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.

Why I Brought A Desktop Computer to College


As a student with low vision and chronic illness, my college experience has been very unique. I have learned to rely a lot on technology for my success, and having a desktop computer in my apartment has helped me be able to balance everything. Here are ten of the reasons I bought a desktop computer for college, and how it has helped me often. Please note that my computer runs Windows 10 with these accessibility settings enabled.

Virtual classes

A little less than half of the classes I have taken in college have been virtual. This is due to several factors- my chronic illness, low vision, and some classes being exclusively offered online. It helps to have a dedicated place where I can work on my courses. Read more about why I take virtual classes here.

Typing

For the most part, I do not handwrite assignments, as I have dysgraphia, which is the inability to write coherently as a result of an organic condition, such as low vision or a brain issue. I also run this blog, and frequently spend hours at the computer typing up posts. It feels much more natural to type for long periods of time on my desktop keyboard.

Synchronizes with laptop

One of the awesome things about having two computers is that all of the data synchronizes, meaning my class notes, photos, and other information is easily accessible on each of my devices. I find it helpful to switch between the two computers, especially since I have neck issues that can be aggravated by hunching over for a laptop screen. My laptop is a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 running Windows 10, and I cannot imagine using any other laptop in class as it easily fits on any sized desk and the battery life is awesome.

Large screen

While a large screen does not necessarily mean a computer is accessible for low vision, my computer’s 22″ screen enlarges text very efficiently and can easily display large navigation tools, windows, and images. Windows 10 is fantastic for this, as I am able to use large, bold print.

Running software

While my Surface can do many things well, running multiple intricate software applications at once is not one of them. Luckily, my desktop computer can run all of the applications and then some, making it easy to be productive.

Easy to print items

In addition to bringing my desktop computer, I also purchased an inexpensive Brother laser printer with wireless capabilities. I can quickly print out an assignment for class, scan in pages, and make copies. Because I got the printer and toner on super sale (start checking advertisements now!), it’s cheaper than having to go print out items at the library.  To register a wireless printer, follow the same instructions listed here for registering an Amazon Echo.

Two screens

Why have one screen when you can have two? I hooked up a 26″ TV monitor on an adjacent table to use as a second monitor for my desktop computer. I commonly use this when running multiple applications, or when taking notes on a video.  I also can stream tabs on my Google Chrome browser to my TV monitor using a Chromecast.

Make materials accessible

I developed a macro on my computer to make documents accessible nearly instantly in Microsoft Word (more on how I did coming soon), something that I had trouble running on other computers. I love that I can turn almost any document into a format that I can read quickly and easily. I also can read materials from Bookshare, Nook, and Kindle.

Utilize library resources

Libraries have resources that go beyond print materials, such as databases, remote desktop applications, and even digital materials. I can access all sorts of library tools from the comfort of my desk. Read more about campus libraries here.

I don’t need the space on my desk

Having low vision means that I don’t have to worry about lots of papers, heavy textbooks, writing, or other similar tasks. My computer does everything for me, so I don’t need anything else on my desk.  I live in a room by myself, and always lock the door when I leave, so I have never had to worry about anyone else messing with my computer.

I have been extremely fortunate to have both a desktop and laptop computer at college.  I have been able to do everything from homework to take entire courses without having to leave my apartment.  This is especially helpful with my chronic migraines, as I can create a study environment that’s free of triggers, and all of my computer settings are exactly as I like them.

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.

10 Staff Members To Meet in College


Before I even started at my university, I had already talked to almost three dozen faculty and staff members on the phone and in person to ensure that I would not have any disruptions in receiving my approved classroom and housing accommodations.  Because of this, I was able to learn what staff members would best help me advocate for myself and that would help me while I was in the classroom or in my dorm.  Here are ten staff members that I highly recommend talking to before move-in or the first day of classes.  Please note that some colleges might have more than one person in these positions.

Disability Services Coordinator

Before I even applied to my university, I interviewed the Disability Services office multiple times about how they handled students with low vision (read more about my questions here).  Luckily, the department is very proactive, allowing students to set up accommodations before any problems sink in, and I was assigned a coordinator that specifically worked with students who were blind or had low vision.  The first staff member I worked with was a wonderful resource and helped me write out an accommodation plan that ensured I would receive all of my services  I can’t say enough nice things about them.  Read more about my experiences setting up a file here.

