How Do People With Low Vision…Graduate From High School?

As the school year comes to a close, many seniors are working on preparing for graduation and ensuring everything goes smoothly. My family widely joked that they were surprised I was graduating, because I had faced so many challenges in school because of my disability and chronic illness. My brother also thought I would somehow fall so spectacularly when getting my diploma, that I would become a viral video. Luckily, my graduation went smoothly, even though I had an awful migraine the entire time. Here are my tips on how to make sure that graduation isn’t memorable for bad reasons. For reference, my graduation ceremony took place indoors, at a college, and I did not use a blindness cane or other mobility aids.

Share concerns with teachers

I remember being extremely worried that I would trip and fall off the stage while walking to get my diploma, or that I would fall down the stairs shortly after receiving it. I shared these concerns with a trusted teacher who was going to be helping with graduation, and they were able to warn me about the location of potential obstacles on the stage, as well as appoint a human guide to help me down the stairs.

When entering, keep your eyes down

As we walked into the ceremony, I kept my eyes down and searching for obstacles, as well as avoiding the onslaught of flashing lights that was all around me. A member of my friend’s family remarked that it looked like I was crying, to which someone else said “she’s not crying because she’s graduating, it’s because this entire room is like a giant migraine trigger.” ┬áThis wasn’t noticeable on the graduation film.

Request no photography

Since I get migraines from flashing lights, I requested that the photographer, who was taking pictures of each student as they received their diploma, please skip taking photos of me. It really helped with making sure I didn’t fall off the stage either. ┬áMy teacher and principal helped enforce this and kept reminding the photographer prior to graduation about not taking pictures.

Have someone else move the tassel

At some graduations, the tassel on the cap is moved to the other side while the student is on the stage, while at others it is moved after all other students had received their diplomas. For those who are supposed to move their tassel on the stage and are unable to do so, ask someone, such as the principal, to move it for you. This is especially helpful for students who may have a broken arm, have their hands full with a blindness cane or guide dog, or that are very paranoid about knocking off their glasses.

When tossing the caps

At the end of graduation, everyone throws their caps in the air to celebrate being done with school, and done with the ceremony. I didn’t throw my cap in the air, and instead chose to duck and make sure I didn’t get hit in the face. Also, there was tons of camera flashes going off at that moment, so the idea of opening my eyes was not appealing at all.

I didn’t attend any of the extra graduation events that my school put on, such as the baccalaureate celebration, because I had only attended that school for two years and didn’t know a lot of my fellow students. Plus, there would be more flashing lights. I’m fortunate that no one could tell that I had low vision or that I was in chronic pain as I walked across the stage to receive my diploma. Most importantly, I’m glad that I didn’t end up as some viral video because I had tripped over thin air.

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.