Microsoft Office Specialist Certification and Low Vision


I had the opportunity to take a class my junior and senior years of high school that allowed students to test for Microsoft Office certifications. These certifications, which are internationally recognized, included Word, Word Expert, Excel, Excel Expert, and PowerPoint. The Word, Excel, and PowerPoint certifications were done the first year, and the Expert certifications, which are two part exams, were done the second year. These certifications have always stuck out on my resume, and many people have asked me about them.

I was lucky to have a teacher who knew low vision extremely well, as they have a parent with macular degeneration. As a result, they were more than willing to help me with accommodations and to help ensure that I could access everything. Here are some of the tips and tricks we used for training and testing for the certification exams. We used Certiport for testing, and I received my Microsoft Office Specialist Master certification in 2015.

Testing Accommodations

My teacher requested accommodations for a magnification tool and for double time on the test, very similar to the accommodations I receive for other standardized tests. We never had any issues with getting these accommodations, though it was determined that it was impossible for me to use Microsoft Access, a database software, so I never became certified in that. Accommodations were filed over a month before I sat for the first exam and we did not need to re-submit them for the other exams, they were automatically approved.

Enlarging Office applications

I had my own special computer in the computer lab that no other student was allowed to use. On this computer, there were two types of magnification software, one created for testing and one for normal use. The display was scaled to 200% so images and windows were larger. Text was also enlarged as large as possible. The Microsoft applications had a colored tint as a background and high contrast buttons as a result.  For more on Windows 10 accessibility, click here.

Practice tests

For class exercises, we used a software called GMetrix, which allows students to practice doing different tasks and creating documents. Instructions can be enlarged by clicking on the white box with text and then holding down the control (ctrl) and plus (+) keys until desired text size is reached. One thing is that before submitting work for review, the user must scale the font size down to the original size from when the document was opened, or the software will mark the question as wrong- same goes for the certification exam.

How the certifications have helped

While studying for these certifications, I was able to learn a lot more about the functions of Microsoft Office. I was able to learn how to create accessible materials quickly, a skill that has benefitted me many times. In addition, I was able to learn how to create high quality projects, and have consistently had the most impressive PowerPoint class project designs. I’ve also been able to help many of my fellow students with Microsoft projects- my suitemates last year would frequently ask me questions about using Microsoft Excel.

Overall, I couldn’t have been more lucky when it came to getting my certifications. Not only were they a great addition to my resume, but I have been able to use skills I learned from them every day.  This class also helped prepare me for taking the Information Systems CLEP exam. Getting one of these certifications is way better than taking an AP class, in my opinion- after all, most employers will be more impressed that you passed an Excel Expert exam than if you passed an AP History exam. I highly recommend taking these exams, no matter what you may study in the future, as this technology is used in every career.

Virtual Classes in High School


At both high schools I attended, teachers often took a pencil-and-paper approach to learning. It was common for teachers to have students complete paper worksheets, take handwritten notes, and read out of textbooks. Any sighting of technology in the classroom was rare, minus the occasional graphing calculator or once a year iPad assignment. Assistive technology was an even rarer sight. Because of this, teachers were not provided the necessary resources to have a student like me, who could not read standard print materials or write clearly, and who frequently used technology. It was easy to see their frustration, and while some teachers did manage to include me in their classes, it was too difficult for others to integrate assistive technology into the classroom. So what is a student to do?

Enter, virtual classes.

Virtual classes in high school are offered through many different platforms, and can be taken full-time or part-time, for short or long term periods. These classes allow students to use their school’s or their personal technology to learn material and complete alternative, digital assignments. There are still class assessments, AP exams, and state standardized tests for classes, and students still receive the same amount of credit on their transcript. Here are ten of the reasons I am glad I took virtual classes. I took a total of sixteen virtual classes across all core subjects using the platforms Moodle, Desire2Learn, Rocket Learning, and Brigham Young University Independent Study, and graduated in 2015.  Permission to take virtual classes was not written in as an accommodation in my IEP.