Assistive Technology Specialist

Assistive technology will be your best friend in college, and it always alarms me when students don’t embrace it.  I was an unique case when I arrived at my university- as one of my colleagues puts it, “most college students don’t come in knowing what assistive technology is, let alone wanting to study it.”  The assistive technology department can help with assessments, scanning in textbooks, and providing access to labs.  Some assistive technology departments also organize testing centers for students with disabilities.

Testing Coordinator

The testing coordinator helps make sure that students are able to take tests, quizzes, exams, and more in an environment where they can receive their accommodations.  Students can be referred to this department either by the assistive technology specialist or through Disability Services.  Testing accommodations are typically written in to the Disability Services file, but some testing centers develop their own student files.  It helps to talk to this person before the first day of classes because some majors may require a placement test for math, foreign language, or English classes.  Read more about my experiences with the testing center here.

Special Populations Housing Coordinator

This person is likely part of the committee that handles the special housing requests, and ultimately assigns students with special housing needs to their spaces.  When I had issues with not being approved for special housing as well as my first housing assignment, this person helped ensure that I received the accommodations I requested, and assisted me in finding an accessible room.  This was incredibly helpful with my housing this year, as I am able to stay in the same dorm room that I did last year.  Read more about my housing accommodations here.

Resident Director

This is the staff member that oversees the dorm building and actually lives there as well.  My resident director has been awesome about relaying important information and is a great person to talk to if there is a problem.  They also have helped me with navigating outside and preparing for inclement weather.

Academic Advisor

Each major has an advisor that assists students with picking out class schedules, and can also assist if there is an issue with the professor.  They also tend to be very honest about which professors embrace having students with disabilities in the classroom, and which professors are more hesitant.  Some departments may have advisors also be professors, while others have one or two people that are full-time advisors.

Student Support Specialist

For students who are apprehensive about a situation or potential situation, talking to a member of the Student Support staff can be a great help.  When I was worried about a situation with another student, the staff listened to all of my concerns and helped me develop a plan to ensure that I wouldn’t have to worry about the situation anymore.  This department usually has a confidentiality agreement in place, meaning that they do not have to report what is said in the meetings unless the student requests that they do so.

Security/Police

I made a note with university police that I use a blindness cane and have low vision, so that they would be able to assist me easier if I called.  I also made a note of what room I lived in on campus so if there was a fire alarm and I couldn’t escape, they would know where to find me.  One of my friends who has a severe medical condition gave police an abbreviated medical history, so they could assist emergency medical staff in administering care.

Student Health

While I didn’t work with them until I had my first visit, having a copy of your medical history and health insurance with the Student Health office can be invaluable, especially if you have a chronic illness.  I have a note in my file that I have Chiari Malformation, chronic pain, chronic migraines, and low vision.  Read more about my experiences with Student Health here.

Mail Services Coordinator

This may seem random, but talking to the Mail Services coordinator is very important.  With my low vision, I cannot use combination locks, so I contacted this person to ensure that the mailbox assigned to me would be one that uses a key.  Another one of my friends contacted them to ensure their mailbox would be accessible to someone using mobility aids that couldn’t bend over.  In the event that it’s impossible to go get mail, you can contact the coordinator to authorize someone else to pick up mail as well- I authorized my resident advisor to get my mail after I was in a car accident, and other friends have authorized me to pick up their mail while they were in the hospital.

While not everyone may need to talk to each type of person on the list, I have been grateful for the resources that each of these people have provided me with.  They all have helped, in one way or another, to ensure that I am thriving in the college environment.

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

 

 

 

 

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.



Colored Paper and the Readability of Text

On my seventeenth birthday, I presented at a science fair affiliated with my school district about my research on how the color of paper can affect the readability of the text on the paper.  This was the first time I really investigated how important contrast is when creating accessible documents, and I was able to determine the colors of paper I preferred for my assignments.  When I presented this research to the science fair judges, I received an unexpected surprise- three out of the five judges were colorblind!  Globally, one in twelve men and one in two hundred women are colorblind, and the odds of encountering two men and one women who are colorblind in a room seemed to be one in a million.  My friends and family found this experience absolutely hilarious, and told me that it would be a great story to tell if I ever presented my research again, though I wasn’t very amused.

My interest in this topic began in 2013, when I visited a neuro-opthalmologist at a large medical center who showed me an eye chart with different colored backgrounds.  They explained that people tend to see better on the eye chart with colored backgrounds because the colors helped reduce eye fatigue (from the white glare of the normal eye chart) and it was easier for the eyes to focus.  I was fascinated by this, and chose to do more research on it for my science fair project.  Over the years, I have learned even more about creating accessible materials and how important contrast is, and will be sharing some of the practical applications of my research below.

