My Phone Isn’t Paper

Back in high school, I had teachers who didn’t believe that my vision was as bad as I said it was. They believed that I was like the rest of my friends- texting, reading, and driving around. These teachers would often ask me, my friends, my parents, and even my case manager why I could be texting (or doing some other task) but not able to see what was on the board or on my non-enlarged classwork. And honestly, it was very frustrating to explain time and time again.

I have many accessibility settings enabled on my phone and also use third party apps in order for me to see my phone clearly. The font size on my phone is the same as the font size I receive for print materials, and I have a high contrast filter applied. As a result, I am able to text my friends easily and use my phone as much as anyone else.

I also use an eReader to read books,enlarging the font size to the largest one available. I have a print disability, meaning I cannot read small text, which is why I had an IEP in school with accommodations that included large print. Comparing my ability to read accessible materials and my ability to read inaccessible materials is unfair.

As I’ve gotten older, more and more teachers have asked me if I drive or have a learner’s permit. Since I could barely see the board even with visual correction, I was always confused when teachers were surprised that I don’t drive. One teacher went as far to ask my friend sitting next to me if I was able to drive, trying to see if they could trick my friend into telling what they believed was the truth. Of course, my friends often laughed at the idea of me behind the wheel, saying I would have six casualties before I even pulled out of the driveway.

The most frustrating comments of all were when I was asked why I couldn’t see perfectly, even with glasses. Just like crutches don’t make someone walk perfectly, glasses don’t make someone see perfectly, it only gives them the maximum correction. That may not mean perfect eyesight, and they might need some accommodations to ensure they are able to see things. Never doubt that someone could have low vision just because they are wearing glasses, and don’t compare their sight loss with correction to someone’s sight loss without correction. Also, if someone has an IEP, chances are they need the services they are provided, and it is a bad idea to argue that they don’t, especially when it comes to low vision. Assistive technology has come a long way, allowing people with disabilities to seamlessly integrate with their friends, and I will always be grateful for the technological advancements that have helped me succeed.

All About AIM-VA

When I was in high school, I was unable to read the textbooks that my teachers used in class. Since my middle school didn’t use textbooks, I was surprised to find out that I had to work with them so much. Because the books were older, I was unable to find copies of them to purchase digitally. Thankfully, I was able to use AIM-VA to receive accessible digital copies of my textbooks.

Accessible Instructional Materials Virginia, also known as AIM-VA, is an organization affiliated with the Department of Education that provides accessible materials, not just textbooks, to students with IEPs and print disabilities across the state of Virginia. Each state has their own version of this program. Through their service, I was able to receive math, science, Spanish, and English textbooks. The math and science textbooks were the most important because each letter, number, and symbol is important, as opposed to English where the brain can miss a letter while reading and still understand what word is on the page. I benefitted tremendously from these textbooks, and have written some tips on how to help other students benefit from receiving services from AIM-VA as well.

Order early

Textbooks can be ordered for the next school year starting in late March. Once your schedule is finalized, I recommend placing the order. Some textbooks can be downloaded instantly, others may require processing time. Do not wait until a month into the school year to order textbooks- after all, shouldn’t all students get their textbooks at the same time, not just the sighted ones?

Order ALL the books

Math and science are just as important as English and history. If someone can’t see small letters, they can’t see small numbers either. Also remember that some classes may use multiple textbooks, and it helps to have all materials available. These materials come at no cost to the school, so why not order everything the student will need?

Think beyond textbooks

Do you use workbooks? How about music books? AIM-VA can make all of these materials accessible, even materials used in the classroom such as worksheets and pamphlets that the school might not know how to make accessible- for example, I once had a map enlarged so large, I had to stretch the paper out in the hallway so I could work on the assignment.

Choose a software

Good old Adobe reader works great for reading textbooks, but not all students may be able to take a laptop to school. Back up files to storage solutions such as Google Drive (and ensure they are deleted after the student is done using them for the year). That way, the materials are available on any device, and can also be input into programs like Notability, which allows students to easily read and annotate documents.

My experience

The textbooks and workbooks I receive from AIM-VA were very high quality, and I was able to easily follow along in class using my laptop. Since my first high school did not have wifi available for students, I especially appreciated that the files were available to be downloaded offline so I didn’t have to worry about losing access to the files. AIM-VA is a great resource, and ensures that students with print disabilities have the right to read in an accessible format alongside their peers.

Learning to Self-Advocate

On my IEP throughout high school, one of the top goals was for me to learn to self-advocate.  When I was younger, I viewed this goal as meaning that if I had a problem, it would mean that no one would be available to help me and I would be stuck with dealing with everything by myself.  That was not the case, as I had so many people to help support me.  I’ve learned a lot about self-advocacy, and I hope that I will be able to help others learn as well.

What is self-advocacy?

Self-advocacy is learning how to speak up for yourself, as well as learning, building a support network, problem solving, and knowing when to reach out for help. It’s an extremely important skill to have, as there may not always be someone with you when a situation comes up. This skill has greatly benefitted me outside of school, in college, and beyond.

