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.

State Standardized Tests/ SOL Accommodations For Low Vision

Every state has their own form of standardized tests. In my home state of Virginia, we have the Standards of Learning exams, most commonly referred to as SOLs. At least one of these tests is administered a year, from third grade to twelfth grade, and students sometimes take up to four of these exams. While they technically don’t count for a grade, students need to pass a certain number of SOLs in order to advance in school or graduate. For the majority of the student population, the tests are administered online with fill in the blank, choose multiple answers, and multiple choice questions, in addition to exams where the student writes an essay. There’s only one problem with these digital exams- they can’t be enlarged.

Before the digital exams came out, everyone took exams on pencil and paper, but I had a special exam that was in large print. In third grade, my first year of taking the SOLs, the school forgot to place an order for all four of my exams, so when test day came, I didn’t have a test, so the school decided I would go sit in a classroom with first graders while the rest of the class took exams. When the tests showed up a week later, I had to take all of the tests in one day, as opposed to having one day to complete each test. Luckily, the test proctor gave me candy inbetween tests as a way to apologize for what was going on. Ordering tests early is extremely important, as if you have a student who uses large print in the classroom, they need it in the testing environment too.

In middle school, the tests converted to a digital format, and I was beyond excited for this. I couldn’t wait to be able to enlarge text and graphs how I needed them, and be able to work with computers, since I love technology. As I expressed my excitement, someone turned to me and said “oh, you can’t enlarge this. The magnification feature is locked to prevent cheating.” While this was before I knew a lot about assistive technology and accessibility, I still thought that made absolutely no sense. How is being able to see something clearly considered cheating?

I think a lot of the stigma about receiving a large print test started once the digital tests started being used. The large print test was printed on ridiculously large paper, since it took up three desks in size. The text was enlarged to size 20 point font, and at the time I also had accommodations to use pens and highlighters, while other students had to use pencils. One interesting thing is that while the rest of the class could use a calculator, I was not permitted to use one because they did not have one that I could see. Another fun fact about the test is that the ten field/test questions on the traditional exam are eliminated, as are the fill in the blank, true/false, pick multiple, and other free response question formats. I had less questions than everyone else, and the questions were multiple choice. One year, I had a teacher complain to the principal that I finished before everyone else, to which my family and I had to explain that I had ten less questions than everyone else, so naturally I would finish quicker. I also didn’t have to transfer my answers to a Scantron document, so that saved time as well.

I always managed to pass my SOLs until I took geometry. My geometry teacher was awesome, and probably one of the best math teachers I had in school because they understood how to create accessible materials. Unfortunately, the people who created the SOLs did not know how to create accessible materials, as my mom and I found out that graphs and other images were only enlarged to 113% (as of 2017, they are now enlarged 166%, but since I receive materials enlarged to around 250%, this still wouldn’t be large enough). I wound up failing the SOL because I had so much difficulty with the graphs and shapes, but I was eligible to retake the exam the next semester.

As a student with an increasing interest in assistive technology, I suggested that the test be broadcast on a projector in a classroom so I could work out the problem on the white board and then record my answer in the test booklet. It was easier than magnifying the test, as my eyes hurt whenever I used a magnifying glass, and I was not provided any other assistive technology like a CCTV. Because I had sensitivity to flashing lights as well as lights in general, I had to take the exam in a classroom that was almost completely dark, with my case manager as a proctor (who later told me they were worried about falling asleep while I took my exam). I wound up failing the exam on the second try as well, but only by two questions. Since I passed my algebra 2 SOL (using the same projector accommodations, and still without a calculator), and I only needed to pass two math SOLs to graduate, we decided not to worry about geometry anymore.

When I moved to a different high school junior year, I got the opportunity to finally use a calculator on my SOLs. I was recommended the myScript calculator app, which would be enabled in guided access mode so I couldn’t use the Internet or any other apps. This was extremely helpful, and I managed to do very well on my chemistry SOL because of it. I remember being very excited about this calculator, to which my guidance counselor asked if I wanted to try my geometry SOL again, and I said that I’d really rather not.

