sure, I had a small amount of food in my dorm room, but since I ate at the dining hall all the time, it was mostly snack foods. I wound up trapped inside of my dorm room for two days, eating peanut butter and jelly crackers and daydreaming about what I could be eating, if only I could walk out of my dorm building. Believe me, once the snow melted, I was beyond thrilled to be eating normal food again. Here are some other tips I’ve learned to help students who are on campus during extreme weather.

Get food in advance

Now that I use Amazon Fresh, I have a small stockpile of frozen dinners and other healthy foods in my fridge at all times, in addition to non perishable foods I can have in case the power goes out. However, I still enjoy utilizing my meal plan to stock up on food prior to a weather event. I bring containers in my backpack to the dining hall and fill them with things such as salads (dressing in a separate container), wraps, peanut butter and jelly, grain salads, soups, pasta (sauce in separate container), fruit, pizza, and whatever else I can. I just put everything in my fridge when I get back to my room and reheat it as needed. My school does have a rule against taking food outside of the dining hall, but they tend to be more relaxed about this rule before and during extreme weather.

Call your professors before leaving for class

During Superstorm Jonas last year, I attempted to walk to my class halfway across campus. I wound up making it about halfway before falling down on the ice and having to call a police escort to take me back to my dorm. My professor later asked me why I attempted to walk to class, and said I could have just called him and said I couldn’t make it, and I would have been exempt. So, before leaving for class in extreme weather, call your professors and see if conditions are stable enough to walk to class. Another benefit is that the call can serve as a timer to see how long it takes to get to class.

Contact Environmental Health Office for guidance

While they can’t tell you to skip class, the Environmental Health Office can tell you which areas of campus may still be covered in ice or that may be difficult to navigate. They also can provide alternative routes to buildings, if needed.

If you must go outside, use a human guide

To avoid injury, walk with someone if you must go outside. This reduces the risk of injury. If no friends are able to walk with you, ask for an escort from campus security. As someone once told me, it is much easier to help a person than it is to have to find a person when they are reported missing.

Protect important items in sealed plastic bins

While this wasn’t related to weather, my friend had to deal with a pipe bursting in their dorm room and water getting everywhere. Luckily, they thought to put all important items in plastic bins so they wouldn’t be ruined if the dorm room turned into a swimming pool. For larger technology such as a desktop computer, I balance an umbrella over it in case of damage.

Have someone verify that all windows are closed

It helps to have an extra pair of eyes make sure that everything is secure. I often can’t tell when something is closed all the way, so having someone confirm that for me is reassuring. The last thing I want is a winter wonderland in my room!

Block windows, if necessary

Lighting is nature’s strobe lights for me, and strobe lights trigger migraines, so in the event of a severe storm, I prop things against the window to make sure I can’t see any lightning. I normally use an inflated air mattress or cardboard.

If the power goes out

Because of my vision impairment, I am used to navigating areas that I can’t see very well. In order to make things easier, have a flashlight or other handheld source of light that is not on a phone (the flashlight drains battery). Contact the resident advisor and/or resident director to notify them that you are in the building and may need assistance in case of evacuation. My school often utilizes their emergency alert system if the power goes out in more than two buildings, so watch for text messages, phone calls, or emails for further instructions.

Go to an off campus location

If extreme weather is likely to last more than a few days, I have my mom come pick me up and drive me home. My home is about three hours from my college, and I am very grateful that my mom is able to help me. For students who may not be so close to home, find a friend who lives locally and go stay with them. A couple of my friends have even stayed in a hotel near campus when there was no heat in their dorm room.

While extreme weather can be very stressful to students living on campus, hopefully these tips will help you be prepared for the next hurricane or blizzard to come your way!

How To Survive Midterms/Finals

Midterms week is finally over, and I couldn’t be more happy about that. It’s been a long week of studying and taking tests, while trying to keep eye fatigue and migraines at bay. Here are some of my tips for surviving midterms and finals week. While this information can be helpful to any college student, I have specifically written it with students who have low vision or chronic illness in mind.

Use a tinted background for study materials.

White paper and screens can provide a lot of glare and cause eye fatigue. One way to lessen eye fatigue is to use tinted backgrounds in a shade such as gray, blue, or yellow to reduce eye fatigue. You can enable a colored tint on your Apple device using these instructions, use one of these free apps on a computer, or simply print study materials on colored paper.

Request notes online

Take terrible notes? You have options to receive quality notes at little to no cost. The best way, of course, is having an accommodation in your Disability Service file to request notes directly from the professor. There are also many websites where students upload their notes from a specific course- ask someone at your college which website most students use, or web search your college name and course name/number. These websites often will allow you to download notes at half price or even free if you have a Disability Services file. Also check with Disability Services to see if any of their student note takers have notes from your class.

