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Presented at AER 2002, Toronto by Kimberly Avila M.A., COMS

College is an exciting time of learning, growing and achieving goals. Any person attending college, regardless of age and background, goes through a period of transition in which they adjust their lives to accommodate new demands brought on by higher education requirements. Persons who are blind or vision impaired must deal with these challenges along with an entire different dimension of transitional issues that can be challenging. The American Foundation for the Blind found that students with vision impairments are less likely, than their sighted peers, to finish college. (1993) Why are persons with vision impairments less likely to finish college? Furthermore, for those who do complete higher education, how can they prepare themselves for the transition to college to alleviate the added stress of being a college student with a visual impairment?

As a teacher for the vision impaired who works with high school students, I wanted to explore the challenges college students with visual impairments encounter so I could assist my students in preparing themselves for college. As a result, I conducted a study during the summer of 2001 surveying 23 adults who are blind and vision impaired who have had at least some college experience and dealt with challenges in higher education. Participants were asked to provide their input on how upcoming college students can best prepare themselves for a smooth transition. A continual dialogue has developed with several of the adults who responded to the surveys in order to clarify and get further remarks about college life for the vision impaired.

Correspondence, including the distribution of surveys, was done electronically and at meetings of consumer organizations of the blind. Surveys reached all over the United States and beyond, including a rehabilitation program for the blind in New Zealand. Participants were quite diverse in age, background, ethnicities and differed in the amount of years they attended college and degrees earned. Some respondents are current college students; others are successful professionals, business owners, homemakers, members of the Peace Corps, graduate students, farmers and clients of a rehabilitation program for the blind.

The responses to the survey were interesting, yet not surprising. As participants described what areas they could have been better prepared in for a smoother transition, I was quickly reminded of the “Expanded Core Curriculum” Phil Hatlen published years ago. The Expanded Core Curriculum defines areas in which students with vision impairments should receive further instruction. These areas are:

  • Compensatory Skills, including communication models
  • Visual Efficiency Skills
  • Social Skills
  • Independent Living Skills,
  • Recreation and Leisure Skills,
  • Orientation and Mobility
  • Vocational Education and
  • Assistive Technology
    (Hatlen, 1996)

Long before I conducted my survey, the Expanded Core Curriculum had been in place and implemented into the National Agenda as areas defined as needs neglected in general education. However, according to my study, these areas are still being neglected and students are not getting what they need for a smooth transition to college. In the 1998 National Agenda; Report to the Nation by the American Foundation for the Blind, studies also concluded that schools are not allowing adequate time for instruction in and do not have qualified personnel to teach in these areas.

Consistently, respondents marked a need to receive instruction in all of the above-mentioned categories. Moreover, EVERY participant marked an intense need for instruction in the use of adaptive technology in order to be successful and independent in college and employment. All respondents remarked that this is a heavily neglected area that is one of most detrimental factors that impedes their success in college. Several participants stated that they had to pay a large amount of money and spend an excessive amount of time to learn the technologies while in college, which ultimately affected their academics, work and social lives. Below are just some of the quotes made by respondents emphasizing the need for adequate adaptive technology instruction.

“Adaptive technology, this is the bulldozer that levels the playing field” Undergraduate Student who is also employed

“There is no way ANY college student will make it through school without technology. A blind or vision impaired person must have these skills in order to have a fighting chance in school, and to be independent.” Undergraduate Student

“Technology is needed to set the student at an even playing ground. It is vital in a quality education.” Information Technology Consultant

“Technology can, and will make the difference between some semblance of independence and total dependency. Further survival may come down to the issue of adaptive technology” Doctoral Graduate Student

“… the world of employment centers almost exclusively around computers and the ability to access them is vital.” Graduate Student

“…OCR’s, screen magnifiers, screen readers, good computer skills; I am struggling to learn these skills just to be competitive.” Business owner and former Peace Corps Member

“In these ever-more-technical times, I believe it's getting harder and harder to find a job that doesn't require some computer knowledge.” Software Engineer

The other areas that participants felt teachers and rehabilitation programs should focus on are advocacy and social skills, including working with readers and others who assist them. Several participants remarked that they felt very alone moving to college from high school when they realized they had to rely on themselves for taking care of their needs.

