Veronica With Four Eyes

10 Ways College Is Better Than High School For Disabled Students

When I was in high school, I was very excited to graduate and attend George Mason University, because a lot of adults and older friends always told me that college would be much better than high school, especially for students who receive disability accommodations. Now that I’ve graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Computational and Data Sciences from GMU along with a minor in Assistive Technology, I can confidently say that attending college with a disability and chronic illness has been a much more positive and enjoyable experience than attending high school ever was. When I think of what I would tell younger students about what to look forward when it comes to college transition and attending university, here are ten things that pleasantly surprised me about college that I previously struggled with in high school.

I could use assistive technology discreetly

When I was in high school, I was resistant to use specialty assistive technology or other items that drew attention to the fact I have a disability. Things like blindness canes, oversized magnifying glasses, and bulky large print books make it obvious that I have low vision, and that my vision was getting worse. When my DBVI case manager suggested that I use a blindness cane, my first response was “isn’t that just for blind people?”

I started using a blindness cane during my first year of college, and started using other specialty technologies such as video magnifiers to make it easier for me to access materials as a low vision student. I also would use mainstream devices such as eReaders, tablets, desktop/laptop computers, and smartphones as assistive technology, sometimes in conjunction with specialty tools.

Not only did using assistive technology help me tremendously in the classroom, but it was rare for students to acknowledge it. Even when I received comments from other students, it was usually from a place of curiosity or interest over how I use something, instead of being teased for having trouble seeing.

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I can set my own schedule

At the two high schools I attended, students stayed in the same building from 7 am to 2:30 pm and had limited choices when it came to choosing teachers, scheduling classes, or even choosing a time to eat lunch- at one school I attended, lunch was at 10 am. I struggled a lot with taking multiple classes in a row with limited breaks, especially when it came to having tests or dealing with bright lights in the classroom. By the time I came home from school, I had to take a nap for a few hours.

In college, students have much more freedom when it comes to choosing classes in topics they are interested in, scheduling classes to include longer breaks, and also choosing professors. One example I often share with students is that I attended exactly one class period of a mythology class freshman year and realized that the professor and class were not going to be a good fit for me. During the last ten minutes of that class, I logged into the course registration portal, dropped the class, and registered for a disability literature class that had just opened up and better aligned with my interests.

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Accessible materials are easier to find

When I was in high school, my parents and school staff were in charge of finding accessible materials for me- for the most part, I had no control over whether I received accessible textbooks, class readings, assignments, or other items. If I didn’t receive something in an accessible format, this meant I would miss out on learning and receive low grades on corresponding assignments, quizzes, exams, or even entire courses.

As a college student, I can still work with professors and other staff members to get materials in accessible formats, but I can also search for them on my own. Almost all of my college textbooks and assignments were available in digital formats, and I could also learn how to use tools like video magnifiers, scanners, and simplified reading displays to make other materials easier to read.

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Taking tests and exams is less stressful

Taking exams and other timed assignments in high school was often stressful, as I was not able to receive accommodations like extended time, even though they were listed in my IEP. I often felt pressured to finish things quickly, or take a guess when I couldn’t read something. Since I had to strain my eyes a lot, I often was exhausted for the rest of the day- in one memorable instance, I fell asleep during band class despite sitting in front of the trumpet section.

I still had accommodations for extended time and use of assistive technology on my college Disability Services file, but this time I was actually able to use them because I used my college’s Disability Services Testing Center. Instead of my professors having to figure out how to implement my disability accommodations in the general classroom, Disability Services would take care of everything, including scheduling the test and returning the completed materials to the professor.

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People take a proactive approach to disability

I wasn’t able to get an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) until I started failing several assignments in a row, or even failing multiple classes due to teachers not following the 504 Plan for disability accommodations I had before. Receiving disability accommodations helped to improve my grades, but there was nothing I could do to remove or improve the failing grades I’d already earned.