Use digital flashcards

I love using the website Quizlet to create my own flashcards and review flashcards from other students in my classes. The quiz feature is also extremely helpful when testing material. I use Quizlet specifically because the animations do not cause vertigo or have strobing lights, something that is very critical for me, and the text can be enlarged easily.

Find a comfortable study location

Do not study in bed, no matter how comfortable it is, because if you are anything like me, you will fall asleep. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t be comfortable. I have this back support pillow at my desk chair and it helps keep my back spasms from acting up while I am studying for long periods of time. I’ve also been using this heated shoulder wrap every hour or so to keep my shoulders from tensing up.

Move around during breaks

I try to leave my study area when I am taking a study break. Usually I go for a walk around campus or go to the gym so I can sit in the hot tub for a few minutes and make sure my muscles don’t tense up. Try not to spend study break time staring at a screen, as this is an opportunity to rest your eyes.

Don’t try to study with a migraine

For those who get daily migraines like me, do not attempt to study while you have a migraine. It will just take longer to recover. Likewise, if you have an exam in twenty minutes and a pounding migraine, call and ask to reschedule, preferably for the same day. Migraines and exams do not mix.

Ensure accommodations are in place at the testing center

Also make sure that your test is actually in the possession of the testing center before test day- I have shown up to take tests that weren’t at the testing center yet a few times. Filling out the testing form in advance is extremely important to ensure you are able to take the exam on schedule. I try to fill out the form a week before the test date.  For more information on my test accommodations, check out this post.

Scheduling tests

Keep your eyesight and energy level in mind when scheduling an exam day and time. No matter what time my class meets, I try to schedule my exams for first thing in the morning when my eyes are well rested and I am less likely to have a migraine. I also try to schedule the exams the same day the rest of the class is testing, or earlier if that isn’t possible. None of my professors have ever complained about me taking an exam early.

Make sure the testing environment is free of distractions or triggers

Even if you are testing in the disability testing center, there can still be distractions. Before taking an exam, I check for flickering lights, loud noises, and if I am testing in my own room, I make sure there is enough room to walk around if my legs start to spasm. Another thing to check for is air fresheners- this semester, I came down with a migraine halfway through my exam and couldn’t figure out why, and it turned out there was a bowl of coffee beans next to where I was taking an exam, and coffee is one of my migraine triggers, so sitting next to a bowl of them wasn’t very smart.

Celebrate after exams!

Plan something fun for after exams are finished- preferably something that won’t aggravate existing fatigue. Some things I’ve done include dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, a day trip to D.C. or Maryland, going to the movies, or simply spending time with friends.

UPDATE- Do not go out to eat with friends the night before your last exam, even if you have been to the restaurant many times.  I had the honor of taking an exam with food poisoning, and it was very stressful.
Exam week can be hard on anyone, but it’s especially difficult for people with chronic illness or other disabilities. I wish you all good health days and good grades for your exams!

How To Pick Housing

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. Today, I will be showing how to select housing. 



I just finished filling out my housing application for next year to live on campus, and it was surprisingly easy. Now that I have learned a lot about what to ask for and what dorm is best for me, it’s been a painless process. Here are a few things I have learned about choosing housing. 

Note-  This post assumes that you already have a Disability Services file or will be creating one.  For more information on DS files, click here

Disability housing

Because I have a chronic migraine condition as well as low vision, I had my doctor certify that I have a disability and fill out a form that Disability Services and Housing requested. The questions ask if my disability is chronic, if it is a disability under the ADA (which yes, low vision and chronic migraines qualify as), and what housing accommodations my doctor would recommend. In my case, I have recommendations for a climate controlled dorm that is quiet and that can be made completely pitch black. It also requests I be in a single room, meaning no roommate, and be in close proximity to the Resident Advisor, or RA. 

Special housing area

My freshman year, my building had several students with disabilities and had extra staff available at all hours. These dorms also tend to be more quiet and staff are likely more experienced with handling medical emergencies. This housing is NOT considered discrimination, because it is to help students thrive in the environment that suits them best. Talk with housing about what dorm may be best for you.

Should I have a roommate?