“We must learn that we cannot totally rely on services which are supposed to assist us, because there are limited resources and service providers. In order to show that we are independent thinkers and able to take care of ourselves, we must learn how to rely on our self-advocacy skills in order to make gains in employment, etc.” Graduate Student

“Confidence, communication, advocacy, working with people, problem solving, knowing what you want and creating a plan to obtain your goal, these are the crucial skills students with vision impairments must have in order to succeed in college. College Professor

“Social skills go along with fighting the misconceptions and stereotypes some have about blind people. Eye contact should be taught at an early age, and kids should also be taught that "blindisms", like eye poking, rocking, etc. are not appropriate. I am not saying that one should try to look sighted; it is just that we need to look our best and present a confident figure when seeking employment and college admissions.” Graduate Student

“Confidence, Confidence, Confidence” Business owner

“Self advocacy is a very important self confidence and identity builder.” Rehabilitation teacher

“Knowing how to direct readers around a library, knowing how to communicate with those who do not understand my blindness, coming up with reasonable accommodations with my professors, these are things I really had to work on in college.” Business owner

When responding to questions related to Orientation and Mobility and travel, all respondents emphasized how important good cane travel is to their independence and success. However, in almost every survey, participants consistently remarked that one of the most challenging aspects of being blind are issues surrounding transportation and not being able to drive. Some respondents discussed in depth how difficult it was to attend college on a campus that had several mobility obstacles, such as busy streets cutting through campus and several difficult to follow paths around the school. These factors physically put a barrier between these students and their college education.

In regard to independent living, personal care and home management, respondents gave a wide variety of perspectives. Some felt that the training they received from their families or rehabilitation programs in home management was adequate. Others indicated that they had minimal rehabilitation teaching and limited family support, which affected their preparedness to manage their personal lives, finances, home and the like.

“If a young person going off to college does not have a sense of balancing a checkbook and paying bills, disaster could result. I think so many parents do not allow their blind children to handle their own money, but this is something kids must learn.” College Student

“I am glad I had the opportunity to learn how to take care of a home while still living at my parent’s home, I could not imagine learning all of that now with everything else going on.” College Student

“Families cannot shelter their blind children from the world, hoping it will go away. Kids will grow up, and the best way to help them is to let them help themselves. Parents who do everything for their children are not doing them a favor, let them have experiences, and let them make mistakes. It will hurt them a lot less if they make a mistake with a small allowance, or a minor cooking mistake under your care, but if these mistakes are made for the first time outside of your home, the consequences could be horrible.” Teacher

After reading the wide variety of responses, it was evident that some people encounter their most trouble in college because of a lack of instruction in the above-mentioned areas from teachers for the vision impaired, rehabilitation facilities and families. These factors, along with the lack of training in technology, use of self-advocacy and social skills, management of their personal lives impacted the respondent’s academics and social lives in college.

Despite the publicity on the importance of including the Expanded Core Curriculum in a student’s education and the continued findings that pinpoint exactly where discrepancies lie in preparing students for college and employment, thousands of people with vision impairments go to college without the basic tools they need to achieve their goals without undue challenges. Yet, as the National Agenda stated, and the results of my survey confirmed, these crucial areas are still being neglected. I wondered why and so began researching why so many students are lacking these skills. I surveyed teachers, service providers, rehabilitation professionals and persons with vision impairments to get a more conclusive understanding. Most professionals in rehabilitation and education of blind persons are aware that their students and clients will face challenges in college. Many professionals are simply unaware that many resources exist that assist visually impaired people. They realize that their students must take the College Board tests, but do not understand the extensive amount of work it will take to get the accommodations in place for the test.

Students and professionals know that students will receive service from the student’s with disabilities office on campus, but how are those services set up and who is responsible for what? It is known that while on campus, students must attend to their own needs, but how are students to advocate for their needs, work with a reader and manage their personal lives while still maintaining good academic standing in order to actually stay in college? In many cases, it was evident that the challenges these students would face began long before they started their first college class. Participants in the study often remarked that they did not realize they should have investigated the campus and surrounding community even before applying to evaluate the accessibility of the campus. Many respondents indicated that they were in for a rude awakening the first day on campus when they realized the campus was inaccessible to them.

It became clear in my study that students, parents, teachers and rehabilitation professionals need guidelines to teach these skills. This is why I developed the E.X.P.L.O.R.E. Curriculum. My work on E.X.P.L.O.R.E. began as I had some challenges in college as a visually impaired student. It continued as I worked in my graduate school’s office for students with disabilities where I saw other students who are blind enduring the same struggles I had overcome a few years earlier. Now, as a teacher for the vision impaired and after completing this study, the flaws that exist in transition are very clear. E.X.P.L.O.R.E. is an acronym that outlines the steps a person with a vision impairment may use to facilitate a smooth transition. It can be used as an educational curriculum in a school or rehabilitation facility, or by a student alone, or with a parent. It can be adapted for non-traditional aged students and those wishing to attend a community college program or other non-four year degree program.

Below is an outline of the E.X.P.L.O.R.E curriculum.

E: the Eliminator:

This section contains a list of common criteria many participants in the study indicated are crucial in selecting a college that meets the unique needs of people with visual impairments. A student may also customize this list to include, or exclude features that they may or may not need on the college campus.

