Why I Study Assistive Technology

For my one hundredth blog post, I decided to write about the reasons I chose for studying assistive technology in college. It’s definitely a more uncommon field to study, and I am frequently explaining to people what exactly assistive technology is.  Once they understand what it is, it’s easy to see how commonplace assistive technology is in society- common examples include wheelchairs, magnifying glasses, text-to-speech, high tech devices, and more. Here are ten of the reasons I decided to study assistive technology.

I have always been interested in the latest gadgets

I was one of the first people to purchase a Nook eReader when it first came out (more on that here) and got my first Android phone in 2010 (read my first ever blog post on Android here). I love playing with new technology and figuring out what it can do, and how it can be used to help others.

I spent a lot of time in nursing homes

My grandma had Alzheimer’s disease and lived in a nursing home, so my family would visit frequently. I also was part of a volunteer group that visited nursing homes at least once a month. I observed how assistive technology could help seniors, even simple things like spill guards on plates, and this made me realize that I want my future career to involve helping people.

Technology makes things possible

One of my favorite sayings is “for a lot of people, technology makes things easier, but for people with disabilities, technology makes things possible.” Without the use of technology, I would be unable to read and write using standard materials because of my print disability and dysgraphia. I have a strong appreciation for how fortunate I am to live in a time period where technology is so plentiful.

I attended an assistive technology conference

About two months after I developed my chronic illness, my parents took me to an assistive technology conference at a college several hours away, looking for resources to help me in school. I was fascinated with all of the different tools available for students with low vision, as well as other disabilities, and decided that I wanted to create similar tools, with a special focus on students with low vision.

My school encouraged me to learn all I could

I didn’t have access to many assistive technology resources as I went through school- I never even heard the term “assistive technology” until I was a freshman in high school (more about that here). Because of the lack of resources, my case managers and teachers encouraged me to come up with my own accommodations and had me figure out how to use technology to help myself. Eventually, staff members would come to me asking for advice on other students, because I had learned so much.

It affects so many people

About one in six people identify as having some type of disability. The disability community includes people of all races, ages, backgrounds, languages, etc. It’s also the only community that anyone can join in ten seconds or less- someone can become disabled in the blink of an eye. Because of this, there are so many different ways to help others through assistive technology, be it with communication devices, mobility aids, electronic devices, and so much more.

I have low vision

One of the main reasons I am so interested in the field is because I have low vision, and use this technology every day, sometimes multiple times a day. I am able to figure out what I want quickly, and am very particular about the devices I use.  As a result, I only showcase products and technology on my blog that has exceeded my rigorous standards.

Accessibility intersects with so many things

Accessibility and assistive technology go beyond the digital world. It crosses over into architecture, government, nutrition, bioengineering, graphic design, environmental science, driving, media, and so much more. After all, the future should be accessible to those with disabilities.

It’s a growing field

I’m always learning something new, as new devices and research emerge. Technology alone is constantly evolving, and there are so many different ways assistive technology can be applied to different careers.  I remember that when I told someone this is what I wanted to study, they were a bit surprised, as a lot of students don’t know what assistive technology is, let alone want to study it. Now that I have seen all of the amazing things this field has to offer, I can’t imagine studying anything else.

Lots of opportunities to write

I have always loved writing, and studying assistive technology has allowed me to write frequently about new products, accessibility, disability, life, and more.  I knew that no matter what career I went into, I would want it to involve writing, and this blog has given me the opportunity to not only write, but to share my love of assistive technology with others.  Thank you, dear readers, for following this blog, leaving comments, sharing on Pinterest, and so much more.  I have many exciting posts planned for the coming months, and can’t wait to share them with you!

My View on “See”

One time, I managed to lose my bottle of shampoo in the bathroom I shared with my suitemate. I called out to them, asking if they had seen my bottle of shampoo recently. Their response to my question came as a bit of a surprise:

“Don’t use the word see, that’s offensive to the blind and visually impaired!”