Using my own technology

Often times, it was difficult to enable accessibility settings on school computers because of the restrictions set in place for students. Since virtual classes can be accessed on any internet-enabled device, I can use my own computer or iPad with settings exactly how I like them, and the school doesn’t have to worry about it.

Ability to get ahead in class

With chronic illness, there are weeks where I feel like I can get everything done and be on top of everything, and other weeks where I am spending a lot of time asleep. My teachers would post assignments early and encourage students to work ahead, which I would do when I was feeling great. As a result, it was uncommon for me to fall behind.

Practicing technology skills

It always surprises me how many students aren’t proficient in using technology. By taking virtual classes, I was able to practice researching topics on the internet with different tools, use Microsoft Office applications easily, and create my own accessible materials. This really helps me in college, as I have had professors that require all assignments be completed and submitted digitally, and have also taken virtual classes in college (more on that here).

Access class anytime

My senior year of high school, over half of my classes were virtual, and scheduled for the beginning and end of the day. Because of my chronic migraines, I was sleeping a lot more, since sleep is the only cure for my migraines, and would often do my assignments outside of traditional school hours. As long as the assignments were submitted on time, my teachers never minded this, and encouraged students to complete assignments whenever was most convenient for them.

My IEP was always followed

While I did have many teachers who followed my IEP in the classroom, there were teachers like I mentioned that had very few resources and couldn’t integrate a student with low vision into their classroom. In my virtual classes, my IEP was always followed, since I learned to self-advocate and make things accessible myself.

All materials can be enlarged

Sometimes, there would be a classroom assignment that was impossible to be made accessible. Since virtual class assignments are created with technology in mind, it is easy to change a font size or background color, zoom in on an image, or use a high contrast display.  Why I prefer digital materials here.

Take any class

There were times I was strongly encouraged not to take certain classes, as the teacher was skeptical about having a student with an IEP. For one of these classes, I took it virtually through a state program and had a teacher who was experienced not only with IEPs, but also with having students with low vision. I know I wouldn’t have had such a great experience if I had taken the class in the classroom, and I was thankful that I was able to take it virtually.

Another example is that I completed my PE and health requirements online, since being included in traditional PE classes would be near impossible- and being included in Driver’s Ed would have definitely been impossible! For more on my experience in taking PE virtually, click here.

Summer classes

I took a virtual class every summer in high school, but this setting was especially helpful when I had to repeat Algebra 2, due to my IEP accommodations not being met the first time I took the class. I found accessible graphing applications and a large print calculator, and was able to get an A when I retook the class. Best of all, I didn’t have to worry about being in the classroom environment again, where it would be more difficult for me to integrate technology.

Quiet testing environment

I remember for one of my classes, the testing environment was always very noisy, and it was difficult to concentrate. While I could take some tests at home, I also took tests at my school, traveling to quiet testing locations so I could concentrate.

Improved grades

Because I was able to access all of the materials and had my accommodations followed, I often received higher grades in my virtual classes than in my traditional classes. My senior year, when I had four virtual classes, I was able to get straight As!

Because I still attended school for electives, I never had to worry about missing out on the social aspect of being in the classroom. My virtual teachers were also just an email away, if I needed them, and there were also virtual education specialists based at my school. The virtual high school setup was perfect for me, and allowed me to eventually take virtual classes in college. I would not have graduated unless I had the opportunities I was given in virtual classes.

Ten Things That Surprised Me About College


Before I left for college, my mom was talking with someone, expressing how worried she was about my transition to college, since getting my accommodations in high school was so frustrating. This person reassured my mom that college was completely different, and I would be fine- and they were definitely right. Here are ten things that surprised me about how different college is than high school.