I don’t have a roommate because of my migraines, but I have three suitemates I share a living area with, and last year I shared a bathroom with the RA. I usually haven’t needed help with anything while I am in my dorm. Another one of my friends with low vision has a roommate, and says that they help locate things and be a human guide when needed. A different friend with low vision insists that they are fine being in a single room and just asking their suitemate if they need something. So, you don’t have to have a roommate if you have low vision, but if possible, I would have a roommate you already know as opposed to a total stranger that may not know how to help you, or worse, take advantage of you.  Some people are uncomfortable with a roommate that needs help, or come from a different culture where they don’t know how to interact with someone with a disability, or don’t want to interact with someone with a disability. It would be nice if everyone accepted each other, but that won’t always happen.

Different dorm layouts

Dorm buildings on my campus have several different layouts. There is the hall layout, where rooms have one or two people and the entire hall shares a bathroom area. There is the suite layout, where two rooms connect by a bathroom and each room has one or two people. And then there is the apartment layout, where there are two to four bedrooms that share a living room, kitchen, and bathroom.  
My friend lived in a hall style dorm last year and liked not having to worry about cleaning the bathroom, but said it was loud because they could hear people flushing the toilet and talking at all hours of the night. Their room was nicely sized and I was able to navigate easily.
I lived in a suite style dorm my freshman year, which was two single rooms and a bathroom. My room was freakishly small, to the point where I had three visitors and had to have one stand in the bathroom because there wasn’t enough floor space. The arrangement wound up being very helpful though- I had a medical emergency in the middle of the night and the RA was able to get to my room quickly by running through the bathroom.
This year, I live in an apartment style dorm, and like the wider layout and more space to move around. My suitemates don’t have me clean because they think I will just mess the apartment up even more- mostly because I spill things without realizing, and I tend to miss dirty spots. It costs the most to live in an apartment style dorm, and this is restricted to students in their second year and above, but it is very quiet.

How do you lock the door?

Check how the doors are locked and unlocked. I’ve always been able to unlock doors with my student ID, though some older dorms require a key. At another college, the doors are opened by putting in a number on a keypad that is difficult to see. Bottom line, make sure you can open the door. 

Locked out?

Locate the neighborhood services desk and learn how to navigate there with and without a blindness cane, since you never know the circumstances in which you will be locked out. For example, I was waiting outside the door for my brother when he came to visit, and when he came to meet me outside, he closed the door behind him, and didn’t grab the key on the table. So I got to walk with him to the neighborhood desk without my cane, and barefoot. Another friend got locked out after she took a shower and had to walk to the desk in a robe and with wet hair. It can happen at any time.
The best way to prevent being locked out is to wear your key. I am not talking about the freshman orientation lanyard, either. I wear mine in a lanyard that I got from Charming Charlie, and it’s just as easy to throw in a backpack or a pocket as it is around my neck.

Room location

My freshman year, I was offered the option of living in a dorm on the first floor of a building, right next to the door to enter the building. There was no elevator in the building, and it would be loud as most freshman housing was. Also, it was very easy to look into my window or tap on it from the outside. This was not ideal. Make sure that the dorm location makes you feel safe, and that you can get out quickly in an emergency.
I lived on the fourth floor of my building freshman year in the middle of the hallway. While no one could look in my window, I had lots of difficulty going down stairs and getting out in emergencies.
This year, I live on the first floor, but my window faces a secluded area. I’m also right next to the emergency exit, which doesn’t open often, so I don’t have to worry about doors opening and closing all the time. This is an ideal location for me.
Also check the building location in comparison to your classes. My classes are all within a three minute walk of my dorm, with one exception, which works well for me.

Furniture

My freshman dorm had a bed, desk, chair, dresser, and a closet with no door. My dorm this year has a bed, desk, chair, dresser, and closet with a door. I added furniture rounders to the sharp edges so I wouldn’t run into them. Ask in advance what furniture comes with the dorm so you can plan to make (temporary) modifications if needed, or request different furniture, such as a lower bed, wider desk, lowered closet rods, or small dresser.

What’s included

Is cable and internet included in the cost of living in your dorm? What about electricity? Water? Heating and cooling? Laundry? Is laundry in your building?  Luckily, all those things are included for me, but it never hurts to ask. Also ask if the dorm is climate controlled, or if you have to bring your own air conditioner to school. While my school has all climate controlled dorms, not all schools do, especially ones with historic buildings.

Tour the dorm

If possible, tour your dorm building or a model room before moving in so you can hear if there will be a fan constantly buzzing or people stomping on the floor above. Also check if the floor is even all around- my friend at another college had their floor randomly dip in the middle, and it causes several visitors to trip because they don’t see it coming.
With all of these tips, you will be set for move in day and ready to live in your new dorm! 

How To Navigate Campus

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. Today is how to navigate around campus and not get horribly lost.