I was very surprised they had said that. I’d never heard of the term being offensive before, and I would never be offended if someone used the term towards me. Naturally, I decided to educate them:

“I speak for the blind and visually impaired, we don’t view that word as offensive. Can you help me look for the bottle?”

To which the person then replied:

“Hey, the words view and look are offensive too!”

I just decided to put up this poster in the bathroom and resume my search later.

Lost: Have you seen me? Name- Garnier 2 in 1. Last seen- in the shower. Color- green. If found, just put that thing back where it came from or so help me

A common misconception from sighted people is that using a term like see, watch, view, or look is offensive to someone with blindness or low vision. The truth is, we use those terms ourselves, very often. My friend with low vision will ask if I “saw” the new assignments for class, a totally blind person will say they “watched” a video, I “view” materials online, and those of us with low vision or blindness frequently need help “looking” for things. These words are not exclusive to the sighted community, and frequently do not refer to the literal appearance of something, or the act of seeing them.

The terms blindness, blind, and low vision are also not offensive- these are actually diagnostic terms used by doctors. The term visually impaired is not offensive either. Some people use low vision and blindness interchangeably, as many “blind” people still have at least some degree of sight. Typically, I use low vision to describe my own eyesight, and identify myself as visually impaired or as having low vision. While some disability communities insist on using person first language instead of identity first language (i.e the student with a vision impairment as opposed to the visually impaired student), people in the low vision community use both.

Of course, these words can be used in a negative context, such as when people get annoyed when you can’t see something. There are also plenty of mean names that people with blindness or low vision get called. However, a lot of the words by themselves are not offensive. There are some people that don’t mind these mean names though- my blog title comes from a slang term in America for people who wear glasses. They are referred to as having “four eyes”, and I stylized my name as Veroniiiica since I am Veronica with four eyes/Is.

Everyone has unique responses to certain words, so if you are ever doubtful, ask the person you are talking to if they find the term offensive. But don’t refrain from using see, watch, view, or look, just because the person you are talking to doesn’t have good eyesight. For more information on etiquette for talking to someone with low vision or blindness, read my post here.

Not Graduating Early

My sophomore year of high school, especially the second semester, was awful. Over half of my teachers did not provide me with the accommodations in my IEP, due to a lack of resources and the difficulties that came with integrating assistive technology into the classroom. One of my teachers frequently reminded me how they wish I wasn’t in their class, another teacher would say isn’t their problem I don’t receive accessible materials, and the support staff would tell me to go away, or tell me I just need to continue to self-advocate, and everything will be better. The only class I felt included in was band, which had always been a safe space for me. I only felt included in one out of my five classes.

I was told one day that there was something I could do, something all of the staff members agreed would be a wonderful thing. I could take five more classes, and then graduate the next year, one year early, receiving a general/standard diploma instead of the advanced diploma I had been working towards. Or, I could take two more classes and graduate with a modified IEP diploma the next semester. Alternatively, I could get a GED now and graduate at the end of the semester. Basically, they decided they wanted to get rid of me.

Because I had been in an educational environment where my disability was considered an inconvenience to everyone around me, I started seriously thinking about this. I’d been given pamphlets about these options, but I couldn’t see them, so I put them in my backpack. I researched the GED, put together a mock class schedule for the next year, and told my parents all about the ideas I had been presented. They were horrified that this had even been presented to me as an option.

My family started to consider moving to a neighboring school district, which had a full virtual high school program and would provide better opportunities for me and my brother. It would involve selling our house and leaving the community we had lived in for twelve years, but it was the only way I was going to graduate. My parents started doing research, and made an appointment with a guidance counselor at what would eventually be my new high school.

My mom and I went to meet with this guidance counselor, and my head was full of the information I had been given. When the guidance counselor went to ask me about scheduling, I repeated what all of the other staff at my old school had said:

“I’m five credits from graduating, I could graduate a year early if I don’t take band and choose a standard diploma!”

“No, you’re not doing that.” The guidance counselor immediately said, very matter-of-factly. 

