Back to School Learning Starts Even Before Classes Begin

The words Back to School written on a chalkboard

This is the time of year when college students across the country are heading back to campus. Or, if they are first-year collegians, heading there for the first time. Knowing what resources are available to support your success is important for any incoming freshman. But for students with vision loss, it’s especially critical to learn how to access the accommodations you need to ensure a smooth transition into college life.

Rachel Pavone, a Certified Vision Rehabilitation Therapist at the Council, has a ton of advice for students with vision loss who are starting college. Rachel’s tips mostly fall into a couple of broad categories: Plan ahead and advocate for yourself.

Move In Early

Rachel says one key to getting a great start is to arrive on campus as early as you can. That extra time is crucial in preparing for both the academic challenges ahead and the day-to-day challenges of college life.

“It’s not like high school or middle school, where you’re in one building and you just go to different classrooms,” Rachel says. “There are lots of buildings and you have to know how to navigate many of them. So I suggest talking to the housing office to see if you can move in early so you have a week to get adjusted to campus. Most housing offices are good about offering that accommodation. And if possible, get an Orientation and Mobility (O&M) Specialist to help you learn to navigate the campus places you’ll need to go.”

The best way to access O&M services is to make the request through the disability services team at your college, which may either work with you directly or connect you with the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR).

“If you use a service animal, you also need to think about the environment where you’re going to be living,” Rachel says. “Is there enough space for you and your dog? You may be able to advocate for a double-sized dorm room. Is it air conditioned? Is there an appropriate place nearby for the dog to go to the bathroom? Make sure the housing office understands your needs before you get to campus.” This type of request should be made when you first apply for housing, well in advance of your arrival on campus.

Arrange Academic Accommodations

Meanwhile, as you get the lay of the land, you also need to prepare ahead of time for academics. That’s where the college’s disability services office typically comes into play. Disability services staff is responsible for ensuring students get the accommodations they need for classes. It’s important to understand that you must be proactive in dealing with disability services. You must learn to be a strong advocate for yourself to ensure that your needs are met adequately and in a timely manner. This can be challenging for first-year students, but the self-advocacy skills you develop in this environment will serve you well for the rest of your life.

Disability services should send your list of accommodations to your instructors so you can get your textbooks and other materials in accessible formats. Disability services will also address test-taking, which may involve using a screen reader or sometimes a human reader to mark answers.

Rachel recommends setting up an office appointment with each professor once they receive your accommodations to get to know them and talk directly about how they can best support you in their class.

Get to Know Building Staff

Academic and housing personnel are not the only campus folks it pays to connect with. It’s also extremely helpful to get to know the people who work in the buildings you’ll be spending time in, such as the custodial staff and student cafeteria workers. Rachel says it’s a good idea to say hello when you first encounter them. Once you’ve made their acquaintance, they will recognize you when you come in and will make themselves available to assist you as needed.

Have Your Technology in Place

Rachel emphasizes that for both academic work and for daily living, one of the keys to a successful transition is to have your technology in place, starting with your personal computer and whatever screen reader and magnification software you use. “It’s also very helpful to have either your phone or a digital recorder set up to record lectures, because for some people that allows for better focus on the material than having to take notes all the time,” Rachel says. “Another good piece of technology is a phone GPS app to help you when you’re first learning the campus.”

Visual assistance apps like Be My Eyes and Aira, which allow sighted helpers to interpret your environment using your phone’s camera, can also be incredibly helpful if you get lost, or just to identify important objects, like an instructor’s handout.

Many students find talking watches and smart speakers to be helpful. At the same time, Rachel notes that low tech can be just as important as sophisticated electronics. “Just staying organized is going to be key when you’re living on your own for the first time, since a lot of those dorm rooms are very small and there’s not a lot of space to store things,” she says. There are a lot of labeling options, many of which can be found in the Sharper Vision Store. You can also find a lot of organizing and labeling hacks online. And if you have a roommate, it’s important to get them to understand the importance of putting things back where they came from and not moving things around without talking it over.

Basic Skills for Living Independently

For many students, the biggest adjustment is living on their own without the support of parents and school staff they have relied on. “You need to make sure that you can, for example, cook for yourself, do laundry, do all of those daily living things to keep yourself healthy and be a regular member of society by having clean clothes and being properly bathed,” Rachel says. “And if you need assistance with those skills, that’s something a Vision Rehab Specialist like myself can help with. Getting some practice and some vision services before you go off to college can be very helpful.”

Advocate for Yourself

One of the most important pieces of advice Rachel offers is to recognize your own needs. “The best thing is to know what you need to be successful,” she says. “That’s going to help you advocate because you may get some pushback from professors about things like getting materials in advance. You need to be able to assert yourself and say ‘That’s not going to work…I need them ahead of time so that I can prepare for your class and be successful.’

“If you’re new at advocating, start small. Like when you go to the cafeteria, instead of letting servers pick out what to give you—and people will try to do that—politely tell them exactly what you would like.”

One More Important Piece of Advice

“The other really important thing is to enjoy the time and the experience of being at college,” Rachel says. “Make friends and learn how to advocate and adapt things for yourself, because that’s what real life is going to be like when you get done.”

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