In many ways, starting college signals an entirely new phase of life. For one thing, it means moving into adulthood because you will be on your own in ways. In which you probably never have been before. It may mean making changes in where you live as well as where you go to school, in how you study and do your assignments, and in how you need to organize your time. In fact, starting college may, in all likelihood, involve change in almost every area of your life!
Among the very important changes that take place when you arrive at college is the absence of the special education services that you may have had in high school and elementary school. You and your family won’t be working with a team including a teacher of students with visual impairments any longer, and you won’t be meeting about IEPs (Individualized Education Programs). (For more information on this critical topic, you might want to read “After High School, The Rules Change.”) However, when you get to college, you’ll find that you now have a different crucial resource at your school that is intended to help you be successful: the Office of Disability Services. Almost every college in the United States is mandated to have such an office, which is sometimes called the disability services office, or DSO. You’ll want to get to know that office very well, because it can be a powerful tool that will help you throughout your college career.
The purpose of the DSO is to provide students with information and support services that ensure them with equal access to the college and its features and curriculum and with accommodations for their individual disability—in essence, their purpose is to support students’ learning needs. For this reason, it’s essential for you to contact your DSO as soon as you learn you’ve been accepted to a college in order to find out what information they may require from you--such as what your particular visual condition may be and what specific accommodations you may need—and what their procedures and requirements may be. The DSO can be such a fundamental college support that visually impaired students in the process of looking at prospective colleges should consider exploring what is offered by the schools’ DSOs to make sure that these essential services are in place.
In general, DSOs vary greatly from college to college, in their names, size, resources, services, and procedures. Some may be staffed by several people who are knowledgeable about various disabilities; others may be smaller or may not have anyone available who has worked with a student who is visually impaired before. For this reason, it’s important for you to be able to introduce yourself to the office and be able to explain clearly your needs, such as certain alternate media or specialized equipment and extra time for exams, as well as to advocate on your own behalf. As you begin this dialogue, you might find it helpful to think of your discussions with DSO staff, as well as with your instructors, as an educational process of sorts for them, in which you have the opportunity to enlighten others about visual impairment as well as about yourself. These central conversations can be an investment in your own success—as you begin to build relationships with these key new people in your life, keep in mind that they will be providing you with essential services and support that can make all the difference in your experience at school.