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.

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Commentary: Making Classroom Technology Accessible for All

Last week, the Federal government and Miami University in Ohio reached an agreement to provide access and equal opportunity to activities and classes for students with disabilities. The lawsuit – which came from a student who is blind – accused Miami University of failing to provide accommodations to students with disabilities and violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. Among other things, Miami University will make accessibility improvements in the technologies it currently uses, as well as meet with students with disabilities in order to develop a plan to make accommodations for each student.

Many people might wonder why there is still an accessibility problem in colleges and other facilities. After all, the ADA has been around for 26 years, so surely colleges and universities have all implemented changes to make buildings more accessible. This is accurate in the sense that many schools throughout the United States have installed ramps, elevators, Braille signs and wide entrances. Since the ADA was passed into law in 1990, it does not include accessibility standards for modern technology. Although independent organizations have developed standards to make websites more accessible, for example, few businesses or institutions adopt them, often because they are unaware they exist.

I know all too well about how inaccessible technology can present challenges to college students who are blind, because I myself experienced this situation in school. While my classmates could easily log on to computers in the library or computer lab, I would often show up just to find out that screen-reading technology was nonexistent on those machines. In other words, even finding an accessible computer can be difficult, often impossible, for students with disabilities. I was lucky to have my own accessible laptop, but there were still times when I desperately needed to do school work on another computer. The time when my laptop crashed right before finals is the first instance that comes to mind!

In today’s day and age, assistive technology helps people with disabilities be more independent and successful. Thanks to it, we can go to school, have jobs and be involved in social activities. Screen-reading and magnifying technology allows those of us with vision loss to use computers, smartphones and tablets just like everyone else. Technology is becoming more and more important in today’s world, and that is why schools should always consider the accessibility needs of its students with disabilities. Like anyone else, they want and deserve a positive experience while pursuing their education.

I hope that this agreement between Miami University and the Federal government will help create more awareness for other schools regarding the accessibility of their classes and other activities. This will in turn create a more inclusive and welcoming environment for all students.

Commentary: Teaching Future Professionals about Disability

Around 57 million people live with disabilities in the United States, making this the largest minority group in the country. We can only expect this number to grow as the baby boomer generation ages, and chances are that most – if not all – of us will at the very least encounter someone with a disability during our lifetime. Equally important is the fact that more Americans are pursuing higher education, and the variety of subject areas one can major in is very broad. Nevertheless, very few colleges emphasize the importance of teaching an important topic: how to interact with and respect people with disabilities.

 

A recent study from Oregon State University and Worcester State University found that most college psychology courses lack curriculum about people with disabilities. Researchers studied nearly 700 course descriptions from 98 colleges and universities with top ranking undergraduate psychology programs. While all 98 schools offered courses on psychiatric disability, only 8 offered instruction about physical disability. Furthermore, psychology courses tend to focus more on least common disabilities, rather than physical disabilities or chronic health conditions, which are more prevalent.

 

I can attest to the fact that none of the psychology courses I took in college covered physical disabilities whatsoever. To be honest, I did not expect this topic to be covered in any of the three psychology courses I took as an undergraduate. However, this research got me thinking of why it is important for more colleges to offer courses related to disabilities. Large institutions, such as the University of Illinois at Chicago, offer degrees in disability studies. I do not expect all colleges to offer these majors, but by offering introductory courses about disability or incorporating this subject area in psychology or other classes, both students and staff will benefit in the long run in many ways.

 

Most professionals will eventually encounter someone with a disability during their careers. An attorney, for example, might have a client who is blind or uses a wheelchair. Having basic knowledge about all types of disabilities can help professionals go a long way in interacting with and making people who have disabilities feel comfortable and at ease. I remember once being at the bank and in the process of opening a checking account. The employee who assisted me took the time to show me how to work the ATM, and offered to provide me my bank statements and other documents in Braille. Knowing that she was comfortable providing assistance and interacting with me made the whole process so much easier for both of us.