“You’re nothing special, it’s not like you’re a genius.  No college would take you.  Don’t get me wrong, though.  You are a very smart girl, I know you will be successful here, and you will get an advanced diploma.  Now tell me, are you interested in AP Language and Composition? How about statistics?  I remember you said you are a band kid, the director here is adorable and everyone just loves him.”

By the end of the meeting, the guidance counselor had created a mock schedule for me, with two AP classes, math, science, video production, and a Microsoft certification class. I even had band in there, the advanced band class. My guidance counselor told me I was going to have a better experience than I had in my old school district, and if things didn’t work out, I could always be switched into virtual classes.

The thoughts about graduating early completely left my head after I met my new band director, and they told me how excited they were that I was going to be joining them. The cool thing was, they were a former student of my old band director, and I was told they are “a way cooler version of them.” They said they would be happy to help me whenever needed, and I left the school that day feeling much more positive.

I don’t want to think about what would have happened if I gave up, but I’m certainly glad I didn’t. My new high school was far from perfect, but I was able to graduate in 2015 with a 3.8 GPA and advanced diploma, something I never would have been able to do in my old school district. My guidance counselor, case manager, band director, and technology teacher all helped support me and continue to encourage me, even to this day, to continue advocating for myself. I’m now entering my third year of college in a highly competitive program, and thriving. I could have very easily been one of the many students who fall through the cracks and believe they are not worthy of receiving education, but luckily that wasn’t me.

If you relate to any of my experiences right now, dear reader, let me just tell you that you belong, and you are worthy of receiving a free, appropriate public education. I know it may seem like there are staff members who hate you, but please continue to stay in school and do your best with the circumstances given. College is a completely different experience than high school, I promise.

Happy 2nd Anniversary

Today, I would like to wish a very happy anniversary to someone that has really become an extension of who I am, and has helped me through many situations that I would have had to walk through all alone otherwise.  They help understand what is going on- it’s a relationship unlike any other.

We met about a week after my freshman orientation at college.  We were introduced by my case manager from the Department of Blind and Visually Impaired, who had been telling me for weeks that I really should meet them, since they would help me so much in college.  I was reluctant at first, wondering what other students would think of me if we were seen together.  Would they think I was totally blind?  Would my friends think I lost my mind?  And would we look strange walking around together in public?  I then remembered that I had fallen down a flight of stairs at orientation, twice.  I shouldn’t care what people think of me.

I’m not sure how I would have gotten through my freshman year of college without them.  They were there to make sure I didn’t fall down the stairs as spectacularly as I had before.  They helped me get to class, the post office, the dining hall, to my dorm building, and so many other places.  It didn’t matter the time of day or night- if I needed them, they were there.  We also got to go explore other cities, taking trips to Washington DC, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, and more.

My sophomore year, they inspired me to create a blog about my experiences with low vision and chronic illness.  I realized that I had so much to share, and I had always wanted to be a writer.  They appeared in many of my blog posts, even in my profile pictures.  I wanted to show others that our relationship was nothing to be ashamed of, even if others would point at us and stare sometimes.  This blog eventually went beyond what I imagined, allowing me to share my thoughts on life and managing my conditions.  I’ve also gotten to talk about my experiences with public schools, college, virtual education, and everything in between.  I’ve become a contributor for different websites, met Joe Biden, and even had an article written about me by the organization that inspired me to study assistive technology.  They have been with me through all of these things and more.

It’s hard to believe it’s been two years since we first met, and I can’t even begin to imagine what would have happened if we had never met.  Well, I can sort of imagine- I would have probably embarrassed myself a lot more frequently in public.  We have walked many miles together, and I know I can always count on them to be by my side in the future.  To anyone who is scared of having someone like this in their life, I say that they should take a chance, as something truly amazing could happen.  I know I never saw myself with someone like this before, and I can’t believe I ever thought that way.  I can’t go anywhere now without thinking of how much they have helped me.