No one really notices my cane

I started using my blindness cane shortly after freshman orientation. I had delayed getting a blindness cane for many reasons, one of which was the worry about social stigma. Maybe it’s because there are several other cane users at my school, but no one seems to notice that I use my cane when walking around. Of course, they acknowledge it exists, but it’s not common for people to go “check it out, she has a blindness cane!” For my responses on what happens when people do say that, click here.

It’s easy to drop classes

I attended exactly one class period of a mythology class, and then came to the conclusion my accommodations would not be followed. Instead of filling out a bunch of forms and going to the counselor like I did in high school, I just clicked a few buttons in my student account and chose a different class.

Accessible materials are abundant

Digital materials are extremely common in college classrooms, as is assistive technology. It’s easy to make anything accessible, and there are also resources to help students learn how to create accessible materials.

Testing is much easier

I had a few teachers who claimed my large print was unfair to the other students or was an unfair advantage. I have never had a professor say that, but I’ve also had the resources of the testing center reserved for students with disabilities. Click here to read all of my posts on this topic.

People are proactive, not reactive

My Disability Services file was set up in order to ensure I receive accommodations from day 1- I didn’t have to wait until there was a problem to receive my services. Read more about setting up a file here.

Class attendance is flexible

This is not to say that skipping class is a good thing, but if there is severe weather, illness, or other circumstances preventing a student from getting to class, professors are happy to have students attend class remotely or send alternative assignments. This is especially helpful since I get chronic migraines.

Technology isn’t just allowed, it’s encouraged

As I have mentioned in past posts, my high schools favored pencil-and-paper learning, which make accessing materials challenging. Since technology is used in every career, professors encourage students to bring technology to class and use it to complete assignments. Everyone is using laptops and tablets, not just certain students.

There are many other students like me

I have found a sense of community at my college with various students who also have chronic illness, and even a few with Chiari Malformation. I’d never met anyone else my age with low vision until I got to college either.  Often times, we were the only ones in our schools that we knew of with chronic illness, so it’s amazing to meet other people who have had similar experiences.

Professors are open to having students with disabilities

While not all professors are like this, almost all of my professors fully embraced having a student with a disability in the classroom and were willing to work with me on accommodations. Often times, the professors that were most enthusiastic about working with me wore glasses, worked with someone who was blind/low vision, or had a background in working with disabilities.

It’s way better than high school

High school was extremely difficult for me not because of the content, but because my disability was frequently perceived as an inconvenience. In college, I am able to self-advocate and work closely with professors to make sure I succeed. I have loved being in college, and hope that others can have the same positive experience that I have.

What’s in my Bag- Class Edition


As a college student with low vision, chronic pain, and chronic migraines, the items I bring to class to help me succeed are often vastly different than my classmates. This doesn’t mean I have an unfair advantage, but rather that I use different tools to ensure my success in the classroom. Here are the items that I often have when I go to my classes. For reference, I live on campus, have a file with Disability Services for use of assistive technology, and my university embraces the use of student technology.Writing

Sharpie Pens

I use this ultra fine tip pens for writing on assignments in lieu of pencil when needed. I try to get materials digital whenever possible, especially because I have dysgraphia, but sometimes there are assignments where the teacher is worried about having a digital copy floating around. I tend to use bright colors, though try to avoid red whenever possible.

Scented Markers

I decided to try these out on a whim for my math class this semester, and they have been a phenomenal resource. The scented markers are easy to hold and write/draw with. Why scented markers? There is a study that shows that having the same scent in the learning and testing environment helps with memory retention, and I use different colors for different topics when studying.

Cardstock

With the use of pens and markers, I need paper that will not fall apart or bleed through. I got a large package of cardstock that is 8.5″ x 11″ from Amazon, and it has been excellent for doing scratch work.