 

The United States is considered the most advanced nation in terms of disability rights. Still, more can be done to educate the public about disabilities. Colleges should take the initiative and teach our future workforce about this population. By teaching prospective professionals about how to interact with and assist people with all types of disabilities, a more friendly and inclusive environment will be created for everyone. Students will not only learn about the characteristics of disabilities, but will also receive important lessons about tolerance and respect toward others.

What Are Some of the Assistive Technology Products That Can Help College Students?

Now that you’ve made all the necessary arrangements for a successful transition to college, it’s time to look at some of the DSC_0649tools that can help you as a blind or visually impaired student. I spoke with Luke Scriven and Roosevelt Bradley from our Adaptive Technology Center at the Chicago Lighthouse to learn about the latest and greatest technology that can help students reach their goals and eventually obtain that well-earned and deserved college degree! The devices discussed below give us examples about some of the many things students can accomplish with assistive and mainstream technology.

Reading textbooks and lecture notes or even viewing things from a distance can be challenging for students with low vision. Many portable cameras and magnifying devices can help. Some of these include the VisioBook from Baum Retec and the MagniLink Zip manufactured by Low Vision International. These devices allow students to read lecture slides in the classroom, view pictures or other information from a distance, and so on. Users can easily adjust the focus and even the contrast colors to have a better viewing experience. The Mars HD portable magnifier made by Zoomax has the additional capability of connecting to a laptop or other computer. These devices are portable and can easily fold up so that students can take them wherever they please.

If you are more of an auditory learner, many new portable devices can help you keep up with your reading. The Blaze EZ is made by Hims Inc. This digital player allows students to listen to books, music, podcasts and other documents and publications. It also has OCR capability – students can snap a picture of a print document and the device will read it out loud.

Blind students might wonder how they can take notes or read documents and textbooks in Braille. There is quite a variety of devices to choose from now more than ever! Also from Baum Retec comes the VarioUltra, a portable Braille display and notetaker which supports up to six connections with smartphones, tablets or computers. Students can read what’s on their iPad and laptop without needing to connect and disconnect each device separately. This is the device which appears in the photo above, and as you can see it is very portable!

The Braille Sense U2 manufactured by Hims, Inc. is a Braille notetaker which also includes a digital player and calculator, among other features. Popular programs such as Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint are also supported by this device. Additionally, students can connect to the Internet and share files on Dropbox with their professors.

Mobile apps have also changed the way in which blind and visually impaired students access information. The KNFB Reader App works on iOS devices, and allows blind students to take a picture of a print document. It reads documents out loud in a matter of seconds. Similarly, the BARD Mobile app allows eligible individuals who receive audio and Braille books from the Library of Congress to download them onto their phone or iPad. BlindSquare is an excellent GPS app for those times when students want to get more familiar with their college campus or simply explore town!

Roosevelt says that one of the biggest innovations nowadays is the fact that any blind student can go to their local store and buy devices that have built-in accessibility. Such is the case with Apple’s iPad, iPhone and Mac. These devices come with accessibility features to assist those with visual impairments, and do not require specialized software or devices in order to work. Microsoft’s Surface tablet is also highly accessible to blind and visually impaired individuals, and is another great option for taking notes.

This is just but a handful of the many assistive technology devices that allow blind or visually impaired students to keep up with the rigors of college. They can be of tremendous help when combined with other support services and the desire to succeed. For more product and other technology news, visit the Chicago Lighthouse technology blog at http://clhtech.blogspot.ca/.

Did you use assistive technology in college? How did it help? As always, please email any post suggestions or comments to sandysview@chicagolighthouse.org. Have a great weekend!

Chicago Lighthouse Scholarships Help Launch New Careers

One of the biggest concerns for college students and their families is the cost of tuition, textbooks and housing. Students SV scholarwho are blind or visually impaired might have additional expenses, such as assistive technology, readers or any other materials that will help them succeed in the classroom. On Saturday, July 25, The Chicago Lighthouse awarded 39 scholarships to blind and visually impaired students from Illinois, Michigan and South Carolina. The various career paths they chose were as diverse as their backgrounds.