I graduated with an advanced diploma from Virginia public schools in 2015, meaning I had passed at least two English exams, two math exams, two science exams, two history exams, and another exam in one of those subjects. Since I have graduated, the E-Bot Pro, my favorite CCTV, has been approved for use with the SOL. Students can also apply for accommodations to use portable CCTVs such as the SmartLux or other video magnifiers on the exam. As I like to say, everyone has the right to see the same things as everyone else, and that applies to testing as well. I hope my experiences with the SOL can help other students with low vision taking standardized tests, and that they may be able to do better than I did.

If you have any specific questions about my SOL accommodations, feel free to comment below, as comments go directly to my email. I will do my best to respond.



ACT Accommodations For Low Vision

Even though I took the SAT, it was recommended that I also take the ACT (plus writing) test, as colleges liked to see that students took both exams.  While getting my SAT accommodations for my print disability was fairly easy, since I had taken an AP exam in the past, getting my ACT accommodations was extremely stressful.

I was denied my initial request for large print, however was approved for triple time, and received notification about this eleven days prior to the test.  Following that, my mom and I contacted the ACT organization, who requested more documentation for my disability, so we sent them my IEP and certification of low vision from my opthalmologist.  We also got the school testing coordinator involved in the process.  Nine days after I was initially denied accommodations, and two days before the exam, I was approved for everything I needed.

Like my SAT, I took the test in a small group setting in a different classroom than the rest of the students.  We went to the school I would be testing at the day before my exam to fill out forms as well, so when I got there, they could immediately start my exam.  Since I had triple time on each section on the test, the sooner I started the exam, the sooner the exam would be over.  I had triple time for all of my sections, and while I was approved to take the exam over the course of several days, I chose to take it all in one day.

I received a large-text test booklet with 18-point Arial font, and the testing coordinator transferred the responses from my booklet to the answer document.  I was allowed to mark in my test booklet, and use my colored pens and highlighters for the test.  I had two desks that I used to spread out materials, and the lights were replaced with lamps in the testing room to reduce the risk of flickering fluorescent lights.  I took a break between each section, but never left the classroom.

I was approved to use the myScript calculator app on my iPad with guided access enabled, so I couldn’t access the internet or any other apps.  I also was permitted to use a magnifier and a blank 3 x 5 index card for tracking text.  The index card was especially helpful when tracking math and science text.  I was not allowed to use a computer for any section except for the writing section- I used Microsoft Word and had spell check and the internet disabled.

I received my scores about six weeks after everyone else, as is typical for most large print exams.  One thing I liked is that I was able to see how I did in individual sections, and it was relatively easy to send scores to the colleges I applied to.  Overall, I would recommend taking both the ACT and SAT tests, and filing for accommodations several weeks in advance, and submitting every piece of documentation you could possibly think of.


 

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.

Save Bookshare

Author’s note- Bookshare, a service that provides large print and Braille digital books for people with print disabilities worldwide, is currently in danger of losing federal funding. As a student with low vision, I have been using Bookshare since 2011 and it has dramatically changed the way I read. Below, I have written a sample letter for my local congressmen and senators so they can see how important this service really is. Feel free to use my letter as a template to send to your local representatives.  Read more about Bookshare here.



Dear (representative),

My name is Veronica, and I am a college student here in Virginia studying software engineering and assistive technology, to develop tools for people with disabilities. I graduated from Virginia public schools in 2015 with an advanced diploma and a 3.8 GPA. In addition, I run my own blog about assistive technology and disability life at www.veroniiiica.com. This wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t have Bookshare, an accessible media library that’s in danger of losing federal funding in the FY2017.

I have low vision, which means that I can’t access standard print materials and require large print. Large print books can be very expensive and hard to find, and sometimes the font size isn’t big enough. Bookshare digitally scans in books so that users can access them in whatever format suits them best- large print, Braille, or audio. Almost any book that can be found in the local library can be found on Bookshare, and I can read the same books that my peers are reading. I’m not just limited to the small large print selection at my library or the even smaller selection at the local bookstore.

