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The information on the this page provides some guidelines and advice for people who are blind or visually impaired and are attending or on their way to college. Navigating college services for students with disabilities can be a daunting task. To succeed, students need to learn how to be independent and advocate for their needs.

Student Rights

K-12 education is an entitlement (Ideally, you get everything that you need all the time for free.). Higher-education, rehabilitation, etc. is based on eligibility (you must qualify for services); a completely different world for a freshman college student coming out of the K-12 environment. Students need to know their rights, how to advocate for themselves, and where to turn when they don't accept the answers that were provided by educational personnel. Forewarned is forearmed!

The Office of Civil Rights (the enforcement arm of the Department of Education) http://www.ed.gov/offices/OCR/ has a whole section on disability discrimination at http://www.ed.gov/offices/OCR/qa-disability.html.

Disabled Student Services (DSS)

Some universities require students to register with the DSS and make all arrangements for accommodations via these channels.

See if the DSS offers readers. If they do, take advantage of these people.

The accommodations provided by DSS may not be available to a student when they get a job. Students can prepare for "the real world" if they use Disabled Student Services as a "back-up" provider, rather than the main one. Students should be able to locate, interview, hire and even fire their own readers, know how and where to order their own books, be able to explain their needs for large-print, test accommodations etc. Unfortunately, most universities usually want to do far more for the student.

Orientation and mobility

One visually impaired student writes: "See if the Vocational Rehabilitator will authorize money for this. Also, maybe the college will pay for it. ... In my experience the agency that handles my college funding wouldn't authorize money for O&M services because I wanted someone certified."

Braille

You may find the college does not have the equipment or software you need to produce Braille material. Ask the professors to put their material on disk in a text format. That way you can translate the material to Braille yourself.

For students who use Braille, refreshable Braille note-takers/reading devices have been suggested. These devices may be cheaper and more flexible than other means in the long run.

Readers

Like technology, readers are a valuable tool and knowing how to work with them is a vital skill. See if your Vocational Rehabilitator authorizes money for this service. Below are some tips for obtaining, scheduling, and working with readers.

  1. Do not rely on only one or two readers, 5 to 8 is a much more realistic number.
  2. Find readers that are not a part of the college campus: retired folks, volunteers through Delta Gamma if there is a unit in the area. Lions Clubs might be another option. The purpose of using off campus readers, is that they are not affected by the finals and midterm exam frenzy and cramming.
  3. Do not schedule for more than one hour at a time.
  4. When scheduling the readers follow the schedule of the classes, on the hour or half hour whatever the school uses. This way student readers will be more likely to treat reading sessions like a class and will be less likely to miss a session.
  5. As part of the interview, have the prospective reader read aloud. This is a voice you are going to be listening to for a great deal of time; be sure it is an easy voice to listen to. They may be one of the smartest in the class, but they may not be able to read aloud.
  6. Be sure to interview thoroughly. You prospective reader may not be great reading aloud, but they may be much better at describing things, such as biology, chemistry, geography etc.
  7. Some peoples schedules may not match yours, but that doesn't mean that they can't read for you. Tape recorders are relatively inexpensive today. Purchase one along with several dozen 60 or 90 minute tapes. You can loan your reader the tape recorder, tapes and a copy of the syllabus. Indicate that you need the material say 48-72 hours before it is due on the syllabus so that you have time to listen to the tapes.

The next two suggestions are debatable, but worth bringing up.

  1. If you date your reader, be cautious. There is the potential that not as much reading will be done as you think. If you wish to date one of your readers, suspend the reading aspect of your relationship.
  2. Use your family members as your last resort for reading. We all know our own families too well; we have very high expectations, and conversely low patience with our family members. Plus, if you are living at home, going home should be somewhere to relax from the stress.

One student suggests to study with another student in the class. Choose one who is doing well. Then, your reader doesn't just read with you, they study with you. You can throw questions and answers back and forth, and your reader is as interested in covering the material as you are.

There is more information on readers and other skills students should have before heading off to college including a skill checklist for ordering tapes from Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic at Three C's to Greater Independence.

Articles

There is an article by Peggy Pinder entitled "The Care and Feeding of Readers" in the May, 1993, issue of the Braille Monitor. Get it at http://www.nfb.org/Images/nfb/Publications/bm/bm93/brlm9305.htm#7 (reprinted by NFB)

Working with Readers: Recruiting and Hiring - http://blindness.about.com/library/weekly/aa061300a.htm

Working with Readers: Your Job as the Employer - http://blindness.about.com/library/weekly/aa061300b.htm

Accessible Technology

Many students have found technology to be the most useful and dependable tool for getting through college.

A blind adult shared the following information - Not to rely on readers too much but to become very familiar with technology. She used a computer with JAWS and a PowerBraille display, a Braille Lite, and the Kurzweil screen reader to do most of her reading and assignment preparation in college and used readers (people) very little.

Another student used Type and Speak almost exclusively for notes and Jaws at home.

A student comments - "I also used a scanner heavily in college. It saved me a lot of hassles with readers and probably a lot of money which would have been spent over the limit which rehab could pay. Most of all, I had greater freedom in my study time and methods."

Regarding limited access to the assistive technology on campus, students should determine what hours are available for the campus computer labs, library, etc. and then advocate for the same options. The college may want to provide some supervision during "off" hours or have some assessment to determine your students' ability to use these items successfully.

If the needed technology equipment is in a room that is inaccessible, one possibility is to move it to the library. Or, somewhere on campus that is open 24 hours a day.

Difficulties to Expect

The biggest difficulties identified among a group of blind/visually impaired college students were:

  1. Planning ahead and organization of notes, etc.
  2. Study Skills - especially library work and writing a paper
  3. Using a reader effectively - recruiting, supervising, problem-solving, etc.
  4. Self advocacy with faculty and Vocational Rehabilitator
  5. Orientation & Mobility - adjusting to a new guide dog for some students
  6. Getting text books, and ordering books from RFBD (Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic) http://www.rfbd.org
  7. Studying from tape especially for students used to using large print.
  8. Advanced computer skills
  9. Social skills - getting along with a roommate
  10. Activities of daily living skills like laundry, matching clothes, and shopping
  11. Working effectively with their Vocational Rehabilitator - understanding the role of the Vocational Rehabilitator

Study Skills

Articles

Planning Your Courseload - http://blindness.about.com/library/weekly/aa052500a.htm

Organizing for Success - http://blindness.about.com/library/weekly/aa052900a.htm

Getting the Most From Lectures and Presentations - http://blindness.about.com/library/weekly/aa061900a.htm

Getting the Most From Reading Assignments - http://blindness.about.com/library/weekly/aa082100a.htm

Other Resources

Hadley School for the Blind offers a series of "Getting Started" college readiness courses called Transition to the American University (http://www.hadley-school.org/).

There are a number of other resources available at http://blindness.about.com/cs/collegestudents/index.htm.

Unanswered Questions

The following questions or topics have arisen and we need some information to address them. If you can contribute, please send email to .

  1. What do new students need to know about extended testing, orientation to the campus, etc?
  2. What is the role of Disabled Student Services? What services are they to provide?
  3. If Braille is the preferred medium, how can students go about getting this from Disabled Student Services?
  4. What is the role of the Vocational Rehabilitator?
  5. What do you do if a professor refuses to accommodate you?

The information on this web page was gleaned from the AER listserv and edited by Christina Seay, with thanks to the authors. It does not represent any single, or official viewpoint, but rather a variety of opinions and is by no means complete.

Please send any questions or comments to


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.