In college, I didn’t have to wait to start failing classes or receiving assignments in inaccessible formats to get approved for disability accommodations- I set up my accommodations before my first day of classes, which gave my professors and I time to address any accessibility barriers that might come up before the first day of classes, as well as track down accessible books. My professors could also ask me or Disability Services staff questions about how to best implement my accommodations.

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Class attendance is more flexible

If I missed class in high school due to illness, it was often difficult for me to make up several days of work on top of learning new material. There were also instances where flaring conditions would make it more difficult for me to focus in class, such as when I had a migraine coming on.

While in-person attendance is preferred in college, I was able to attend class remotely with professor permission, as well as take online and hybrid classes that made it easier for me to take time to deal with chronic illness flares or other issues as they came up. Professors also would post class summaries and other helpful information on the course website for students that weren’t able to attend in-person.

When taking online classes, I would try to schedule classes with professors that were already on campus so that I could easily reach out to them with questions, or attend in-person events they hosted for students.

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Technology is an integrated part of learning

I love using mainstream technologies like my laptop, tablet, and smartphone in the classroom, but this was often discouraged in high school since other students weren’t allowed to use them. My teachers took a pencil-and-paper approach to learning, and I often had to look at assignments and think about how I would adapt them in digital formats.

The vast majority of my classes offered digital formats for assignments for all students, and encouraged students to bring laptops, tablets, and other technologies to class for notetaking or other activities. This can vary from college to college and even between majors, but I’m glad that I was able to use technology to follow along with in-class notes and exercises.

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I can meet other students with disabilities

I have a neurological condition called Chiari Malformation, which affects about one in one thousand people, in addition to having low vision. Since there were about a thousand other students in my high schools, it’s no surprise that I never met anyone else with the same condition as me. I also never met any other blind students or students with low vision.

While attending GMU, I met other people with visual impairments for the first time, including people with vision loss similar to my own. I also had opportunities to engage in mentorship for younger students, as well as serve as a founding member of the Vision Impaired Patriots, the first student organization dedicated to students with vision loss, which I founded with another student I had met in one of my classes.

Outside of vision loss, I also met a handful of other students with Chiari Malformation in my classes, as well as students who had siblings, family members, and friends with the condition.

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Professors were happy to have me in their class

When I was in high school, I had a few teachers tell me that they wished I wasn’t in their class, that I didn’t belong in their class, or that it was unfair that they had to provide disability accommodations. Hearing teachers say these things made me feel the same way- I wished I wasn’t in their class or that I didn’t have visual impairment so that I wouldn’t be seen as an inconvenience to others. Often times, the first thing I would say after talking about receiving large print or needing help with seeing something was “I’m sorry, I know this is a lot.”

My college professors had a much different attitude about disability, and were happy to help make sure I received disability accommodations so I could fully participate in their classes. A few of my favorite professors even met with my college’s assistive technology specialists to learn more about the universal design process and ensure that their course was accessible to all students with disabilities, not just students with vision loss like me. College professors like the ones I had made me feel excited to be in the classroom and learning new things.

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I’ve learned to thrive with low vision

I would often downplay my vision loss and other medical conditions in high school as being “not that bad” or pretending that I didn’t have them at all. Part of this is because I was terrified of being labeled as having a disability, as I associated the word “disability” with having to rely on others, being unemployed or underemployed, and being isolated from the world and so many interesting things inside of it. Some of my teachers even told me that if I had a disability, I shouldn’t bother going to college.

Being in an environment where I can receive large print and manage my disability/chronic illness has made it possible for me to not only live with low vision, but to thrive. Outside of taking coursework in data science, programming, and assistive technology, I was able to develop so many valuable skills in college, including:

  • Learning how to live on my own in the dorms
  • Using a blindness cane on campus and in my community
  • Navigating the bus system and public transportation, as well as traveling independently
  • Building valuable friendships and professional connections
  • Mastering how to use assistive technology to pursue professional and personal interests
  • Drastically improving my writing and communication skills
  • Learning more about fashion and presenting myself in a way that makes me feel confident and happy

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More resources for college transition for low vision and blind students

10 specific ways that college was better than high school for me as a disabled student with low vision and chronic illness