Personal Technology

Microsoft Surface

I use a Microsoft Surface Pro 3, with Windows 10, in my classes that require a lot of typing or the use of Windows apps. Some of the classrooms have very small desks, and I have found that the Surface easily stays put and doesn’t hang off the edge of the desk. Check out how to make Windows 10 accessible here!

iPad

Oh, my beloved iPad. I have no idea what I would do without it. In addition to the apps I use in the classroom (more on that here), I also use it for internet research and for class activities. It’s a lightweight device, something I appreciate when I have to walk around the classroom.  Check out how to make iPad accessible here!

Android Phone

While I don’t use this as frequently in the classroom as my other two devices, my phone is a fantastic resource for apps. Some examples include a portable scanner, discreet magnifier, and apps from my iPad synced to my phone. Not many of my professors have a no-phone policy, but the ones who did had no problem with letting me use mine, as long as I had headphones plugged in or sound otherwise disabled.  Check out how to make Android accessible here!

Assistive Technology

E-Bot Pro

Depending on the class, I would bring my E-Bot Pro to help magnify items. Even though it is lightweight by CCTV standards, I bring it in a rolling bag or a similar method because of the weight on my shoulders and back. I have most frequently used the E-Bot Pro in math and science classes, and teachers have been very receptive to it. It usually requires an additional desk for me to be able to use it.  Review here.

SmartLux

My portable CCTV has been an awesome resource, especially in my English classes. One example of when I used it is to read a graphic novel/comic that was not available digitally. I especially appreciate the built-in stand.  Review here.

Pain relief

Peppermint essential oil

When I feel a migraine coming on, sniffing peppermint essential oil helps me to delay (not prevent) the symptoms of a migraine from taking over. Having peppermint scented items has a similar effect- one of my friends wears a necklace that acts as a diffuser for essential oils.

Lidocaine Patch

If I suddenly have a spasm or intense pain, I will go to the bathroom and apply one of these. The cooling, numbing effect helps me begin to manage the pain. Just make sure to take them off after twelve hours. Mine were prescribed by my neurologist, but there is a version available over the counter as well.

Compression Sleeve

When I have numbness/pain in my arms or legs during class, I will put on a copper-infused compression sleeve to help with symptoms. I keep one for my arm and one for my leg.

Nonperishable snack

I keep two small protein bars in my backpack for when there is a break during class or when I can’t concentrate on anything but food. My teachers don’t usually mind students having small, non-messy foods. I would recommend not having any with peanuts or peanut butter, in case someone is allergic.

Ear Plugs

In one of the buildings on campus, there is a very noisy fan that makes it difficult to concentrate. These ear plugs have been great with helping me focus on what’s important, and are extremely comfortable too.

Unless I am bringing my E-Bot Pro, all of these items easily fit into my rolling backpack, and I have had no issues with bringing them around campus. If needed, I will put everything else into a backpack and then put the E-Bot Pro into the rolling backpack. All of these materials are stored easily underneath my desk or in front of my feet.

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.”


Collecting Documentation

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For every two fantastic teachers I have had, there has always been one teacher that wanted to make sure that I knew that the teacher considered my disability to be an inconvenience and would refuse to follow my 504/IEP.  Yes, this is illegal, but that didn’t stop it from happening.  Over the course of the school year, my family would collect documentation of teachers not following my 504/IEP, and have it on record to show to the school board or other agency.  Here are six of the types of data we would download and keep for our records.

Class progress reports/grades

Most school systems have a database that parents and students can access so that students can review their grades, as well as view grades for individual assignments.  Some examples of these databases are Edline, SchoolVue, Aspen, and others.  Print off every page of data available for each course, and check to see that grades match assignments.  Also check to make sure that the student was exempt from assignments with inaccessible materials, and not given a 0.

Hall passes

At my first high school, I was frequently sent out of class to go enlarge my assignments when the teacher forgot to do so.  We saved these hall passes that contained teacher signatures and times that I was gone, and used them as evidence to show that my work frequently was not enlarged for certain classes.

