Earning a college degree is no easy feat, regardless of circumstance or background. As such, for those with visual disabilities, educational success at the college level can be exceptionally difficult. The path to the graduation ceremony is lined with unique and often difficult challenges for blind and low vision students.
The good news, however, is that colleges are doing more than ever to help level the playing field for those with visual impairments. School accessibility departments, on campus clubs, and private non-profit organizations often work in tandem to make college life for those with vision loss easier and more enjoyable.
From testing accommodations, to reading tools, to special housing, there is a lot to learn about the college experience for those with visual impairments. In this guide, we explore how having a visual disability impacts the college experience, what universities are doing for visually disabled students, tips for visually impaired college students and their families, and other resources.
The Transition to College for Visually Disabled Students
Transitioning to college from high school can be exceptionally challenging for students with visual impairments. For their entire life to this point, most have received the support and aid of family members at home.
No matter how difficult things got at school, they could fall back on parents, siblings and friends in the comfort of their own home to offer them solace.
What’s more, after years of living in the same place, daily routines and tasks have often become second nature for visually impaired children, giving their life some degree of ease. However, with the transition to higher education, most, if not all, of these comforts and support systems go away.
Students often find themselves in a city, on a new campus, living alone and unsupported. This can be a shock to the system and rattle any college student, let alone a student who has a visual disability.
In addition, educational goals and plans must adapt. In terms of educational support, adjusting to a new support system can be challenging. During elementary and secondary school years, visually impaired students very likely had access to an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). This was a detailed and highly customized approach to learning for each individual student, which their teachers and counselors used to help navigate their needs and accommodations. Unfortunately, however, visually disabled students’ IEPs do not transfer to college.
Instead, visually impaired students must come to rely on a new network of counselors. Most often, this is a university accessibility counselor, vocational rehabilitation counselor, or disability specialist. Which type of worker a student is partnered with and the level of aid offered totally depends on the university and individual situation for the student, but the goal of such partnerships remains the same: to work with the student to create a new plan and set up accommodations.
The level of support at higher education institutions is usually the same as that received during elementary and secondary school years, however, it is different. And change can bring challenges.
How Do Colleges Accommodate Students With Visual Impairments?
There are a multitude of ways in which universities accommodate those with disabilities. In this section we outline the most common accommodations, support and tools provided by schools.
Assistive Technology. Most universities today offer students an array of assistive technologies, including screen readers, text-to-speech applications, Braille materials, and video magnification. In addition, many colleges have established specialized workstations for students with visual impairments in their libraries and classrooms, which directly incorporate a wide variety of these assistive technologies, offering students an enhanced place to study and learn. More on these technologies below.
Accessibility Teams. Most every university today has established accessibility departments and teams to ensure their class materials and other school resources are in compliance with the ADA and accessible to all students. Generally, compliance team members deal with hardware and procedural matters, while counselors work more directly with students to establish learning plans, help with housing issues, and ensure they have access to the accommodations they need.
Extra Time. Visually disabled students who need extra time to complete assignments and exams must be granted that extended time under ADA regulation. Moreover, those with visual impairments often need extra time to travel between classes or breaks between classes to rest their eyes, which can become fatigued more easily. Schools and their accessibility teams often work with students and their professors to establish reasonable time accommodations for such needs.
Faculty and Staff Training. In order to ensure compliance with ADA regulation and university accessibility policy, school professors and staff receive training on an annual basis. This training provides instruction on how to comply with an individual student’s learning plans and accommodations, as well as manage technical issues that may arise when assistive technology fails during classes or exams. Proper training as to policy and technology can greatly help visually impaired students’ experience, as well as keep universities in compliance.
Enhanced Online Classes. Given the advent of online learning, universities have made online course accessibility a top priority for those that are blind or have vision loss. Not only do they consistently review and update course materials and management systems to ensure that they are in compliance with ADA standards, but they also work to ensure online content is compatible with basic assistive technology, or at the very least, can be modified with ease to a more accessible format.