So, happy second anniversary to my blindness cane, the tool that has saved me from so many obstacles and helps me see the world around me.  I will always be grateful that we met.

Life with Chronic Migraines

The year is 2011, but I’m in too much pain to remember that at the moment. I’ve forgotten a lot of things- my own name, the name of my cat, what town I lived in, and who the president is. All I can sense is levels of pain that I have never felt in my life before, and I wish they would stop. My parents thought I was having a stroke, the local hospital thought it was a drug overdose. It wouldn’t be until three days later at the children’s hospital that I would get pain relief and the diagnosis of chronic migraines, something no one else in my family had.

Chronic migraines are defined as “more than fifteen headache days per month over a three month period of which more than eight are migrainous, in the absence of medication over use (International Headache Society).” Migraines commonly run in families, and can coexist with other neurological conditions as well. Another name for chronic migraines can be chronic daily headache. Since 2011, I have had more than 15 headache days a month, sometimes reaching up to 30 headache days, where I have a debilitating migraine every day, a symptom connected to my diagnosis of Chiari Malformation.

For me, my migraines are drug resistant, though my neurologists over the years have had me try several different medications with awful side effects. Topamax made me never hungry, Verapamil made me dizzy, Amytryptiline and Imitrex gave me allergic reactions, and Neurotin gave me worse side effects than I ever could have imagined. I was missing school to go sit in the nurse’s office or missing band performances because the flash photography was similar in frequency to a strobe light, my biggest trigger. I had to navigate freshman year of high school while on large amounts of migraine drugs with weird side effects, yet still having chronic pain. I wish that experience on no one.

I started to manage my symptoms with massage therapy and acupuncture, and found that helped a lot with managing my migraines. It didn’t lessen their frequency, but because there was less pain in my neck and shoulders, the pain seemed more tolerable. I also start finding simple remedies that help me manage my symptoms, like peppermint essential oil to combat nausea or doing yoga to release muscle tension. Using alternative medicine has helped me a lot, though I understand that it isn’t meant to cure my migraines.

My senior year of high school, I was in almost all virtual classes for several reasons, one of which was my chronic migraines. I would sleep through my first period class, come to school for second and third period, and often leave during fourth period. Alternatively, I would stay through fourth period and then go home and crash in bed. Sleep was really the only way I could manage my migraines, which could be triggered by flashing lights, loud noises, the weather, or seemingly nothing at all. Food triggers were ruled out as the cause of my migraines, as well as vitamin deficiencies and similar conditions. My migraines were confirmed to be caused by Chiari Malformation in October 2015.

Fortunately, I have been able to attend college several hours from home and continue to manage my migraine condition. I have a private bedroom, meaning I do not have a roommate, but do have 1-3 suitemates who I share a bathroom and living area with. My disability housing accommodations state that I should have a lower-level private room with air conditioning, and the ability to make my room completely dark, as I am sensitive to light and sound when I have migraines. I also have a file with Office of Disability Services that says I have migraines. I schedule my college classes at times where I usually don’t get migraines and often come home from class and sleep (read more about my bed here). I have also gone to class with migraines before, as I know the migraine won’t improve whether I’m sitting in my room or sitting in the classroom.

Often times, people can’t believe that I am able to function through my migraines so well, and ask how I am able to live through this pain. The truth is, I have two options- let everything consume me and just sit in my room all day, or get used to the pain and live my life. While that first option may be beneficial for some people (and I understand pain is relative), I have chosen the second option of developing a superhuman pain tolerance and just living life. I do not like talking much about my condition in real life, because I do not want sympathy or attention from others, especially people I barely know, as I can manage my pain just fine. My close friends and family know the depth of my condition, and that’s more than enough.

I can’t say that life with chronic migraines is the best thing ever, but I can say it has made me a more understanding person. Whenever someone around me experiences migraines, I can relate on a deep level to the pain, sensitivity to the world, and feeling like hair weighs 100 pounds. I understand there are people who have it worse than me, but my hope is that my experiences with chronic migraines can help someone else understand their condition more.