IEP/504 meeting notes

My mom took notes on everything that was said during my meetings, and who it was said by.  She didn’t rely on my case manager or other people present to prepare a transcript.  In some school districts, parents can record an audio transcript during the meeting, but that option was never available to us.

Emails/letters

If the school district sends it, save it.  This is extremely helpful for filling out a timeline of events, and is less stressful than trying to remember who said what, and when.  In addition to an online backup, print out emails and save the files in a backup location as well.

Graded assignments, or assignments in an inaccessible format

I saved copies of every assignment I received, as well as keeping copies of the assignments that were not in an accessible format.  We would check these grades against the grades in our school database, and save the inaccessible materials as evidence that my 504/IEP was not followed in the classroom.  For a couple of assignments, I had attached my hall pass at the top so there was a signed time/date stamp.

IEP evaluations

At the end of the year, each teacher writes in an IEP evaluation, so that the special education staff and parents can see if accommodations were appropriate.  One teacher, who had not followed my IEP, wrote an evaluation painting me as the worst student to ever exist, and filled it with inaccurate information about my behavior, and the behavior of the teacher themselves.  It was unlike any of the other evaluations I had received from my other teachers, who wrote positive things about me, though noted that I had trouble remembering to hand in assignments.  All of the claims that the other teacher had made were disproven using the types of data in this post- for example, they claimed I would refuse to do my assignments and read on my eReader instead, but the grade reports showed that I was exempt from those assignments, and there was no evidence that I had been disciplined for my actions (something that would certainly happen if another student in my class did the same thing).  We also had copies of the assignments that were not enlarged.  It took months for that teacher’s comments to be removed, and it helped for us to have a copy of the original evaluation and every other piece of data as well.

In addition to these documents, save copies of SAPs, 504s, and IEPs, as knowing these accommodations will be very helpful when transitioning into post-secondary education.  In the event that the school district is investigated, all of these documents will prove to be invaluable to investigators as they learn more about the school district.

What To Bring To The Disability Services Testing Center

At my university, the Office of Disability Services has its own testing center that students can use to take quizzes and tests assigned in the classroom, as well as midterms and final exams.  There are single rooms with CCTVs and long tables, small cubicle-style areas, as well as other small-group testing rooms.  This is an awesome service for students who need a modified testing area, and I am really grateful that I have access to such place to take my exams.

Over the course of the last four semesters, I have learned a lot about what to bring to the testing center, and what to leave back at my apartment.  I’ve gone from bringing an entire backpack worth of materials to just carrying a few items.  Here are five of the items that I always bring to the testing center with me, and five items I leave in my apartment.

What to Bring

Student ID and Government Issued ID

For all exams at my school, the student must bring their student ID so the instructor can verify their identity and student number.  For a couple of my classes, I have been required to bring a government-issued ID card in addition to my student ID.  Since I don’t have a driver’s license, I obtained an under-21 ID card from the DMV and use that.

Colored Pens/Scented Markers

I use colored pens instead of pencils when taking my exams, since gray pencil lead on white paper provides very poor contrast.  I like to bring several colors with me, typically blue, pink, orange, green, and other bright colors.  I also bring four different colored highlighters with me for marking multiple choice questions.

I started working with scented markers while studying for my math exams and found that I was able to see numbers more clearly than when I would work with the fine-tip pens.  Another thing I noticed is that my brain would recognize the scents from the markers and help me remember things I studied, which is actually a proven study tip.

Cardstock Paper

When working with pens and markers, it’s easy to have ink bleed through to the other side of paper- or worse, transfer to a surface.  I request that my test be printed on single-side paper, and use cardstock paper, sized 8.5″ x 11″, in order to do scratch work.  I attach all of the materials that I wrote on at the end of the exam.

Earplugs

While my testing center provides these for students to use, I like to bring my own pair of comfortable earplugs that help cancel out random noises outside.  The pair I use feels very similar to earbuds/headphones without wires.  Here is a link to them on Amazon.

