In my years of speaking on topics related to college transition and working with several different college students (or future college students) with vision loss, I’ve been surprised over how many people do not know what accommodations they receive in the classroom or take things such as inclusion and getting accessible materials for granted. While I am thrilled that these students have been able to have services provided for them so naturally, I often have to remind them that it’s important to know what accommodations they receive and how they receive them, as this will be important information when transitioning to a new school, college, or the workplace. To help students answer questions and practice important skills for self-advocacy, here is my guide for eight things you should know about your disability accommodations when preparing for transition, targeted at students in the seventh grade and above.
Why do you receive accommodations?
There are between 13 and 14 different disability categories for IEPs that are also used for other disability accommodations documents, depending on the state. This does not necessarily mean that someone has a particular diagnosis, but that the listed eligibility criteria for a given category fits the student’s needs best. Students can have accommodations across other disability categories as well- for example, I can receive dysgraphia accommodations as well as accommodations for vision loss
What to know
Even though disability accommodations does not always list specific diagnoses, students should know what category their disability accommodations fall under and be able to provide an example of how their disability affects their learning experience. In my case, I had various disability accommodations (including a student assistance plan, 504 Plan, IEP, and college disability accommodations) for visual impairment and have low vision that affects my ability to read small print and see things that are far away- even with glasses on, I experience double and blurry vision. When possible, I recommend that students also know the names of their diagnoses and how to spell them correctly, as this may come up in other assessments.
- Learning To Explain Usable Vision
- How To Come Up With Sample Accommodations
- Why You Should Get A Disability Services File
- How To Create A Disability Services File
How do you use assistive technology?
Assistive technology is defined for the purposes of disability accommodations as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of a person with a disability.” While the word technology is included in the term, assistive technology is not just high-tech devices or things that are powered by a battery. Humans and service animals are not considered assistive technology in this context.
What to know
When I have students reach out to me with questions about assistive technology in college, I start by asking them what they used in high school or before that. Some examples of items students bring up frequently include but are not limited to:
- Magnifying glasses and magnifying aids. What magnification power do you use? Do you know the brand/size of your video magnifier?
- Writing utensils and surfaces. How do you handwrite information? Do you use markers, pens, pencils, or something else? What kind of paper do you write on?
- Computers/laptops. What kind of computer did you use? What operating system was it? Did you use any special programs such as a screen magnifier, text-to-speech or other productivity apps? Did you have anything else connected to your laptop like a keyboard, mouse, or camera?
- Tablets. What apps did you use on your tablet? How did you use your tablet in class?
- Braille notetakers. What kind of Braille notetaker did you use? Do you still have it?
- Backpacks. What else did you bring to school/use in the classroom to make things easier to see/access? Did you have any other devices like an eReader, audio recorder, smartphone, or other items you used in the classroom?
While brand names for items are helpful, I recommend that students also know how to describe what their device or assistive technology looks like as well as what they used it for. For example, I used an iPad Air with large print enabled to read online information, complete assignments with Notability, access the MyScript large print calculator app, and several other items.
- A to Z of Assistive Technology For Low Vision
- What’s In My High School Backpack As A Low Vision Student
What does an accessible document look like?
For students with print disabilities that impact their ability to read standard text, it’s important to know what an accessible document looks like, as well as an accessible one. This is especially helpful when getting assignments and accessible textbooks in college. It’s worth noting that student preferences can change as conditions evolve over time or that students may have different preferences depending on what subject is being taught- for example, I need a larger font size for math compared to English, and have specific instructions for creating accessible music for band.
What to know
How would you describe a “perfect” assignment? While it can be hard to achieve perfection, some of the qualities I would think of when describing accessible documents include:
- File type. Do you prefer a Word document that can have the font size changed? Are PDFs easier to enlarge? Do you want to be able to have the text read out loud?
- Paper size/color. For physical assignments, are your assignments printed on something other than standard computer paper?
- Font size and style. What is the minimum font size you can read? What is your favorite font to read?
- Text formatting. How should exponents and symbols be written? Should there be wide spacing between lines and/or words?
- Books. How do you get copies of books for class? How do you read them- large print, audio, Braille, or a mixture?
To figure out what document accessibility settings work well for me, I received a clinical low vision assessment from an ophthalmologist and talked to my case manager and TVI about adjusting accommodations as needed.
- How I Document Accessibility Preferences With Low Vision
- Common File Types For Vision Impairment and Print Disabilities
- Low Vision Accommodations For Print Materials
How do you learn best in the classroom?
While many disability accommodations focus on making classroom activities accessible, environmental accommodations focus on making the classroom itself an inclusive and accessible place for students with disabilities. This can include accommodations related to seating and modifying classroom items.
What to know
Sitting in an area where I can see information being presented on the board is probably the most important environmental accommodation in my case, but it also helps to know how to find a seat that will work well for me. While this was not listed as an official accommodation, I avoided areas with bright or flashing/flickering lights as these could trigger a migraine or eye fatigue, as well as seats directly next to the door whenever possible. It helps to know how lighting affects my vision loss, especially since I have light sensitivity that can make it more difficult for me to focus my eyes in bright environments.
Are there any accommodations that you receive for tests?
Testing accommodations often overlap with classroom accommodations, but may provide more rigid guidance on topics such as extended time, use of assistive technology, document formats, and testing locations. Some standardized tests require students to have an IEP to receive accommodations, or require a separate accommodations approval process.