Learning to speak up for yourself

I do not like causing conflict or hurting people’s feelings, so it was hard for me at first to point out that a situation was unfair or that my accommodations were not being followed. In one of my classes, the daily warm-up assignment was never enlarged, so instead of arguing with the teacher every day, I would walk into class and read a book on my eReader until the rest of the class finished with the assignment.

No one can hear you unless you speak up, so make sure to let the teacher know if assignments are presented in a format that is not accessible for you. Also make suggestions on how to make it accessible- enlarging exponents, using different colored pens and papers, digital formats, or anything else you can think of.

Learning

In college, I met another student with low vision that didn’t know anything about the services they received in school. They told me that their parents and teachers handled everything, and they couldn’t tell me what accommodations they received, just that they needed them.

Familiarize yourself with what accommodations you receive. What font size can you read? What color paper works best? What assistive technology do you use? What apps do you use, and on what platform? Do you receive extra time? Are tests in a one-on-one environment? Learning how to explain your accommodations simply and clearly is important.  This information will be very helpful when it comes time to create a Disability Services file in college.

Building a support network

With my IEP, I had three case managers in high school over the course of four years (I attended two high schools). They were specifically picked for me because they were great with helping students learn to self-advocate- they wouldn’t sit there and yell at my teachers over trivial things or constantly hover over me. Instead, they would step in when there was a problem I needed help with. My guidance counselors were also incredible resources, as they would listen and move me out of classes when necessary, as well as be some of my greatest advocates in IEP meetings. In addition, each of my high schools also had an assistant principal who would handle the cases for students with IEPs, and the principal was helpful as well. The central office of my school districts listened to my concerns when situations were too much to handle.

I also had family and friends to help me through smaller situations. My parents, especially my mom, would attend every IEP meeting and help make sure that I was thriving in the educational environment. My parents have always been very encouraging of my goals as well. In the classroom, I also had friends that would help me advocate for myself so I didn’t feel as nervous. In a class where the teacher regularly did not enlarge my work, one of my best friends was always right behind me whenever I went to ask the teacher for my assignments, so when the teacher started telling me that I didn’t need large print, I would feel more confident in reminding them that I do and I would be less likely to back away.

Problem solving

Learning to solve minor problems on your own can be extremely beneficial. I learned how to scan in and enlarge assignments, make documents accessible, and type my own notes when there were no prewritten notes available. This meant that I was still able to participate in class even if my IEP wasn’t completely followed, and it meant my grades were higher because I missed less assignments.

Some posts that may be helpful include my posts on testing accommodations, accommodations for print materials, and what I’ve learned about print disabilities.

Knowing when to reach out for help

In one of my math classes, I had a teacher who did not believe I needed large print, as they assumed my glasses corrected my vision to 100% and it was a waste of their time to enlarge things, despite the fact I had an IEP. I thought I could handle the situation myself, and didn’t tell anyone how badly I was struggling in the class. I didn’t use any assistive technology regularly at that time, so it should be no surprise that I failed the class.

As important as it is to try and handle situations yourself, you have a support network for a reason. It’s important to let someone else step in for situations that involve the law being broken, threats, or when you’ve tried everything you can think of. This isn’t failure to self-advocate though, as an important aspect is remembering when to get help.

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Self-advocacy is one of the skills that I am the most grateful for. Because of this, I have been able to go on to attend college, confident in myself and my abilities, but still knowing where I need extra help. I will always be grateful for the people and experiences that helped me develop this skill.

Testing Accommodations For Low Vision Students

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

Colored paper and Arial font

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

Single sided paper 

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

Ear plugs

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

Time and a half 

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

iPad apps, when necessary

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

Sharpie pens

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

Low light testing environment

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

E-bot Pro

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

Large table

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

High contrast images, graphs, and maps

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

Why I Prefer My Schoolwork Digitally

We live in an age where it’s easy to go paperless, but many people have wondered why I embrace having all of my schoolwork digital, when possible. Here are ten reasons as to why I love being able to hold a wealth of information on a device

It’s much more lightweight. 

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

I can add color filters easily. 

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

 Easy to enlarge text. 

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

Technology can fit on a desk. 

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

People won’t forget about it. 

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

No one has to attempt to read my terrible handwriting. 

I have dysgraphia, and typing is much easier than attempting to read whatever I wrote down.  I can’t read my handwriting, so typing is much more efficient.

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

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

There’s less of a stigma. 

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

It’s often easier to balance. 

Having to carry twenty sheets of paper around a science lab as opposed to an iPad was much more unpleasant and difficult to organize. Plus, I accidentally set my paper on fire once in a lab.

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

By having access to technology in high school, I am prepared to adapt to any situation when it comes to requesting materials I can view. Anything can be found digitally now, and by knowing how to access it, I can adapt the world to my needs, instead of demanding the world adapt to my needs because I don’t know what to do. I am grateful for learning how to adapt digital material to my different needs, so I can feel like I can do anything now.