Professor Contact Info

I bring a small index card to each exam with my professor’s name, email, office location, and phone number.  The index card also has my name, student ID number, class name, and class section.  This has come in handy many times when the test wasn’t in its correct location, or the proctor had to call the teacher for further instructions.

What Not To Bring

Cell phone

While cell phones can be stored in a locker at the testing center, I prefer to leave my phone in my apartment.  Since I live a two minute walk from the area, I don’t find it necessary to carry with me.  Why would I carry something just to lock it up?

Backpacks

Backpacks, purses, and other bags can be difficult to store at the center and locate after the exam is over.  I prefer to get out of the testing center as quickly as possible, so I don’t bring anything that I have to check in.

Pencil Pouches

One time, I organized everything nicely in a pencil pouch to bring to the testing center.  For security reasons, it all had to be dumped into a clear plastic bag once I got to my exam.  It’s okay to bring these to exams, but don’t expect that you will be allowed to keep it with you in the testing center.

Portable CCTVs

I have been advised not to bring my own portable CCTVs because of the potential that the devices can store screenshots of the exam.  The testing center provides their own assistive technology devices for students to use.  I have never had any issues using their devices.

Personal Computers

While it makes sense to take an exam on a familiar device, personal technology is not permitted in the testing center.  My recommendation is to write down all of the common settings used and show it to the testing coordinator, who can enable those settings on a testing computer if needed.

For more testing-related information, check out these posts below!

Testing Accommodations

Surviving Midterms/Finals

Accommodations For Print Materials

How To Create A Disability Services File

Accessibility Settings For Windows 10

 

 

 

 

Five Myths About Print Disabilities

As the school year comes to an end, preparations for a new school year are beginning.  As students transition to new classes and possibly even new schools, they may find that there are people that don’t know what a print disability is, and these people may struggle to create accessible materials or order special items.  It’s important to start the school year off right, so here I have compiled a list of five myths about print disabilities, and how to ensure students receive accessible materials

Myth 1- There’s no need for large print in math/science

While there are some print disabilities like dyslexia that only affect letters, most print disabilities affect letters and numbers in all subjects, as the font is too small to read.  There may be added difficulty with graphs, exponents, subscripts, maps, and even music.  Always have large print materials available for all subjects- this extends to textbooks as well.

Myth 2- Writing in all caps is the same as large print

DOES THIS LOOK ANY LARGER TO YOU?  Nope, didn’t think so.  Writing in all caps in a small font size is not the same as having large text.  There’s no need to write in all caps in large text either. Unless the rest of the class is getting everything in all caps, there is no reason for the student with a print disability to get everything written that way.

Myth 3- If you sit there long enough, inaccessible materials will become accessible

One day, I received a practice test that was in small print.  I walked up to the teacher and asked for large print, and they told me to sit there and try harder to see it.  After staring at it for an hour, the font didn’t magically enlarge or become clear so I could see it.  It’s also a bad idea to argue that the student doesn’t need large print, especially if they have an IEP.

Myth 4- Students should feel bad requesting large print 

At a band audition, I had trouble seeing the music that was provided for me.  The teacher on duty (not my teacher) informed me that I could throw everyone behind for 45 minutes so they could enlarge my music, or I could suck it up and play the music I couldn’t see.  This teacher knew exactly how to make me feel guilty for something I couldn’t control, so I just tried to guess what the music was- and looking at my extremely low score, I’m pretty sure my guess was very off.  Looking back, I should have made them enlarge it, as I deserved the same opportunities as the other people auditioning.  I don’t get any extra advantage with my large print.

Myth 5- If a student can use a cell phone, they don’t need large print

I actually have an entire post dedicated to this topic called “My Phone Isn’t Paper.”  Paper displays and digital displays are two different things, and students have found ways to be able to use technology using the accessibility settings.  After all, you can easily zoom in on a digital screen…the same can’t be said for a paper screen.
You have the right to see materials just like every other student, and your school is required to provide accessible materials for you if you have an IEP or 504.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

How Do People With Low Vision…Go To Prom?

