You’ve probably noticed by now that almost everything that happens—or doesn’t happen—in college is more or less left up to you. In contrast to elementary and high school, where schedules and procedures are pre-set and your teachers and parents often remind you about what you need to do, in college, faculty and staff expect you, not your parents or teacher of students with visual impairments, to be in charge. Creating and registering for your own individual curriculum, making necessary arrangements, meeting class requirements, and completing all assigned work is in your hands alone. This immense freedom—and responsibility—can seem overwhelming, but a powerful resource is at your disposal: your office of disability services, often called the DSO, or disability services office, or DSO. In “Partnering with the DSO: An Introduction,” and “Student Services: Your DSO and How to Begin,” you can find suggestions for working effectively with this office and leveraging what it offers to help you succeed.
Just as no two students with visual impairments are the same, neither are any two DSOs. Some have many staff members who are available to help; others are small, one-person operations. Many may have expertise in working with students who are visually impaired, but many others may never have dealt with a blind or visually impaired student before. It’s therefore important for you not only to contact your DSO early, as soon as you receive your college acceptance, to establish a relationship with the office, find out its requirements and procedures, and provide it with any information it may need, but also to learn as quickly as you can the extent of the office’s ability to support you as you navigate your way through school.
Here are a few questions to consider when evaluating your DSO:
- Is the office familiar with assistive technology and does it understand the technology you use?
- Does the office help you gain access to materials you need for your classes?
- Does the office prepare your materials in time for you to complete your assignments when you need to have them done?
For a list of items that may help you assess the capabilities of your DSO, consult “Assess Your Disability Services Office.”
Take an Objective Approach
Before you conclude that your DSO may not offer the services and support that you had hoped, keep in mind that it is important to assess honestly whether you and the office have communicated in an effective way. Have you provided all the information someone might need to prepare your materials and help you with other arrangements in a timely way? Have you inquired about the lead time the office needs in order to deliver your materials when you need them? If you have any questions about what steps need to be taken to set up a productive and efficient partnership with your DSO, it’s advisable to make an appointment with an office staff member and review information and procedures. And, in general, it’s a good idea to keep in mind that although the DSO is charged with preparing accessible materials and helping students with disabilities gain access to the curriculum, it’s also your responsibility to stay on top of things and monitor whether you have everything you need to do your work.
If after due consideration you decide that your DSO is receiving adequate notice about the materials you need but doesn’t give you access to them in a timely way, you may want to alert your academic advisor and discuss how best to address the situation. You can’t afford to lose valuable study time if the DSO isn’t responsive or doesn’t follow up quickly enough.
In the event that a conversation with your advisor and follow-up with the DSO aren’t producing the results you had hoped for, and you begin to suspect that a more significant problem exists, there are still other channels to pursue.
Know Your Rights
Your college is obligated to make education accessible. If you have reached out to your DSO and have discovered that the office is, in fact, inaccessible, make an appointment with your dean of students to discuss the situation. Arrive at this meeting with a solid understanding of your rights and responsibilities under both the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the U. S. Rehabilitation Act. Keep records of all your correspondence and careful notes about your verbal conversations.
Situations aren’t always resolved overnight, and, depending on your school’s resources and the complexity of the circumstances at hand, a solution you may desire may not present itself immediately. In the meantime, you need your class materials, which may involve a greater volume of more complex content than you ever have had to learn before. The following are some suggestions that may be helpful as a longer term solution is worked out.
Use Existing Material First
Avoid spending precious time reinventing books and other materials that may already exist in the formats you need.
If you’re looking for textbooks, Learning Ally produces high-quality audiobooks recorded by human readers, as well as a growing number of books in VoiceText format. If you need assistance with Learning Ally’s products and services, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 800-221-4792 to speak with Member Success.
Another important source of textbooks is Bookshare, an organization that provides a wealth of contemporary books in all fields. The books are downloadable in a variety of formats for a range of devices. Bookshare will also create a limited number of books on request, if you have information about your textbooks far enough ahead of time. For more information, visit http://www.bookshare.org or email Support@bookshare.org.
CourseSmart is another possible source for obtaining accessible textbooks. For more information about CourseSmart’s accessibility standards, check out the following link.
Finally, another wonderful collection of classic and contemporary literature is available from the National Library Service (NLS) for the Blind, which operates under the Library of Congress. NLS provides braille, large print and audio books in both hard copy and electronic formats. For more information, visit http://loc.gov/nls or any local public library.
Understand Your Financial Resources
If you haven’t done so already, consult your state’s department of rehabilitation. Every state in the United States has services for post-secondary adult learners. Many departments of vocational rehabilitation can help you with the finances for textbook memberships in Learning Ally and Bookshare, money toward hiring human readers and notetakers, and funding that can be used for costly technology devices. The amount of assistance that states provide varies, so check with your department of rehabilitation for specific information.
Leverage Your Network
Although many options currently exist for obtaining textbooks, it is all but inevitable that you may take a course in which the materials are not commonly used or are difficult to produce. Or perhaps you’ll study with a professor who primarily uses handouts, which may be too visual in nature for your software to decode properly. When faced with such a situation, and when your campus is not able to help you, you may feel isolated, but remember that you have a network of people at your disposal, and the more frequently you connect with them, the better off you will be.
Once you know the level of funding available to you, based on your state’s provisions as well as your individual circumstances, reach out to the citizens of your class: the instructors who teach it as well as your classmates. Instructors can usually connect you with students who have successfully completed the class as well as with students who are currently enrolled. These people can sometimes act as readers of the handouts with which you need help, and if you do need a volunteer reader, let people know that immediately. As you proceed, let any prospective readers know the source of your funding and how much you can pay them: In general, it’s better to pay people for doing this work for you if you can obtain funding-- if you can’t, it’s better to ask for volunteers than to give up on completing your assignments. If you can’t find a volunteer in your classes, your dean of students may be able to connect you with volunteer organizations on campus.
You may sometimes feel on your own as you confront the challenges involved in attending college, but no matter how lonely you may feel at times, you’re never really alone. For more advice about your specific situation, consider signing up for Learning Ally’s College Success program. Registration is free and will give you access to a mentor with a visual impairment who has successfully completed the journey through college and who can offer help, advice, and support as you make the journey your own.