Preparing for College: Understanding Higher Ed Accommodations

by Jessica Minneci

     Now, more than ever, many blind or visually impaired high school students are considering college as the next step in their academic careers. Like any new chapter in life, the prospect of college may seem daunting or scary. Bearing some of these tips in mind can help ease your anxiety as you attempt to find your next home away from home.
     First, be aware that it is never too early to start the college search. Blind and visually impaired students need to find schools that will fit their majors, but will also have appropriate accommodations to fit their needs. The earlier you start, the more schools you will get to learn about and the more likely it will be that you find the right school for you. During your freshman year of high school, begin thinking about your major and what schools you may like to attend. Start by compiling a list of 10 majors and 20 prospective schools that offer those majors. Correspond with the schools and do your best to visit them. If the school is far away, you can always make a vacation out of it!
     When you reach your junior year of high school, narrow the list of majors and schools down. Select two or three majors along with two or three schools that offer those majors. Next, don't be afraid to be your own advocate for your disability. Talk or email with the disability services office and ask them questions. Their job is to support you in any way that they can which includes your accommodations in class and also helping you adapt to college life. Having a good relationship with the staff is key as it may make or break your decision to attend that university.
     In your conversations, find out if the schools' disability services office has worked with a person who has your visual impairment before. Make sure they understand what your vision impairment is like for you and what supports and technology you have used and will need. If they have worked with students with a vision impairment and they ask good questions, odds are that they will know how to accommodate you. Then, let the offices know that you are planning on attending their schools. That way, the staff can start preparing for your arrival. Lastly, immerse yourself in your intended majors. Most colleges or universities will offer a day or overnight program where you can shadow a student in your major and attend classes with them. Not only will you be able to decide if this is the right major for you, but you can also decide if you like the professors and the academic program.
College quad full of students on a sunny day.
     As you continue your college search, work more closely with the staff at the disability service office. Provide them with documentation of your disability. Written by a doctor, this paperwork includes the nature of your disability and how it effects your academic performance. Based on the documentation, schools will give you a list of accommodations that they are willing to offer you. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the school is required to provide you with accommodations that give you equal access to the material and facilities on campus. Institutions may  interpret the ADA differently and you may receive varying answers as to what accommodations they provide. Examples of accommodations include course substitutions, priority registration, note takers, and recording lectures. It should also be noted here that disability service offices are not responsible for giving you personal services like orientation and mobility training, help with laundry, or supplying you with a cane. You will be responsible for covering these areas of campus life.
     After assessing what accommodations are offered, be sure to ask, "What classes are essential for my major and what learning objectives in these classes are essential?“ For example, if you enter as an art major, will you be able to take a clay class and succeed at making sculptures or will you be required to take painting and welding which may be out of your skill set? If the latter courses are essential for your art major, the disability services office can not wave them. They are only able to adapt or modify them by meeting with you and the instructor. If many of the courses have components that are not essential or not feasible for you, pick a different major or school. For instance, if you  are interested in a major in communication, one school's emphasis may be on visual marketing. Odds are that this program and this school is not a good fit. By looking at your major and courses ahead of time, you can figure out if the school's program is right for you. Plus, you can determine what classes are essential for your major and how they can be adapted.
     One final question to ask the disability services office is, "What skills do I need to be successful here?" Answers may include advocating for your needs both in and outside of the classroom, navigating the campus with your cane, and being proficient in technology. As many colleges have online learning systems, being able to use a computer with a screen reader is a very important skill. Make sure you know what platforms the school uses. If they use Windows instead of a Mac, learn Windows or be able to switch between the two platforms if the need arises. Colleges can also tell you about new technologies that they are implementing into their curriculum. Be open to trying them out.
Beginning the search for a great college is often overwhelming and time-consuming. Through following these simple tips, prospective blind and visually impaired students will have an easier, smoother time as they transition from secondary school on to higher education. Reach out and ask questions to ensure that you find the right school for you.


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