X: eXamine

Examine what you need for college and devise a plan to work on your areas of need. This section comes straight out of one of the respondent’s suggestions. She said that whenever she faced a challenge, she made two lists, one with all of the positive things that are going on and that she is proud of, and another with a list of what needs to change in order for her to be successful. She picked a couple of things to work on from this list and set goals. In this section, the student will evaluate him or her self and decide what areas need to be worked on for a smooth transition to college. Goals are set from these areas. If the student is in high school, this section assists the student in becoming a leader in creating necessary IEP annual goals that are relevant to the transition plan.

P: Paperwork:

This section outlines and discusses all of the different types of paperwork and documentation you may need in college. It briefly describes where and how to gather this information and guidelines, along with factors to consider when applying to college when you have a disability. Establishing services with your office for students with disabilities is described in this section, along with working with the Department of Rehabilitation Services and other professionals people with vision impairments work with on a regular basis.

L: Legislation:

Learn what laws entitle you to rights in higher education; also learn what your responsibilities are and how to fulfill your end of the bargain.

O: Obligations:

You will have many obligations you need to commit to prior to your first day of classes. Using an agenda book, either in braille, print or electronically is a must. In this section, you will read about scheduling appointments ahead of time with Orientation and Mobility specialists to assist you in getting to know the campus, the cafeteria and the rest of your new environment. You may need to schedule a lesson with a rehabilitation teacher to help you learn how to use the laundry machines at your dorm. Ordering materials, communicating with professors and the office for students with disabilities and taking care of all of those little, but crucial, details is outlined in this section.

R: Rehabilitation:

Attend a rehabilitation program if that is part of your plan you created in the eXamine section. If you do not need a residential program, devise your own rehab program with local resources. This could be attending a community college course to familiarize yourself with attending a college class before you move on to the university. Also, consider the suggestions in this section, such as making your parents have you cook dinner, do your own laundry, assist in grocery shopping and managing money. Although these skills should be taught and practiced all throughout life, they should be focused on during the months before leaving for college.

E: Extra Curricular and Enjoy

Most of the college experience is not academic; it is social. In this section, the student will read some of the funny, and not so funny circumstances other people who are blind and vision impaired experienced in school. Information on dealing with roommates, getting involved, socializing and having an all around “college experience” is outlined in this section.

Materials:

The following are materials used for the E.X.P.L.O.R.E. curriculum.

  • Student day planner book. It is highly recommended the student keep track of appointments, deadlines and goal dates with a day planner in either print, large print, braille or in electronic format.
  • Student data collection book. This is a three ring binder that is used to store important documents. Plastic three-ring sheet covers are put in the blinder that hold and protect documents. The eye-doctor verification sheet, letters of recommendation, transcripts, college essays, résumés, college acceptance letter, are just some of the types of papers stored in this notebook inside the sheet protectors. Braille labels can be put on each sheet protector to allow a totally blind student knowledge of what is inside that pocket. I recommend each student make several copies of these important documents once they are obtained or completed and place the original and copies in one plastic sheet protector. This way, when applications are being completed, or if these papers are needed immediately, the student may simply locate that pocket and remove one copy needed.
  • An E.X.P.L.O.R.E. lesson plan book is also part of the materials. A teacher, parent or rehabilitation professional may use it as a guide for creating transition enrichment activities, or students may use it independently as a guide for their own transition program. Also in this notebook, students may collect other information and articles pertinent to their individual needs. Scholarship applications and other resources are filed in this notebook as well for the student to refer to throughout the college admissions and financial aid procedures. These documents are retained for the student to refer to in following years as a reminder of available scholarships and for contact information so a current application can be obtained.

E.X.P.L.O.R.E. in the Future

The E.X.P.L.O.R.E. curriculum has another phase of study ahead. I have begun to implement it in with high school students I work with. However, within the next few years, I plan to use it with upcoming juniors and seniors. After completing some college, I will have them respond to a survey about the training effectiveness of the E.X.P.L.O.R.E. program. It is my hope to distribute a “beta-testing” version of E.X.P.L.O.R.E. to itinerant teachers, rehabilitation programs and adults with vision impairments to further assess and revise the program.

Works Cited

American Foundation for the Blind, Corn, Anne, Kathleen Huebner ed. A Report to the Nation; The National Agenda for the Education of Children and Youths with Visual Impairments, Including Those with Multiple Disabilities. New York, NY: AFB Press, 1998

American Foundation for the Blind Statistics: Education Attainment http://www.afb.org/info_document_view.asp?documentid=1374#ed 6/4/01

Hatlen, Phil The Core Curriculum for Blind and Visually Impaired Students, Including Those with Additional Disabilities 1996.