What colors work best

Light yellow and light blue were found to be the paper colors that were the easiest to read off of.  It could easily be read in all lighting conditions, and the effectiveness of the colors weren’t diminished if someone wore tinted glasses (like I do).  I have found it is easy to read on these colors for long periods of time, and all colors of my pens and markers show up sharp even on the colored paper.  Blue is best for large amounts of information or reading, while yellow works great for worksheets.

What colors work less well

Neon bright colors, while they do stand out, often contribute to eye fatigue and the eyes may have trouble focusing on the page.  Darker colors, such as those found on conventional construction paper, may also be difficult to read.  The darker backgrounds obscure text and make information difficult to process.

Using colored films

While this wasn’t part of my project, one of my teachers found that I processed information much better when they added a colored film on top of the paper that they were projecting, or when I layered a colored film on top of what I was reading.  Because of the way fluorescent lighting was set up in some classrooms, I found these films difficult to use when the lights above me would reflect on top of the plastic, so I very rarely used them while sitting at my desk.  Now that I am in college though, and most of my classrooms don’t use fluorescent lighting, I have found myself reaching for these films more often when I have to read papers for long periods of time.

Changing white intensity

Since sharp white can be bad for eye fatigue, I have blue light filters on all of my main electronic devices, including my desktop computer, laptop computer, Android phone, and iPad.  I also have a post dedicated to reducing eyestrain with technology.

If I put it on a colored background, does this mean I don’t need large print?

NO!!  If you have low vision, please continue to use your preferred font sizes and image sizes, even if you use a colored paper.  The page color is supposed to make text easier to see, not to add any other difficulties.

Bottom line, the page color can influence the readability of font, and by using light colors, the reader may find it easier to read for long periods of time and not have as much eye fatigue from glare.  Experiment with different papers and figure out which one works best.

ACT Accommodations For Low Vision

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

SAT Accommodations for Low Vision

I remember when I walked in to take my SAT.  The day before, my mom and I, along with the testing coordinator for the school I was taking the exam at, spent at least an hour filling out a variety of pretesting forms and filling out my information on what seemed like several dozen pieces of paper.  Keeping track of all those forms seemed to be more stressful than taking the exam.  When testing day came, the testing coordinator gathered all of the forms and signaled for my mom and I to come to the front of the line so I could be escorted to testing.  As my mom and I walked forward, a bunch of parents started yelling at us for cutting the line and seeming like we were more important than everyone else.  They started asking what was wrong with us as I was walking away with the testing coordinator.  To answer their question, there isn’t anything “wrong” with me, I was just a student who received accommodations for my vision impairment.

We filed for my accommodations at least twelve weeks in advance.  While I had taken an AP Exam in the past, the College Board had us resubmit my accommodations because we had to make some minor changes.  My accommodations were approved in a reasonable amount of time, and I didn’t have to worry about rescheduling.

I took my test in a small classroom where I was the only student, with at least two staff members present.  The overhead lights in the classroom were turned off and replaced with lamps to help with my light sensitivity.  I had a giant table to work on my test, and there were computers in the classroom for when it came time to type my essay.  I received short, frequent breaks to stretch my legs and walk around the classroom, since I was prone to leg spasms.

The test itself was in 22 point Arial font and came in a spiral-bound book on 8.5″ x 11″ paper.  The paper was thick so I didn’t have to worry about the colored Sharpie pens I used bleeding through and obstructing my view of answer choices.  Images were enlarged 250%, and math notation such as exponents were enlarged as well.

As for assistive technologies, I used my personal iPad with the app myScript calculator, a calculator that calculates equations that the student writes with their finger and that supports large print.  There were no graphing capabilities on this calculator.  Guided Access was enabled for the duration of the exam so that I could not access the internet or other apps during the test.  I also had access to Microsoft Word 2013 with the dictionary, encyclopedia, and internet functions disabled, for the essay portion of my exam.  The essay was printed after I finished typing.  If I could go back in time, I would have also used a CCTV device as an extra support during my exam for when I had trouble seeing smaller items.

I received time and a half on the exam, which was adequate for me.  I also did not fill out the bubble sheet for the exam, instead having a paraprofessional do it after I had completed testing and left the building.  It’s worth noting that I did not receive my scores at the same time as everyone else who tested on the same day as me- I believe I had to wait an additional 4-6 weeks, as is common with most standardized tests that are in an accessible format.

