BY DANIKA KIMBALL
For college students with visual impairments, the college experience can prove to be quite different than that of students who don’t have vision impairments.
The Americans with Disability was enacted in 1990, meaning that colleges and professors across the nation are legally required to reasonably accommodate students who are disabled. For students who are blind, this can mean accessing a syllabus or finding a scribe for an exam, and helping them better navigate the classroom experience.
How Many Students Can This Affect?
According to the National Federation for the Blind, in 2015 there were 7.29 million adults who had some kind of visual disability. That year, the last for which this information is available, 42 percent of blind or visually impaired individuals were a part of the U.S. workforce, but only 15 percent of those individuals had earned a bachelor’s degree at an accredited higher learning institution. An alarming 25 percent of people who are visually impaired do not finish high school in the U.S.
This disparity can have severe consequences. According to these reports, 29 percent of people who are blind or significantly visually impaired currently live below the poverty line. The pathway to financial security in America has often been through college education, so what can colleges and universities do to better accommodate students who are blind or otherwise visually impaired, and what can students and parents do to prepare for higher education?
Defining Visual Impairment
While definitions for blindness are subjective, the National Federation for the Blind takes a broad view of the topic:
“We encourage people to consider themselves as blind if their sight is bad enough—even with corrective lenses—that they must use alternative methods to engage in any activity that persons with normal vision would do using their eyes,” they write.
The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), on the other hand defines vision impairment as “a visual acuity of 20/70 or worse in the better eye with best correction, or total field loss of 140 degrees.”
The Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children notes that visual impairment most commonly affects visual acuity, sharpness or clarity of vision, visual range, and color perception. The causes are varied and can include genetic conditions, in utero infections, birthing complications, disease, trauma, and age.
While some find relief from vision-related issues with corrective lenses, contacts, or through procedures like lasik surgery, visual impairments that affect those who experience blindness are typically incurable and degenerative.
What Can Schools Do to Accommodate Students With Visual Disabilities
In order to create universally accessible courses for students with vision impairments, colleges and universities must take preliminary steps.
First, they must modify course instruction to meet the needs of each of their individual students in order to create a more inclusive classroom environment. For blind and visually impaired students, this means making auditory software, large-font presentations, and Braille materials available to those who might need them.
They must also allow exams and testing to exist in different formats, and offer students adaptive software, an aid, and/or additional time to complete assignments and tests so all students can be successful.
Colleges must also give students access to counselors, resource centers, and other on-campus services whose main purpose is to assist individuals with disabilities.
Some say that these classroom resources are not enough, however, and argue that part of what students pay for is the social aspect of the college experience.
“The resources are great, but they aren’t helping people who are blind navigate the college experience — they’re just helping them navigate the classroom experience, and that’s not what college is about,” Mickey Damelio, a teacher for the visually impaired at Florida State University, tells USA Today. “They do everything they can on the academic side, but leave all the life stuff aside. It’s just too messy,” Damelio says.
What Can Visually Impaired Students Do to Prepare for the College Environment?
There are a number of things that transitioning high school students can do to prepare for college life. One of them is to be sure to do their due diligence when applying for colleges in the first place.
“The number one factor to consider would be whether or not the school has an active office of disability services,” Robert Sabwami, a visually impaired student attending Wright State University says. “It is my assumption that many schools have services for people with disabilities, however, the nature of services provided divides apples from oranges. Some institutions provide quality services, whereas others only offer generic services.”
He goes on to say if you find a school with a larger percentage and better track record of accommodating students with disabilities, the more likely the school is to be a good fit for you.
“Another factor would be the number of people with disabilities attending the school,” Sabwami writes. “It is almost certain that schools with very few students with disabilities (or ones with none at all) will have basic to no services available. Indeed, it would be quite odd to find oneself as the only one with a disability out of an entire campus.”
Students with disabilities are often challenged when it comes to adjusting to college. With the right amount of preparation and research, and the proper accommodations, students who are blind or vision impaired can expect to be just as successful moving forward in a post-secondary environment.
Danika is a writer and musician from the Northwest who sometimes takes a 30 minute break from feminism to enjoy a tv show. You can follow her on Twitter @sadwhitegrrl