This year’s scholarship recipients are seeking majors in various fields. These include nursing, Sports and Health Psychology, Computer Information Science, General Education, Social Work, Audiology and neuroscience, just to mention a few. Awardees come from many prestigious colleges and universities including Columbia College in Chicago, Rush University, Florida Atlantic University, George Washington University, Missouri State University and the University of Phoenix.

Maureen Reid is a Job Placement Counselor and the scholarship coordinator at The Chicago Lighthouse. She says that one of the qualities she found most impressive about several of this year’s recipients is their willingness to embrace new challenges and go out of their comfort zone.

Michal Nowicki is totally blind and will begin studying law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. During his undergraduate studies at the University of Illinois in Chicago, Nowicki took several challenging courses, including a graduate Spanish phonology seminar and a highly visual Russian film class. He is fluent in Polish and Spanish and hopes to help his clients with his ability to speak several languages.

Other students discovered their career paths after studying abroad. Alexandra Futty’s passion for Caribbean history and literature led her to study in Trinidad and Tobago. To help cover her expenses, Alexandra began working at the country’s only school for the blind. While there, some of the students told her they had never met an adult with a significant visual impairment.

Alexandra is now pursuing a career in teaching young visually impaired students at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, IL. Although the scholarship she received from NIU will cover all of her studies, it will not cover the various assistive technology devices she needs. For that reason she turned to The Chicago Lighthouse.

Maureen says that one of the unique aspects about the Chicago Lighthouse’s scholarship program is that the funds can be used to cover all types of expenses blind or visually impaired students might encounter. These include readers, assistive technology, public transportation, mobile apps or any other piece of equipment that will enable them to succeed academically.

According to Maureen, another unique aspect about the program and ceremony is that scholarship recipients have the opportunity to network with each other and their donors. She says that this can help both students and donors alike.

“You develop a relationship and rapport as soon as you find out who your donor is,” she said referring to the connection that is made after students meet the donors that made the scholarship possible.

The Chicago Lighthouse Scholarship Program was established in 2004, and to date has provided over $800,000 to more than 390 blind and visually impaired students. To be considered for a scholarship, applicants must be college undergraduate or graduate students. Preference is given to students who live or study in Illinois, although anyone from throughout the United States may apply. Please note that if awarded a scholarship, recipients must attend the awards ceremony which is generally held the third or fourth Saturday in July.

The application for the Chicago Lighthouse Scholarship Program is made available online in January. We at Sandy’s View will keep you posted when the 2016 application process begins!

Congratulations to all the outstanding 2015 Chicago Lighthouse Scholarship recipients, we sincerely wish you the best of luck in school and beyond!! Finally, Maureen and everyone involved in organizing the awards ceremony would like to thank the students, donors, and Chicago Lighthouse staff for attending and making this year’s ceremony a success!

Getting Yourself and your Cane-nine Ready for College!

The hustle and bustle of preparing for college can be chaotic for all students. Blind and visually impaired students need to sandys viewtake additional steps – and equipment – to prepare for this exciting journey. I spoke with Adnana Saric who graduated from Loyola University in 2013 with a major in Sociology and minor in Women and Gender Studies. She (and her loyal four-legged friend and guide Yani) will give readers a better perspective on what transitioning to college can be like for blind students.

Adnana knows that a lot of what it takes to succeed in college is independence, and she was ready and eager to take on the challenge! Speaking with her disability services office and learning how to commute to and navigate campus independently were just a few of the steps she took well in advance of the beginning of her freshman year.

While Adnana believes she got all the necessary accommodations to succeed in high school, her experience in college was more positive.

“Even though Loyola was one of the schools that has not had a completely blind person in many years, they [disability services] were better than in high school.”

Adnana recalls a particular example when she was told by staff in her high school that her assistive technology was not compatible with PDF files, therefore she would not be able to access the content. On the other hand, staff at Loyola were always willing to work with her and find a solution. This attitude applied to other situations as well.

“There was never a “forget about it,” it was more how do we make this work, how do we access this,” she said.

Creativity and problem solving skills are useful for everyone, but more so for individuals with disabilities. This came in handy for Adnana throughout her years in college. Hardcopies of Braille textbooks are usually not available for college students, but she – like other successful blind students – found alternative ways of accessing class materials. Seeking the assistance of readers to describe illustrations and read exams was an effective way of accessing subjects that were highly visual, such as math and science.