Below, I have outlined my official accommodations for the exam:

  • Large print, size 22 Arial point font
  • Graphics enlarged to 250%
  • Extended time- 150%
  • Use of pens on the exam
  • Word processing software
  • Extra/untimed breaks
  • Use of alternative calculator
  • Small group testing environment

Overall, taking my SAT exam went incredibly smoothly, and I was able to score very well and get into my top choice college, as well as my second choice.  I am grateful that it was a relatively stress-free experience in taking my exam…well, about as stress-free as taking a SAT can be.

How To Survive Midterms/Finals

Midterms week is finally over, and I couldn’t be more happy about that. It’s been a long week of studying and taking tests, while trying to keep eye fatigue and migraines at bay. Here are some of my tips for surviving midterms and finals week. While this information can be helpful to any college student, I have specifically written it with students who have low vision or chronic illness in mind.

Use a tinted background for study materials.

White paper and screens can provide a lot of glare and cause eye fatigue. One way to lessen eye fatigue is to use tinted backgrounds in a shade such as gray, blue, or yellow to reduce eye fatigue. You can enable a colored tint on your Apple device using these instructions, use one of these free apps on a computer, or simply print study materials on colored paper.

Request notes online

Take terrible notes? You have options to receive quality notes at little to no cost. The best way, of course, is having an accommodation in your Disability Service file to request notes directly from the professor. There are also many websites where students upload their notes from a specific course- ask someone at your college which website most students use, or web search your college name and course name/number. These websites often will allow you to download notes at half price or even free if you have a Disability Services file. Also check with Disability Services to see if any of their student note takers have notes from your class.

Use digital flashcards

I love using the website Quizlet to create my own flashcards and review flashcards from other students in my classes. The quiz feature is also extremely helpful when testing material. I use Quizlet specifically because the animations do not cause vertigo or have strobing lights, something that is very critical for me, and the text can be enlarged easily.

Find a comfortable study location

Do not study in bed, no matter how comfortable it is, because if you are anything like me, you will fall asleep. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t be comfortable. I have this back support pillow at my desk chair and it helps keep my back spasms from acting up while I am studying for long periods of time. I’ve also been using this heated shoulder wrap every hour or so to keep my shoulders from tensing up.

Move around during breaks

I try to leave my study area when I am taking a study break. Usually I go for a walk around campus or go to the gym so I can sit in the hot tub for a few minutes and make sure my muscles don’t tense up. Try not to spend study break time staring at a screen, as this is an opportunity to rest your eyes.

Don’t try to study with a migraine

For those who get daily migraines like me, do not attempt to study while you have a migraine. It will just take longer to recover. Likewise, if you have an exam in twenty minutes and a pounding migraine, call and ask to reschedule, preferably for the same day. Migraines and exams do not mix.

Ensure accommodations are in place at the testing center

Also make sure that your test is actually in the possession of the testing center before test day- I have shown up to take tests that weren’t at the testing center yet a few times. Filling out the testing form in advance is extremely important to ensure you are able to take the exam on schedule. I try to fill out the form a week before the test date.  For more information on my test accommodations, check out this post.

Scheduling tests

Keep your eyesight and energy level in mind when scheduling an exam day and time. No matter what time my class meets, I try to schedule my exams for first thing in the morning when my eyes are well rested and I am less likely to have a migraine. I also try to schedule the exams the same day the rest of the class is testing, or earlier if that isn’t possible. None of my professors have ever complained about me taking an exam early.

Make sure the testing environment is free of distractions or triggers

Even if you are testing in the disability testing center, there can still be distractions. Before taking an exam, I check for flickering lights, loud noises, and if I am testing in my own room, I make sure there is enough room to walk around if my legs start to spasm. Another thing to check for is air fresheners- this semester, I came down with a migraine halfway through my exam and couldn’t figure out why, and it turned out there was a bowl of coffee beans next to where I was taking an exam, and coffee is one of my migraine triggers, so sitting next to a bowl of them wasn’t very smart.

Celebrate after exams!

Plan something fun for after exams are finished- preferably something that won’t aggravate existing fatigue. Some things I’ve done include dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, a day trip to D.C. or Maryland, going to the movies, or simply spending time with friends.

UPDATE– Do not go out to eat with friends the night before your last exam, even if you have been to the restaurant many times.  I had the honor of taking a midterm with food poisoning, and I wish that experience upon no one.

 
Exam week can be hard on anyone, but it’s especially difficult for people with chronic illness or other disabilities. I wish you all good health days and good grades for your exams!