I have been using Bookshare since 2011, and it has helped me tremendously both inside and outside of the classroom. Before I had Bookshare, I would have to order large print books that would take weeks to come in, and then I would have to catch up with the rest of the class on the reading. My classmates would talk about books they had read for hours on end, and I would often be excluded from the conversation because large print wasn’t available for the book they were talking about, or the book would be too heavy for me to carry around, like in the case of the Harry Potter series. Once I got Bookshare, I could carry my books around on an eReader or tablet, and download a book almost instantly to read in class. I started reading more and more, and was able to join more discussions in class. Education is invaluable, and with accessible materials, more students are able to learn and go on to pursue higher level education, enter the workforce, and contribute to society. By making these materials accessible, students can thrive in the educational environment, as opposed to failing because they can’t see the materials and believing that they just can’t learn.

People with disabilities are one of the fastest growing minorities here in the United States, with about 1 in 6 people having some type of disability. Disability affects all economic classes, races, nationalities, and other demographics. By funding Bookshare, it ensures that more than 400,000 people with print disabilities are able to access materials. Without it, the responsibility would fall on state and local governments to provide for their students, and the selection wouldn’t be as large, easy to access, or as inexpensive as Bookshare is- Bookshare is able to create materials at a cost that’s fifteen times less than the previous national program.

I hope that you will advocate to restore the Technology and Media FY2017 budget line to $30 million, the same as it was in 2016. Bookshare is extremely important to me, and so many other students, and we don’t want to imagine life without it.

Sincerely,

Veronica Lewis

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 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.

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.

How To Buy Digital Textbooks

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, let’s talk about textbooks.



Once upon a time, I received digital textbooks in high school that didn’t have pictures, charts, or graphs. This was particularly stressful, especially in my chemistry class where those are a pretty big deal. Because the textbook was out of date, my mom was able to purchase a cheap used copy, rip the book apart, and scan it in, page by page, into the computer so that I would be able to access it digitally (note- this is legal), a process that was very time consuming. Now, there are many options for digital textbooks that not only contain all of the same things the print copies do, but also can be enlarged clearly, highlighted, annotated, and more. I’m lucky to go to a college that embraces digital textbooks and technology in the classroom for everyone, regardless of their level of sight, as digital textbooks become the wave of the future. Just make sure you will get the same access codes and other material as the people who buy print textbooks do. Here are the digital textbook services I have used in college so far.  

1. Amazon Kindle– This app is at the top because it is my most used app. It’s easy to find digital textbooks at reasonable prices here, and even large textbooks can be downloaded in under a minute. The images are clear and the book itself can be navigated quickly. Annotations are also easy to search, and the user can create flash cards to help study the material. It also responds flawlessly to display accommodations and zoom on the iPad, and integrates well with VoiceOver.

2. Barnes and Noble Nook– I have purchased digital textbooks from here and order books from the Nook store when they aren’t available elsewhere. The fonts can be customized, as well as their size. In addition, line spacing, background color, margins, and brightness can be adjusted. However, pictures tend to look a little funny if they are small, and the pages take longer to load compared to the Amazon app. It’s easier to read on this app for prolonged periods of time because the user can increase font size and contrast higher, so eye strain is reduced.

3. Chegg– Chegg is a textbook service that allows users to rent or buy textbooks and eTextbooks. The built in dictionary and Wikipedia features are great, but the spacing of the display seems awkward as it only displays a quarter of the page at the most. For pages with more than three pictures or graphs, VoiceOver seemed to get a bit confused and skip around. However, the images were high resolution and adapted well to my display accommodations.

4. Apple iBooks- While I haven’t personally used them in college, a lot of my friends swear by iBooks. With videos, animations, and easily enlarged pictures and graphs, it’s very easy to read. Text is clear to read, and it is flawless with VoiceOver. I don’t use it because I am sensitive to flashing lights and flickering effects, and was worried the videos and animations might use those.

5. VitalSource Bookshelf– Two of my professors publish their textbooks on this platform. It was hard to read text on this app because it was scanned in from a print copy so it was lower resolution than an ePub file. It’s easy to pages or take a screenshot to import into Notability, but the images were lower resolution than screenshots from any other app. VoiceOver was impossible to use.

6. Pearson- I have used digital textbooks from Pearson for classes where the teacher had their own website on the Pearson SuccessNet platform. There was no application to view the textbooks on my iPad, as it was Adobe Flash based, so I had to use the computer. However, it is easy to read for long periods on the computer, and there is a large amount of study materials available.

