Preparing for College: Students, Staff and Faculty

What you should know when working with the visually disabled

By Daniel Nash


First, the common sense part:

College can be, by nature, a very chaotic environment. To do your best, make sure you complete your assignments on time. From my experience, it is important to always check with the professor to make sure they get your work. Although it can be redundant, it takes 5 seconds to do and can save you a major headache in the long run. One important step to take before classes is to contact your professors and tell them about any accommodations you might require, such as extended time, recording class lectures, etc. Your school’s Disability Services department, depending on their procedures, might give you notes to take to your professors that explain this to them, such as “The student Joe Jackson in your class will need accommodations such as extended time during examinations and to take them with our department”, but I have found it to my benefit to email or call my professors before the initial school day as a heads up. Your school’s disability services department will be one of the most useful resources on campus. They can provide services such as textbooks in alternate formats such as pdfs with ocr, as well as separate testing locations to cut down on distractions. By law, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act(ADA), professors or other school staff cannot discriminate by disability and must provide reasonable accommodations such as allowing you to record classes. Also, you have to know how to advocate for yourself. If you feel you might be struggling in a class, ask for tutoring from anyone you can (disability services, even classmates) as soon as possible! Depending on your comfort level with the professor, you can ask for help from your professors as well. Also, make connections. It is good to have contact information for everyone that you feel is of importance, professors, counselors, etc. As far as the professors, find out these things as soon as possible: Full Name, email, syllabus and office hours. It is also important to have contacts at your local advocacy organization, for example, the New York state commission for the blind. You have to know the phone numbers and email addresses of your counselors like the back of your hand, a long time before classes start. They can provide extremely important services before and during your college career such as mobility training and adaptive equipment.

Mobility skills:

Know how to get around on campus. Visit the campus beforehand with a O&M (Orientation and Mobility) specialist. Go over the routes to the different buildings that you might need (classrooms, dining room, dorms, etc). If possible, go for multiple sessions, once before registering for classes to get a general layout of the campus, and after you make your class schedule, go for another session in order to learn the locations of your classes. By the first or second week, finding your classes should be so easy that you should be able to navigate to them in your sleep. The best sources to find O&M specialists would be your local advocacy organization.


I cannot stress this enough, know your assistive technology (screen readers, like JAWS, NVDA, etc, magnifiers, MAgic, zoom text, etc) and other types of technology such as smartphones if you can get your  hands on one, OCR systems like Kurzweil, tesseract, ocrfeeder, etc, before you go into class. The last thing you want to happen is your professor giving you an assignment and not knowing how to access it. Also, if you can, in high school, if you know anyone who has access to them, such as technology instructors, ask them to show you how to access college-level content delivery systems, such as Angel or Blackboard. These systems will allow you to submit assignments, take tests, view grades, and do other things that will only help you in your college career. Although your advocacy organization might give you a set of equipment, it is good to have options. The remainder of this section will discuss the many different options available to you, which at least in my experience, do a better job than the organization-provided tools.

Your organization will most likely outfit you with the following setup, a laptop with Windows, some adaptive software depending on your needs, such as a screen reader or magnifier and a printer/scanner combination with OCR software. As you might be able to see, this setup is quite clunky and potentially problematic in class, for example, if the professor gives you a handout, you would have to wait until you get either home/to your dorm in order to access it. The remainder of this section will give you an overview of my particular setup and list more practical methods using inexpensive and mainstream formats and devices.

If you use a Windows-based device (whether a laptop or tablet), one of the most important and valuable tools to have is the free screen reader called NVDA, which stands for Non-Visual Desktop Access. This powerful tool will enable you to use a Windows-based device entirely eyes-free, and most helpful of all, cost-free. While it will take a while to get used to, the project provides a manual which will give you all of the information you need. If you are on Windows and need magnification, try the application called virtual magnifying glass, a free screen magnifier. Both Apple’s Mac OS as well as Google’s Chrome OS have accessibility features such as a screen reader and magnifier, as well as enlarged and high contrast text options built in without having to buy or download extra software packages. Most of these options can be enabled by pressing a keyboard shortcut, for example, if you were to buy a chromebook or apple mac and need spoken feedback, just press control-alt-z (chromeos) or command-f5(mac) at any time and the computer will read out as you move the focus and perform other screen reading tasks.

