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.

How To Create A Disability Services File

I chose what college I was going to attend during my junior year of high school, a year before I even submitted my application (read more about how I made my choice here). The Office of Disability Services was/is very welcoming and answered all of my questions. They have a dedicated staff member that handles all the low vision/blindness cases, and they know exactly what accommodations I need and what to ask for. I am incredibly lucky to have so many resources available to me, and I was excited to be part of this university.

Since IEPs expire the moment the student graduates from high school, it’s important to meet with Disability Services before school starts to ensure that the student continues to receive services in college. Most of the accommodations listed in an IEP can continue to be used if the student adds them in their Disability Services file. One thing that does transfer to college is 504 plans, though you still will need to create a file to receive services. It is highly recommended that you convert your IEP to a 504 plan before you graduate, something I did two hours before my graduation (though giving your case manager advanced notice is a must). Here is how to create a Disability Services file with your school. This also applies to students attending community/junior colleges, though the plan might not transfer when the student moves.

Start Early

I investigated what services were available to me before I applied to the school. While visiting other colleges, I planned my visits around interviewing staff members from the Disability Services offices in a one on one setting, spending thirty minutes or more at each interview. If your accommodations will not be met, this is not the school for you. The important thing for the student is to be proactive, not reactive, and that is also true for the Disabilities Services office. Some colleges won’t help you until you are in trouble, and it’s better to avoid the problem than to have to figure out how to solve it later (read more about scheduling here). Don’t wait until there is a problem in a class to open a Disability Services file. I opened mine while I was still in high school after I had received my acceptance letter and committed to attending in the fall.

Get notes from your doctor prior to the Disability Services meeting

If you bring a doctor’s certification that you have a disability, you can set up the file at your first meeting with Disability Services. Usually you can find the forms the doctor needs to fill out on the school Disability Services website. My school required a recent ophthalmologist report, which I brought with me. Some schools may also require a physical, but mine did not.

Bring all documents you think might be important

I met with Disability Services in April to set up my file that would be used starting in the fall semester. I brought in my current IEP, my prior 504 plan from eighth grade (since I wasn’t converting to a 504 until the last day of school), and documents from my ophthalmologist that described my diagnosis- read more about collecting documentation here. Other helpful documents to bring, if available, include Department of Blind and Visually Impaired case files, assistive technology evaluations, orientation and mobility files, occupational therapy assessments, medical diagnosis from other doctors (i.e neurologist) and similar documents. All of my papers were in a giant binder so I could easily reference them during the meeting (pro tip- get a rolling backpack to carry everything around).

Know what accommodations you need the most

For me, having access to my assistive technology devices, receiving digital copies of assignments, and preferential seating were the most important accommodations. I made sure those were the first I mentioned to Disability Services. Other accommodations in my file include time and a half on tests, extended time on assignments when requested, copies of notes, using a word processor for written assignments, large print on handouts, and the ability to attend class remotely if needed. Once I was on campus and worked with Disability Services, I added additional accommodations, such as noting that I would be using a blindness cane (yes, I did encounter a professor who was very confused over my cane).

Ask if your school has a disability testing center

My school has a multiroom lab where students are able to take their tests in a quiet environment with their assistive technologies. I had to fill out a separate form for these accommodations. I receive time and a half on tests, a laptop with ZoomText and JAWS, use of my E-Bot Pro, reduced light, and use of a word processor as well as a calculator app on my phone. An accommodation made available to everyone is the use of earplugs during tests as well as a white noise machine to help drown out background noise. This testing center is invaluable to students with a range of disabilities, not just sensory ones.  Read more about the disability testing center here.

Ask about other services for students registered with Disability Services

My school offers a writing center for students with disabilities who need extra help. I have not needed it, but students who struggle with writing have greatly benefited from these services. Ask if there are other tutoring opportunities or groups that help students with disabilities.

Request special housing, if needed

The sooner you request this, the better! Housing arrangements tend to fill up quickly. My freshman year, I lived in a single room that was adjacent to the resident advisor’s room so I could reach her quickly if there was a problem. This year, I live in a handicapped accessible apartment (on campus) with my own bedroom and I am able to navigate easily around the apartment, as well as being able to get to my classes and, most importantly, the dining hall. In order to get special housing, my primary care doctor had to fill out a form to certify my disability, which was in addition to the form to certify me for Disability Services.  Read more about disability housing here.

Get a referral to the assistive technology specialist or department

At my school the Assistive Technology department is different than Disability Services. By receiving a referral, you can access services such as enlarged textbooks, assistive technologies, computer labs with built in accessibility software, and more. This is the most important department for me because while Disability Services can identify a problem, Assistive Technology solves it.  Read more about staff members to talk to before college starts here,

Make sure your file is ready for the first day of classes

Get copies of your accommodations sheet (which Disability Services will provide) as soon as possible to pass out to professors, and know how to explain the accommodations as well (post on that here). Be sure all your testing accommodations are set before the first exam. Don’t wait until you fail to set yourself up with the tools you need to succeed.