Although Adnana encourages blind and visually impaired students to be as independent as possible, she also emphasizes the importance of utilizing any available resources. She believes that even if a student is perfectly capable of seeking accommodations and resources, he or she should still turn to their disability services office for assistance because everyone can learn from it.

“Not only will it be beneficial to you, it’ll be beneficial to the people that come to that school afterword,” she says.

Adnana has a final piece of advice for blind college students.

“Don’t blame other people, don’t make up excuses. Go out there, do what you have to do in order to be independent and successful.”

Clearly, Adnana is an example that when blind students are well prepared and willing to take on new challenges, they can and will be successful in college. Things like inaccessible print materials, learning to navigate a college campus, etc. are simple nonsense challenges that can be overcome with the right skills and attitude.

We at Sandy’s View would like to congratulate Adnana for her new college venture. This time, she (and Yani) will attend Adler University to obtain her Master’s Degree in Rehabilitation Counseling. Best of luck to the two of you, I know you’re up to the challenge!

You can send your questions related to visual impairment or blindness to sandysview@chicagolighthouse.org. Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend!

Sandy’s Top Three Tips for Success in College and Beyond

High school graduation brings many uncertainties for all college bound students. Sandy's View post photoWhile blind and visually impaired individuals face the same difficulties and questions, there are other issues they might encounter. Unfortunately, some students are not fully prepared to face and overcome these challenges, and they struggle unnecessarily. The following tips and suggestions are some of the things I found most helpful as a college student. These tips are in no particular order, as I feel they are all equally important!

  1. High Expectations at home and school

 Preparing to succeed in college and work begins at home even before a child enters high school. Parents should teach children from an early age to be independent and to take responsibility. Likewise, teachers, both from special and regular education classrooms, should also encourage this at school. Blind and visually impaired students should be expected to complete the same assignments given to their peers.

Often, special education and mainstream teachers feel it’s their responsibility to do everything for children with disabilities throughout their years in school. Rather than do that, parents and teachers should expect children to acquire several important skills, which leads me to my next point.

  1. Learning good time management and advocacy skills

Ever since I was a freshman in high school, my teachers always stressed to me that college would be quite different. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign I realize they were right!

Young students should be taught from early on how to manage their time effectively. When they start college, they will be completely on their own scheduling their courses, completing assignments, taking exams and of course, finding some time to have fun!

Advocacy is another crucial skill for blind and visually impaired students. Often, teachers and parents feel the urge to speak for the child about his or her disability and needs. I remember that beginning in first grade my parents and teachers taught and expected me to become assertive. This is a skill that may not come naturally to some, hence the importance of instilling from a young age. By the time I was in high school I was completely in charge of asking my teachers for accommodations, explaining my disability to them and getting my textbooks and assignments in either audio, Braille or electronic formats. This is probably the most important skill that has helped me succeed in college and work.

  1. Finding resources

Blind and visually impaired college students will have to keep up with the regular curriculum whether or not adaptations are in place. That is why they should know about all of their options and resources even before graduating from high school. They should find out what services are available at their chosen college for students with disabilities, how to obtain textbooks in alternative formats or any adaptive devices that will help them take notes and available funding sources.

Students should also learn to be creative and think about possible alternatives to complete assignments. There will inevitably be instances when textbooks will not be available in alternative format, and this is when the help of a reader – someone who reads materials to the student – would come in handy.

These are basic but important suggestions that will help blind and visually impaired students have a smooth transition from high school and positive experience in college. I strongly believe that if a child has the right preparation and skills in place, then there is absolutely no reason for him or her to struggle once the time for college comes.

Finally, I invite you to take a look at this fun quiz from The American Foundation for the Blind. This is a good and fun site for high school students to learn more about college. Good luck to all the students out there, I wish you a successful, fun-filled and positive college experience!

What other tips would you add to this list? Remember that you can send any questions or suggestions to sandysview@chicagolighthouse.org. Thanks and have a great weekend!