What to know
Learning about testing accommodations was one of my first introductions into learning about my disability accommodations, because I often had to explain why I needed them, often to people from outside of my school. Examples of testing accommodations can include:
- Extended time. How much extra time do you get on a test? Can you take breaks between sections?
- Testing location. Do you go to another classroom, computer lab, library, or other location to take tests?
- Assistive technology. Do you use a magnifying glass, video magnifier, or text-to-speech to read information?
- Font/image size. What font size is the most comfortable for you to read? What about image sizes- should images be displayed separately?
- Scribe. Does someone write down answers that you dictate? Do they fill in bubble sheets for you? Do you write answers in the test booklet?
- Input. Do you use pens to write your answers or show work? Do you type your answers?
- Testing Accommodations For Low Vision Students
- Math Test Accommodations For Low Vision
- SOL Test Accommodations And Low Vision
- SAT Accommodations for Low Vision
Do you need to modify or adapt certain activities?
Some classes or activities may require additional accommodations, modifications, or other adaptations so that students can be included. In extreme cases, students may need to be exempt from activities that pose a health or safety threat, but this should only be done after all opportunities for inclusion have been explored.
What to know
In addition to low vision, I also had a then-undiagnosed neurological condition that I often had to think about when modifying or adapting certain activities. While this list may look different for everyone, some good starting questions include:
- Gym/sports activities. Do you use a guide when running? How do you participate in gym class? Did you take adaptive PE-and if so, what activities did you do?
- Movies/videos. Do you need to read captions or a transcript when watching a video? Does content need to be screened in advance for strobe or flashing lights? Do you watch movies/videos with audio description?
- Hallways. How did you get to class? Did you get extra time to walk in the hallways, or did someone always walk with you?
- Other medical triggers. Do you have any allergies that could flare up at school? Do you need to avoid or adapt activities due to an illness, injury, or other disability? Is there anything at school that can cause your condition to flare or get worse?
Since my neurological condition can be triggered by strobe or flashing lights, I would ask my teachers to put in work orders for flickering lights in the classroom so that they could be resolved quickly, and would often sit in the hallway or another location when watching videos/movies that contained flashing lights. Also, by talking about how I got to class, I was able to qualify for disability transportation services in college, as well as request a tour of buildings where I would have classes.
- Gym Classes and Low Vision
- How To Make Classroom Videos Easier To See
- How To Check Videos For Flashing Light Sensitivities
- High School Hallways and Low Vision
- Using Disability Transportation Services In College
How do you self-advocate?
Self-advocacy allows a student to practice independence and take responsibility for how their accommodations are followed in the classroom, and is a critical skill to develop when preparing for transition. Whether a student has self-advocacy skills written as a goal or not, being able to practice self-advocacy can help students to be more confident with explaining their disability and receiving services.
What to know
Self-advocacy was one of my biggest IEP goals, but for a while I wasn’t quite sure how to achieve it. One of the techniques I used to develop self-advocacy skills was to practice answering some of the following questions:
- Identifying problems. Can you describe what makes an assignment difficult to read? Is it hard to read the board when the teacher is using faded markers? How would you suggest these issues be fixed?
- Troubleshooting. Can you increase the font size of content by yourself? Have you tried restarting your app/device when something isn’t working? Can you switch to a different app/device?
- Explaining accommodations. Can you answer questions about your accommodations, and disability in your own words?
- Asking for help. Who can help you solve problems as they come up? When should you talk to your teacher, and when should you talk to your case manager?
- Ways To Practice Self-Advocacy In The Virtual Classroom
- Ten Spooky Inaccessible Assignments and How To Fix Them
- Online Activities That Help Prepare For College Transition
If something is wrong, how do you report it?
While disability accommodations like 504 Plans and IEPs are protected by federal law, violations do happen and may need to be addressed outside of class time. While I recognize that my disability accommodations were not always followed perfectly, even by my favorite teachers, there were instances where I had to get another adult (or several) involved for repeated or deliberate violations.
What to know
If I notice that accommodations are not being followed for several days in a row or if there is a situation that needs to be addressed immediately, here are a few questions I ask that can help document what is going on:
- Date/time. What day(s) did you not receive accommodations? If you were sent out of the room, what time did you leave? Hall passes signed by the teacher can serve as a time stamp
- Description of what happened. Were assignments not made accessible? Did your teacher make negative comments about your disability or accommodations? Did you have to leave the classroom? Did you go to the nurse?
- Who to talk to at school. Does your case manager know about this/do they have any ideas on how to help? Is there another person you can talk to in the special education office, principal’s office, or guidance office?
- Keeping evidence. Do you have copies of the inaccessible assignments? Can you describe what they looked like?
- Other people who can help. Are your parents aware of what is going on? Is there another school official you can talk to, or another local person who is knowledgeable about this? Can you reach out to a special education advocate with the Protection and Advocacy organization for your state for additional guidance?
- Tips For Handling Academic Ableism In The Classroom
- How To Be An Active Bystander For Academic Ableism
- Reporting Academic Ableism For Someone Else
- All About The Disability Law Center of Virginia
Abbreviated list of things to know about your disability accommodations
- Why you receive disability accommodations
- What assistive technology tools you use in the classroom
- Description of what accessible materials look like
- How you learn best in the classroom
- What accommodations you receive for tests
- Other activity/class modifications or adaptations
- How to self-advocate
- When and how to report accommodation violations