Commentary: Preparing College Students with Disabilities for Success

Going to college is by far one of the fondest time periods in my life. Meeting new friends, having fun on weekends after particularly busy weekdays and even the countless sleepless nights I spent preparing for final exams are some of the memories I will always cherish from my time at the University of Illinois. Looking back to these years, I also realize that attending college and obtaining my degree in journalism was one of my greatest challenges. College is difficult for anyone, and people like myself with disabilities have additional barriers to overcome.

recent report highlights some of the difficulties perspective and current college students with disabilities face while pursuing higher education. Some of the challenges for these students include not having adequate time management, organization and advocacy skills. The statistics are especially alarming. Only about a third of students with disabilities obtain a college degree. It’s not that students with disabilities cannot handle rigorous college schedules or the academic assignments, but rather they are ill-equipped to take on these challenges. Often, students do not receive sufficient training or information about available resources while in high school.

As someone who is blind, I consider myself incredibly fortunate. During high school, my teacher of the visually impaired made sure I learned to advocate for my needs. By my junior and senior years, it was up to me to inform my mainstream teachers about how they could best help me. I would obtain the class handouts or other materials from them, and my vision teacher would then transcribe them into Braille. During this time period, I also began learning about resources that would assist me once I started college. These included the state’s department of rehabilitation services, as well as the office of disability services at the University of Illinois. This was in addition to learning about assistive technology, scholarships and transportation resources that could make my life easier in college.

Regardless of the disability, it is critical for all students who are about to graduate from high school to learn the important skills they will need to succeed in college. They should be taught – both in high school and at home – how to manage their time, advocate for their particular needs, and about other organizations or resources that will help them throughout college. In the case of students with vision loss, learning about such things as assistive technology and orientation and mobility is also vital. Services like the Youth Transition and College Scholarship programs at The Chicago Lighthouse are a wonderful resource for high school students with vision loss, their teachers and families. These programs help students learn important independent living skills and obtain other resources that will help them better prepare and succeed in college. Best of all, they allow them to network and get advice from fellow students with visual impairments.

College students with disabilities have the same dreams and aspirations as their non-disabled peers. Unfortunately, many of these students are ill-prepared to undertake higher education, and may even struggle to obtain a degree. It is extremely important for high schools and other individuals working with students with disabilities to teach them college readiness skills prior to them entering higher education. In the end, this will allow students to be better prepared for college and ultimately for their future careers. This will also ensure that their college experience will be something they cherish for the rest of their lives!


Commentary: Recent Supreme Court Ruling Is a Victory for Students with Disabilities

A few weeks ago, the Supreme Court made an important decision regarding the rights of students with disabilities in the United States. The ruling in the Endrew F. V. Douglas County School District case states that schools must provide more than a minimum education for a student with a disability. They instead must provide these students with an opportunity to make progress in line with the federal law. In other words, students with disabilities should be given realistic opportunities and challenges that will help them gain the skills they need to succeed, just like all other students.

Throughout my childhood, I was incredibly fortunate to have a robust and challenging education in the public school system. This was made possible by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which among other things, guarantees a “free and appropriate public education” to students with disabilities. Since its passage in 1975, IDEA has allowed thousands of individuals with disabilities like myself to receive a well-rounded education and ultimately realize our full potential.

As a student I received many helpful accommodations and tools to succeed in school. My teachers taught me Braille, how to use assistive technology and how to advocate for what I needed. My orientation and mobility instructors taught me how to travel independently with a white cane and how to navigate the public transportation system. I was able to succeed in classes alongside my sighted peers thanks to the Braille and audio textbooks and assignments, assistive technology devices and support I received from my teachers. All of this — coupled with my parents’ high expectations — helped me succeed at the University of Illinois, where I received my Bachelor’s degree in journalism. I strongly believe that all of this would not have been possible had it not been for the IDEA.

The recent ruling from the Supreme Court was a tremendous victory for students with disabilities and their families. By requiring public schools to provide students with optimal opportunities to succeed, this ruling will ultimately help pave the way for a better future and education for all students with disabilities. The overall goal for every child is to get an appropriate education which will help him or her become a successful adult, and children with disabilities also deserve this opportunity. As someone who benefited and succeeded thanks to the IDEA, I understand firsthand and appreciate the significance of this recent ruling to current and future generations of students with disabilities.

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.

Online vs. Traditional Higher Education: Which Is Better for Those With Disabilities?

Pursuing a college education has become much easier for everyone thanks to online courses. A study done by Walden University and the University of Phoenix suggests that many college students with disabilities prefer online courses over traditional classroom education to avoid stigmatization and because of several other positive aspects. Over half of the 35 study participants said their experiences with online courses far outweighed the isolation and stress they often experienced in classrooms.