 
For my first day living at my college, the dining hall next to my building was closed so I had to walk halfway across campus. On my way there, I followed a group of students, but by the time I was ready to leave, no one else was going to my dorm, so I had to walk alone. I thought I knew where I was going, but thirty minutes later, I found myself a mile from my dorm with no idea where I was, how I got there, and when (or if) I would be able to find my dorm again.

 
My school offers 24/7 police escorts for students that feel unsafe walking alone, are injured, are disabled, that are lost with no idea how to get back to their dorm, or some combination of the above. Since I was in the middle of nowhere, I called Campus Security and gave them my name, a vague idea of where I was located, as well as a description of myself. About twenty minutes later, a kind policewoman found me after tracking my cell phone (similar to a 911 call) and drove me back to my dorm in her police car. While it was interesting to step out of a police car in front of all my new neighbors and get escorted to my dorm room, I was incredibly grateful to be in a familiar area.

 
Since that experience, I have still needed police escorts, but they have been few and far between. Here are some of the tools I use to avoid getting hopelessly lost.

Input addresses

Make sure to have important addresses available and easy to access, programmed as contacts in your phone and listed on a document saved to all your devices. My college has a list on the Environmental Health and Safety webpage of all of the buildings on campus with their corresponding addresses. I also recommend inputting addresses of buildings in the vicinity of your destination in case there is an issue with the GPS and it can’t locate your building. Here are the addresses I have programmed into my phone and iPad:

  • My dorm building
  • Restaurant directly next to my building
  • Dorm buildings of friends
  • Housing office
  • Dining halls
  • Student Union Building(s)
  • Disability Services Office
  • Assistive technology office
  • Libraries
  • Campus security
  • Campus center
  • Performing Arts Center
  • Parking garage
  • Building across the street from me
  • Bus stop area
  • My advisor’s building
  • Class buildings
  • University address
  • Satellite campus

GPS Tracking

Most smart phones have the capability to pinpoint a user’s exact location and share it with others via a text message. By going into “attach media,” I can send my GPS coordinates to any of my contacts, and they can get directions to the location where I am, and wonder how I got there. This worked great when a group of my sighted friends got lost at the mall, and we were all able to meet up again. Location services must be enabled for this to work.

Trip Tracker

Available for Android, Trip Tracker is my new favorite app from Microsoft. It records how you navigated somewhere, and how long it took. I use it to track how I get to different buildings and if the shortcut I thought I was taking actually added five minutes to my trip. This app doesn’t drain my battery either, which is very helpful. It’s still in the testing stage, but I found it very easy to use. Location services must be enabled at all times.

Google Maps

There’s a joke at my college that the first time you visit, you drive in circles for an hour because the GPS isn’t helpful. My mom and I experienced this when trying to find the student center for a meeting. Our GPS decided we needed to experience the great outdoors, and took us to a forest outside of campus instead. Even I knew we weren’t in the right place, and that is saying something.
While it isn’t the best app for navigating campus while in a car, the Google Maps software built into Android phones has often helped me. It seems to work best for campuses with older buildings, as the GPS may not recognize newer buildings, or will lead you into the middle of a construction site (been there, done that).

O&M Instruction

Anyone with a case file with the state Department of Blind and Visually Impaired can request an Orientation and Mobility (O&M) instructor. You should contact the office as far in advance as possible, to schedule the session for once you arrive on campus, and preferably before the start of classes. Do not be surprised if your first session is short, especially if there are many other students in need of these services. You can request more sessions. The instructor will walk you around campus and to your classes, so you will know where you are going. A typical O&M student uses a blindness cane, though it isn’t required to receive these services.

Fitbit

Some Fitbits have GPS tracking built-in, other models use the function MobileRun within the Fitbit app. I found that this is a great way to track how I get to class, or to figure out how I got somewhere and retrace my steps. The app is available on iOS, Android, and Windows, but requires a Fitbit. I own the Fitbit Alta and find it works great for my needs.

If all else fails…

Have the phone number for campus police so that they will be able to give you an escort back to your dorm building (this is where having your dorm address comes in handy!). Make sure to tell the dispatcher that you are visually impaired and require additional assistance. Don’t feel embarrassed asking for help, as even people with perfect vision can get horribly lost. I was told that it’s easier to give me an escort than it is to have to track me down when my friends report me missing. Besides, if it wasn’t for the police back on my first day, I would still be wandering around on the outskirts of campus, trying to find my dorm.

How To Create A Disability Services File

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. Today is a request on 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. 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. 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 (see my prior entry on scheduling). 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 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. 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.

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.

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.

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. 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.