And to answer the debate over whether to rent or buy the textbooks, I choose to buy books that I might use in another class and rent the ones I won’t. Usually, there isn’t a huge price difference when it comes to renting or buying digital textbooks, though digital textbooks are much cheaper than physical books- my sighted friend took my advice last year, and found it was cheaper to buy an iPad and all their textbooks digitally than it was to buy all of the books as physical copies. If a textbook is only available in print, I will use a CCTV to access it or utilize my school assistive technology services to convert the book to a digital format- my school requires a receipt for book purchase and my Office of Disability file in order to convert the book.

Another good thing to remember is to check with the professor about whether it’s okay to buy a newer edition if that’s all that is available digitally. My professors have never seen a problem with it, but it never hurts to check. After all, a textbook with relevant information is almost as important as having a professor that will follow your accommodations. Check back tomorrow for my next post on tips on educating professors on your accommodations! 

How To Schedule College Classes

Welcome to my first post in my new college preparedness series! 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. Let’s begin with scheduling!
When my friend had to sign up for her first semester of college classes, she came to me saying that there were only 7 am classes available and she wasn’t sure how she would be able to start her day that early, and that several of her classes met on the same day, at the same time. I then explained that she was just looking at the first class listing, and that there were other times and days available for her to take her required classes, as it would be insane for there to only be one time that a foundation class would be offered. After that, we came up with a nearly perfect schedule for her that didn’t involve classes so early in the morning. Here are a few tips I shared with her about scheduling that can help you get the perfect schedule for the next semester.
1. Know when you can register. Many colleges have priority registration for students in honors college, specific learning groups, and students who receive classroom services through the office of disabilities.

2. Know when your vision is best. For me, I do best in classes offered mid-morning or after lunchtime, as my eye fatigue tends to be lower and I am less likely to get a migraine. If you know you aren’t going to have enough energy to make it to a 4:30 class, then don’t sign up for one and expect you will suddenly have enough energy

3. Check where buildings are located. If a class building is in an area that is not easily accessible, see if there is an alternative location where the class is held. For example, I have trouble walking down a steep hill to a building on my campus, and one of my classes primarily takes place there. I signed up for a less popular section later in the day at a building right next to my dorm to reduce the risk of me falling as I try to navigate.

4. Check professors on a website like RateMyProfessor. I always write reviews at the end of the semester for my teachers, and other students do the same. Check to make sure the reviews are for your specific class (for example, Geology 101), especially when it comes to negative reviews.

5. Get contact information for professors. I usually look up their names in our school email database right after I sign up and tell them that I receive accommodations and use assistive technology. If a professor seems tentative about having a low vision student and/or assistive technology in the classroom, you can switch to a different professor.  I’m working on creating a section on my website that describes all the devices I use so that in the future I can just send my professors the link to my blog, and other students can use links that describe what the technology is used for.

6. Check wifi connectivity in the classrooms in advance. If you rely on internet based services for your accommodations, test the wifi in the building, or even better, the classroom, prior to the first day of school. Make sure it doesn’t drop randomly!

7. Schedule classes in the same building back to back. I did this second semester of freshman year and it worked out beautifully. I had an hour and a half between classes where I would eat and read material, or when the weather got nicer, I would go for a walk to get food and fresh air.

8. Don’t leave yourself ten minutes to race across campus to your next class. I tried this once and wound up switching classes because not only was I super stressed, but I also nearly face planted because of the icy conditions.

9. If possible, schedule one day during the week when you don’t have class. For me, this day is usually Friday, and I use the day to meet with professors, write, go to appointments, or just get off campus for a bit. It helps to have a day where you know you can schedule something and not suddenly have a class conflict.

10. Once you’re all scheduled, try and find the syllabus. I just googled my class name, teacher name, and then type “site:” along with my college website. You can usually find a fairly recent syllabus along with textbook information. 

Remember, you are no longer in high school.  You can drop or add a class with a few clicks, find out lots of information about professors, and you don’t have to put up with professors who don’t follow accommodations.  With these tips, I have had amazing success with having professors not only accept my assistive technology, but have me thriving so much in my classes that they forget I’m a student with low vision.