Too High-Functioning

The teacher is passing out the classwork for the day, and there is a noticeable lack of large print or colored paper at the bottom of the pile. As it comes time to give classwork to my section, the teacher looks at me and goes “Oh shoot, I forgot you needed large print. Figure something out.” My best friend next to marks another tally on a list we call “times Veronica didn’t get her work”- in one class, we have over two dozen tallies.  I often leave the classroom to go enlarge my assignment, since I know that if I don’t, the teacher will give me a zero and remind me of how they wished I wasn’t in their class. Even though I have an IEP, and have had one since kindergarden for my low vision, that doesn’t seem to stop teachers from continuing to discriminate against me. I report this to my case manager or other staff member in the special education department, and they pretty much say the same thing each time:

“You’re so high functioning, it’s easy to forget about you!”

My parents and I are in an IEP meeting because I currently have a C, or a D, or a F in one of my classes. The teacher has repeatedly forgotten or refused to enlarge my work, saying it is a waste of resources. I have As in almost all of my other classes, Bs in a few of them. My parents are trying to figure out how an A student is getting such low grades, and why nothing is being done about it. But, by technicality, Cs and Ds are passing, and the special education department says that everything is fine, after all:

“You’re so high functioning, we have other students to take care of!”

I need some additional resources in the classroom. I try to bring this up with special education staff both at my school and at the district level. Most of my requests are ignored, because I shouldn’t need the help. When people do appear from the district level, they are asking me questions about other students, or strictly talking about other students, saying that I am an easy case, they don’t have to worry about me, there are worse-off kids that deserve their time, and I am wasting their time. I realize that the only way I will succeed is if I figure it out myself, since they always tell me:

“You’re so high functioning, you don’t need our help!”

I’m a college student who is studying assistive technology and am waiting for a friend after a band performance. I’m holding my instrument, wearing sunglasses that block out the glare of the lights, and balancing my blindness cane in the other hand. While I’m waiting, a person I have never met walks up to me and starts asking a series of rude questions about my vision and how they had never met someone like me before. They do not stop talking to me, and get frustrated with me that I don’t respond. Later on, I am told to apologize and answer their questions, and their response is almost exactly what I expected:

“You’re so high functioning, that’s inspirational!”

My typical response to people calling me high functioning used to be saying “thank you, and so are you.” However, recently my attitude changed about this, and I realized that I could replace the negative phrase with a more positive one. Despite the best efforts of school personnel, I have been able to see past the negative circumstances given to me and still succeed in school. I have discovered my passion for assistive technology and helping others to succeed. My condition is a major factor in my life, yes, but it isn’t the only thing in my life. I am not just high functioning:

“I am high achieving.”

You Belong

Last year, I found myself having a conversation with someone who was not knowledgeable about people with disabilities. They were shocked that I was in college, because I have low vision, and kept asking me why I “took the opportunity away from a sighted person to attend this college.” I was in a bit of shock, and explained that I had attended public school just like them, I took classes in the general education system, and applied to college just like the rest of my friends. I even pointed out that I was in the engineering department at my college, something that I don’t often mention to people I have just met. They didn’t seem to care and kept insisting I was robbing others of educational opportunities. I dropped the topic and walked away.

Earlier today, my friend had a near identical conversation with someone who claimed that students with disabilities shouldn’t even go to public school, let alone go to college, because it would be impossible for them to accomplish anything. My friend came to me depressed, as they had taken the words of a complete stranger to heart. I don’t know the exact circumstances leading up to this conversation, but I want to remind anyone who has ever felt discouraged after these types of conversations of these two words:

You belong

You are a person with a disability, not a disabled person. After all, you are human, and the disability is something you have, not who you are. It is not a good thing or a bad thing, rather just a component of the person you are.

You can attend public school and receive accommodations thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), something that has been around for over forty years. It lets you be in the least restrictive environment for your learning, meaning that you have the right to be in the classroom if that’s where you function best. And you also have the right to receive services that help you learn, such as large print, Braille, extra time on tests, and so much more.