It seems like every year, a news story circulates about how a student with a disability and a student without a disability go to prom together.  It’s usually touted as something inspirational and kind, since the students with disabilities are perceived as not having many friends or being the outcasts of the school, and the student without a disability is considered a completely awesome person just because they are spending time with the other student.  I was talking about this phenomenon with a friend who jokingly asked if my prom date made the news for going to prom with the only girl with low vision in our school.  Thankfully, we were just treated like every other couple at prom, and had a blast.  Here are some tips that can help ensure everyone has a good time, without winding up as the center of attention for having a disability.

Make sure you can easily move around in your clothing choice

This applies more for the ladies, but make sure that it is easy to move around and walk without falling in whatever clothes that you pick.  At the two dances I attended in high school, many of the girls would take off their shoes the moment they got to the dance floor, but would often trip over their long dresses.  I chose to wear flats the entire evening so I had traction and reduced my risk of falling- as my date put it, I trip over enough flat surfaces as it is, so there is no need to put me in high heels.  If you use a blindness cane, make sure it can’t be caught in your dress or shoes either.

Taking pictures before the dance

Before the dance, the parents in our group took photos of all of us.  If it is an issue, make sure to notify them that you are sensitive to flashing lights so that they know to turn the flash off.  Also make sure that there are no obstacles in the picture that could pose an issue- for example, falling down a flight of stairs or into an open body of water.  Also, make sure the photographer tells you where the camera is located so you aren’t staring into space.

Have your date familiarize themselves with being a human guide

While I didn’t use a blindness cane in high school, I had a habit of frequently running into walls, people, objects, and generally missing visual cues.  Luckily, my prom date was my best friend who had gotten used to guiding me to all of my classes and alerting me to obstacles.  It never hurts to remind your date that you have trouble seeing and may need additional help navigating at prom.  Check out my post on how to be a human guide here.

Figure out the layout of the dance floor

At the beginning of the dance, my date described to me the location of the stairs leading to the dance floor, where we were sitting, the entrance/exit, and where poles were located.  While I never was further away than arm’s reach from them, this was still very helpful information to remember in the event we got separated.

Request that photographer avoid your area

If bright, flashing lights in your face are a concern, talk to school administration and the photographer prior to the dance, and remind them again at the dance, to avoid taking photos of you or pointing the camera directly in your face.  With the way that the dance floor was laid out, it was easy to avoid the flashing lights that were used, and the photographer was more than happy to accommodate our request.

If possible, ask for the event to not use blue and red flashing lights

This wasn’t a problem at my school, but a prom that another friend attended had pulsing red and blue lights that they described as seizure inducing- they had to sit out for a few minutes because of the lights, and they’re not even migraine or seizure prone.  This is another good thing to talk about with school administration, as many students can get migraines or seizures triggered by these lights.

Have a place to hide out

There was a period of time at prom where a lot of unfamiliar, loud music and dancing was taking place, and my prom group and I decided to go hide out in the lobby of the hotel we were at.  This helped prevent sensory overload and also gave us a break from dancing- since I couldn’t navigate to the tables near the dance floor easily, it was much easier for everyone to meet in the lobby.

Handling rude comments

I had a few people crack jokes about my date going to prom with someone who was visually impaired, and a few others asking me if I could even see what was going on.  My best advice for this is to ignore the weird comments, or just laugh them off.  It is not worth getting into an argument over.

Don’t be afraid to have fun!

Before the dance, I was very nervous about what to expect and was worried that something would go wrong.  Luckily, my date was a totally awesome person, and my prom group was filled with awesome people as well.  Prom is about spending time with your high school friends before you all graduate, and it’s a wonderful way to make memories.

I hope your prom is lots of fun!

 

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.