Commentary: Helping Students with Disabilities Succeed

Like anyone else, college students with disabilities are concerned about getting good grades, making new friends, and fitting in with the rest of their classmates. Nevertheless, there are other aspects those of us who are blind or visually impaired have to consider, and even plan ahead for, in order to have a positive college experience. Thinking back to my years in college, I remember wondering not only if science and other courses with highly visual content would be too hard, but also if my professors would be understanding and accommodate my needs. More often than not, I was the first and only student with a visual impairment in my classes. It was also the first time my professors had ever had someone without sight in their class.

Although I was always assertive and advised my professors on how best to make their class accessible, I would still wonder if they would take my needs into consideration. Recently, I read an article that reminded me of just how some college professors go above and beyond to accommodate students with disabilities. Gladys Malave, a biology professor at Northwest Vista College strives to make sure Olivia and Katy Shaw have what they need to succeed in class. Both sisters are legally blind as a result of Retinopathy of Prematurity, and require certain classroom adaptations. To help them succeed in her course, Professor Malave designed tactile models and labeled microscopes in Braille. She even learned Braille in less than a month just to help her students!

I too remember having similar experiences throughout high school and college. While in high school, my Spanish teacher learned how to use a special Braille printer to print out worksheets and other class materials for me. A couple of my journalism professors in college made sure that at least one computer in the computer lab was accessible so I could complete all my assignments alongside my peers. My history, economics and meteorology professors would also spend countless hours after class with me describing the different pictures and concepts they showed my classmates earlier that day. Thanks to this, I was able to pass their courses with As and Bs.

I will always appreciate the extra time and effort my teachers put into helping me succeed in the classroom. I could immediately tell they had a genuine interest in helping me and the entire class learn. Without their accommodations, I simply would not have had a positive and successful college experience. Succeeding in college as a student with a disability is a team endeavor. As individuals with disabilities, college students know best how and what type of assistance they need to succeed in school. Professors, on the other hand, can go a long way in making their classes accessible by taking their students’ needs into consideration.

Kudos to all of the teachers who constantly go above and beyond to make their courses accessible to everyone. This is a commendable effort that benefits everyone, and deserves recognition.

Commentary: On Equal Access to Standardized Tests

The College Board recently made an announcement that will benefit students with disabilities who wish to take standardized tests for college admission. Starting in 2017, most students who receive test accommodations through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan will have those accommodations automatically approved for standardized exams from the College Board. These tests include the SAT, advanced placement college exams and more. In other words, students will receive the same accommodations they use in their day-to-day assignments to take these exams.

I believe this decision from the College Board will have a positive impact for students with disabilities. For one, it will eliminate unnecessary hassles for requesting disability related accommodations. I still remember all the hurdles my parents, teachers and I encountered when I was about to take the SAT. Fortunately, my teachers of the visually impaired knew about the paperwork to begin the process for requesting accommodations. Nevertheless, waiting to receive approval was a time consuming process, often taking a month or more. In the end, I always received accommodations, such as providing the exam in Braille and audio cassette, and extended time. These were accommodations that were already part of my IEP.

This new decision from the College Board will also help prospective college students with disabilities succeed. Standardized tests are hard for almost everyone, but even more so for students with disabilities who do not receive adequate accommodations. Back in high school, I knew several peers with physical disabilities who required extended time to complete the exam. While extended time was approved for them on the SAT, it was significantly less than what they ordinarily received through their IEP. This meant they would not have enough time to complete the entire exam, thus negatively affecting their score.

When given appropriate accommodations, students with disabilities can succeed in standardized tests. Accommodations do not make the exams easier or harder for them. They simply help them achieve their best performance possible, and I believe that is the overall goal of these exams for every student. By streamlining the process and allowing students with disabilities to use the accommodations already available to them, they will be able to do just that. Moreover, I hope this new practice will give more students with disabilities the opportunity to attend the college of their choice.

Commentary: Importance of communicating with your college professors

Our friends from Learning Ally recently wrote a blog post about why and how blind and visually impaired college students should communicate with their professors well in advance of the beginning of the semester. This is where those strong communication skills come in handy!

The communication should begin as soon as students register for classes and know who their instructors will be. In my initial contact with professors, I would explain to them that I was enrolled in one of their courses and that due to my blindness it was very helpful to know what textbooks, coursepacks, etc. were required. I would also explain to them that by knowing ahead of time I could make the necessary arrangements to obtain these in alternative formats. Getting class syllabi can also help, especially if you have to get books scanned or audio-recorded ahead of time.

In my experience, professors were willing to help out when I explained my situation. They generally had additional questions about how I would complete certain assignments, and this is when meeting with them shortly before or after the beginning of the semester helped.

To read the blog and get more tips, go to https://go.learningally.org/tips-for-blind-college-students-on-working-with-your-professors/. Did you reach out to your college professors prior to the beginning of each semester? How did this help you. We may post some of your comments in future posts. Look out for Thursday’s column, where I will discuss some of the differences that exist between high school and college. If you have questions related to blindness or visual impairments or any other ideas for our blog, please send those to sandysview@chicagolighthouse.org.