There are many conveniences to taking online courses, regardless of whether or not a student is disabled. For one, they can complete these courses at their own time and pace – there’s no need to worry about whether or not they’ll make it to class on time! Students who live in rural areas or are not close to colleges have an even greater advantage because they can still obtain a higher education thanks to online classes. The Internet now makes it possible for them to go to college even if they are not near one.

These and other conveniences can be of even greater importance for students with disabilities. One of the biggest challenges I and others with disabilities encounter is finding adequate transportation. As a college student at Urbana-Champaign, I was extremely fortunate to live near a fairly accessible bus system, but many college towns aren’t as accommodating. By enrolling in online classes, students with disabilities don’t have to worry about this. Flexibility is probably the next most important consideration. In some cases, disabled students have to deal with situations that might be unpredictable or that might conflict with their schedules. If students have health or other concerns, then online courses give them the flexibility and opportunity to recover without having to worry about missing class.

I never considered enrolling in online courses as a college student. In fact, I was somewhat hesitant to give it a try for fear that they wouldn’t be accessible even with my assistive technology. Besides, I had always wanted to go to a four-year university to meet and socialize with other people. To me, a well rounded college experience should consist of both an academic and social life. I also knew that as a journalist I would do a great deal of interacting with others, so the social aspect of higher education was also important for that reason. Socializing can be as simple as exchanging thoughts and experiences with classmates, and this can eventually lead to networking and other opportunities. As those of us in the workforce now know, this is very important if we want to find and keep a job!

The feedback from my professors was equally important. I have always been a hands-on learner, so of course getting face to face feedback and instruction was critical to my success. While we can easily get feedback from professors and classmates through email, there are times when that simply isn’t enough. Meeting face to face with professors gives students the opportunity to exchange ideas and comments right then and there. In the professional world, we all have to be able to give and accept feedback and even constructive criticism from our co-workers and supervisors, and the college environment gives us the right opportunity to practice this very important skill.

Although my experience attending a four-year university was not perfect, it was very positive and worked out well. I would strongly recommend anyone who has the opportunity to pursue a traditional college education in the classroom setting to take advantage of it. Part of the beauty of attending college is the chance you get to socialize with others, and I think this is not always possible with online courses. That’s not to say that online education is isolating, however. Students and professors can interact easily thanks to instant video and messaging tools. I think that if colleges and universities find a good balance between the traditional and virtual classroom, everyone can benefit from both methods.

I also understand that not all situations are the same, particularly when disabilities come into play. Online courses can provide more convenience and flexibility to students with disabilities who would otherwise might not be able to pursue a higher education. I encourage current and future students to choose whatever method they are more comfortable with. After all, the ultimate goal for most of us is to learn and succeed in our chosen fields, and this means different things to different people.


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

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

Commentary: Low Expectations of People with Disabilities

I sometimes get asked what’s the greatest challenge encountered by people with disabilities. For me, it is not inaccessible technology or print letters that I can’t read – it goes much further than that. The greatest and most prevalent barrier that exists for people with disabilities is a negative attitude and low expectations. Ironically, low expectations are often seen at school and home, as the following article points out. I can attest to this, as I have constantly experienced both situations.

It is fairly common for students with disabilities to encounter low expectations from teachers in the regular classroom setting. Although well meaning, teachers mistakenly believe we cannot complete assignments or projects; therefore they give us less work or make unnecessary modifications. How then can people with disabilities expect to succeed in the world once they graduate?

At home things were much different, however. I lost my sight as a toddler, and ever since I can remember my parents had high expectations for me. Instead of thinking “can I be someone when I grow up”, I would ask myself “what do I want to be when I grow up”?

I encourage all parents, teachers, employers, etc. to learn about people with disabilities and our many talents and capabilities. That way you can expect us to utilize our abilities as a tool to move forward rather than our disabilities as a crutch. You can read more about how low expectations hinder young students with disabilities here:

Stay tuned for Thursday’s post, where I will give a “sneak preview” of the 2015 National Family Conference taking place from July 10-12 at the Chicago Lighthouse. This event is sponsored by the National Association of Parents of Children with Visual Impairments (NAPVI). Many information sessions, networking opportunities and social activities will be available for the whole family! This event is completely free of charge to all friends of the Lighthouse, and yours truly will be speaking at the panel of young adults being held Friday evening during the welcome reception. To register or find out more about the NAPVI National Family Conference, please contact Rana Marks at or 312-997-3651.