If you don’t mind learning a whole new computer system, I would recommend sonar GNU/Linux, a free, both in cost and freedom operating system. Although this will be a new experience to learn, it does come with built in assistive technology enabled from the start. such technology includes the orca screen reader that can be used to hear the content of your screen spoken in a computerized voice, the opendyslexic font, a font designed to be easier to read, a built-in screen magnifier, the EViacam head tracking program, which allows you to move your head, tracking your movement using a webcam, to move the cursor on the screen, and other applications available from the software manager such as the tesseract ocr system, which can be used to turn an inaccessible image from either the screen, a file, or a scanner into readable and editable text using the ocrfeeder app, as well as the free speech dictation tool, which allows you to talk to your computer to type.

Although the above solutions do provide low-cost alternatives to the setup that organizations give you, they still rely on a laptop computer and that monstrous tank that is the scanner. As a solution to the portability problem is the one piece of technology that has helped me to succeed in the classroom, a smartphone. On Android and Apple devices, much like chrome os, built-in accessibility is provided at no cost. Using apps such as Google Goggles, which allows me to take a picture of a printed page and have it read to me with a synthesized voice, Google Docs, Sheets, Slides and Keep, free word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, and note taking apps, and Audio Bug, a free sound recorder, I have been able to do the same work at the same times as my sighted peers and achieve comparable grades. Also, using apps like Google Calendar, I am effectively able to stay on time for classes and know which building to go to, with recurring reminders. Although this might seem difficult to believe at first, for the past two semesters, I have been able to do do all of my school work using just my phone and send it to the professors from the same device, rather than either waiting for the professor to give out the handout in class, sit around like a stump or ask a classmate to read it to me, or have to get it beforehand, potentially disrupting already established events such as homework from other classes.

Staff and Faculty:

Common sense part 2:

If you’ve never worked with someone with a visual disability before, the best thing you can do is maintain an understanding personality, you are, after all, working with people who happen to do things differently, not space aliens. We all have our own quirks. I have found that the people that are the easiest to get along with are those who have a “Tell me what you need” type of personality, that is to say that they don’t try to help you use the bathroom, for instance, but at the same token will give you assistance with whatever you need within reason. Most importantly, be yourself. It isn’t necessary to treat someone differently because they do things different than you are accustomed to.  the  end of the day, if you have to work with someone with a visual disability, don’t look at them like the poor blind person, look at them as you might look at a friend or colleague in a professional setting.

In the Classroom:

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), you, as staff and faculty, are required to allow for reasonable accommodations for students that require them, for example, allow recording of classes. This does not mean, however, that you have to provide equipment, for instance, but you have to allow students to use adaptive systems and devices that they would normally use. Students, however, are still expected to tell you that they will record your classes and inform you about any accommodations that they require, such as use of a computer or other electronic device during class. You might receive a letter from the disability services department stating that the student will require accommodations such as extended exam time or a distraction free environment during tests. In general, as long as the accommodations remain constant, you should allow it.

When presenting, which encompasses both classroom work and other types of materials, allow and encourage the use of electronic formats. For example, integrate your classroom with blackboard, angel, or other content delivery systems provided by the school. Put your syllabi and other pre-class information in a standard electronic format, such as word files with minimal images, , as soon as possible to ensure that everyone can access them when needed. Also, when providing in-class exercises such as handouts based on class discussion, if possible, make electronic versions available as soon as possible to ensure that they are accessible to all students. Another advantage relating to digital work delivery systems is that, under usual circumstances, you will get assignments all for all of your students, in more or less the same format, at the same time. Put your presentations, and if applicable, notes online in standard formats like powerpoint or pdf files, using text as much as possible. For images and visual content of importance, provide textual descriptions. In most cases, the best way to find out what works for the student is talking with them directly to see what method works best for them, for example if the student is an auditory learner, ask them if they need front-row seating to better be able to hear or record the class materials.

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