You can go to college thanks to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504, which prevents discrimination based on disability. Your college helps you succeed by giving you a disability services file, and you are held to the same standards as other students. You are not stealing opportunities from other students because you have a disability, because chances are, your disability was not something you listed in your college application, so it wasn’t something you were judged on.

You can go anywhere. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 grants accessible transportation and buildings, as well as many other things. Title II also grants workplace and postsecondary disability accommodations. I joke that the only jobs I can’t hold are taxi driver and brain surgeon, but thanks to this law, I can be a software engineer or work in an assistive technology lab, or whatever else I want.

Things may seem a bit scary right now, and it’s okay to admit that. But don’t think for a moment that people with disabilities don’t belong in the world we live in. Albert Einstein had dyslexia and became one of the most brilliant minds of our generation. Stephen Hawking uses a communication device to deliver mindblowing theories about the world around us. Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles didn’t let blindness stop them from creating music. And of course, there are people like Helen Keller, Christopher Reeve, Edward Roberts, and so many more that helped to advocate for people like them who lived with disabilities. Without these people, our world wouldn’t be the same.

So remember this when someone tells you that people with disabilities should be anywhere but where you are right now:

You belong.

Don’t Call Me Vision Empowered

I have low vision. I’m not afraid to say it, because I do not know what life is like being able to see like so many others do, and I have to remind others of that. I am extremely open about my vision loss, and never get offended if a young child on the metro, a new friend on campus, or even a total stranger on the street wants to know how I use my blindness cane or my different assistive technologies- in fact, I explain to them how I do to the best of my ability. I refer to myself as being visually impaired, having low vision, or having vision not corrected by glasses. Never will you hear me refer to myself as being “Vision Empowered.”

I first heard that term use to describe someone while I was talking with someone in Washington, DC one day. I thought it was one of the craziest things I’d ever heard, as it discounted the fact I can’t see well. At first, I thought that this was a random person who made up a term, but I heard it mentioned in many conversations I had with people in the following weeks. It sounded like people were trying to deny my disability or modifying words to avoid hurting feelings.

I have a theory that this phrase was coined by parents that were upset their child couldn’t see and wanted to make them sound like they were better than other kids. It’s the same parents who dress their kids in shirts that say “I have insert disability here, what’s your superpower?” The ones who try to deny problems are as bad as they are. The ones who want the world to accommodate their child, and don’t tell the child what to do when the world isn’t the way they need it.
I could hear my mom roll her eyes over the phone when I told her about being referred to as vision empowered. She has never been one to tell me the world is an accommodating place, one where everything is large print and with light filters. Instead, she taught me how to make the world accessible for myself and to be a fierce advocate for myself and others. One thing I really appreciated is that she never told me I couldn’t do anything because I had low vision and let me do whatever my sighted brother and sighted friends were doing…with the exception of driving. She told me “I could see someone describing you as empowered, but not vision empowered. That just makes you sound stupid.”

I told a group of close friends who are sighted about the term as well, and they all couldn’t believe that the term existed. One friend told me it made me sound like I’m the type of person who demanded that there be Braille on a drive up ATM. If someone introduced themselves or if someone was introduced as being vision empowered, they told me that they would wonder what that meant and it would create more questions about what the person’s level of vision was than it would create answers, while terms like blind, visually impaired, or low vision are self explanatory.

To say I am vision empowered is to talk down to me and say my accomplishments only happened because I have a disability. It is to discount my low vision and say that it’s not as bad as it actually is, or that life will always be easy. Even worse, it is to see me as my disability and permanently associate everything I do with how I see.  I am okay with the terms low vision, visually impaired, vision loss, and many others, but not being told my vision loss makes me a more empowered or special person.

The only time I want to hear the words vision and empowered together in a sentence is if someone says “The inspirational life you live with low vision empowered others to follow in your footsteps and succeed as well.”