Housing. In some circumstances, universities will provide specialized housing accommodations for those with visual disabilities. In many cases, this includes first-floor dorms with specialized safety devices, like protective corners, Exit signs with audio functionality, and raised emergency exit maps.
Early Registration. In order to accommodate the special needs of those with visual impairments, some colleges grant these students priority registration. This ensures students can arrange classes so that they have enough time between classes to make the trek across campus, and can get the courses that fit within their educational plan as developed with an accessibility counselor.
Priority Seating. Sometimes special seats are reserved for visually disabled students in class so that they do not have to climb to the top of large auditorium-style lecture halls. This enables them to enter and exit classes efficiently, and ensures they have access to the technological tools they need.
Assistive Technology Available for Students With Visual Disabilities
There are a number of tools available to students with visual impairments at the college level to aid them in their studying, many of which they are likely already accustomed to. Universities generally provide the same type of resources as secondary schools and high schools, and sometimes even with better quality given their higher funding. Here are a few tools universities offer.
- Screen Magnification
- Screen Readers
- Alternate Format Texts Using Read & Write
- Audio Recordings Using Glean
- Braille Tools (displays, readers, printers, notetakers, etc.)
- Large-Print Keyboards
- Text-to-Speech Software
- Video Magnifiers
- Live Readers
These are just a few of the tools available on campus to college students with visual disabilities.
Most Popular College Majors for Students With Visual Disabilities
Many visually impaired students have no problem picking a major, as they have a good idea of what they want to do for work for post-graduation. Others, however, have no idea where to start. Whether because they’ve never given what they want to do for a profession any thought, or have few academic interests, they simply don’t know what to major in.
So to help provide some guidance for blind and low vision students, and give them a view into what their peers are majoring in, we thought it a good idea to survey as many visually impaired college students as possible.
In the end, we received responses from 248 visually disabled college students. Based on our analysis of the results, here are the top ten most popular majors among visually disabled college students.
Interestingly enough, Exercise Science was the most popular major, with 16.6% of visually impaired college students selecting this major. This is likely directly correlated to the fact that physical therapy is an extremely popular profession among visually disabled adults, and Exercise Science is the most common major to enter the profession. Nonetheless, the results of this survey are fascinating and we hope they help provide some context for visually disabled students.
Parent Tips for Helping Their Student Have A Successful College Experience
Pick a college with quality resources and support systems. Not all colleges were created equal. They may be subject to the same regime of regulations under the ADA, but that does mean they provide equal services. Some do the bare bones, while others go above and beyond. Start by researching the accessibility department for the schools you are most interested in. Do they have a dedicated counselor for designing and carrying out accommodation plans alongside your student? Do they offer specialized housing? What kind of assistive technologies do they provide? Is there a support network of on campus clubs and organizations to help your student settle in and make friends? Is the faculty and staff well-trained to manage accommodations and resolve technological issues? These are all good questions to ask during your research. Campus tours can provide excellent insight prior to enrolling.
Consult outside organizations and resources. There are numerous organizations that review and rank colleges based on many of the factors noted in the section above. Don’t be afraid to consult nonprofits to see what schools they recommend. In addition, read reviews online to see what experiences other visually disabled students have had at the university you are considering.
Be an advocate for your student. Although the ADA exists to ensure that disabled students are protected, you still must be your own advocate. And oftentimes, those with disabilities are too nervous or embarrassed to advocate for themselves. As such, you should not be afraid to advocate on your student’s behalf. If they feel uncomfortable or unsupported, speak up with administrators for them. Be their voice. As the parent of a visually impaired child, you are likely already used to advocating on their behalf. Don’t stop now just because they are flying the nest and going off to college. They need you more than ever as they make this big life move.
Consider short term relocation to help with the transitional period. Transitioning into higher education can be challenging for those with visual disabilities. As such, though it may be extreme, relocating to your student’s new city for a temporary period alongside them may be worth it. As they get settled, though they may not say so, they will surely appreciate a helping hand in finding their way to new classes, the library, cafeteria, and other locations. Your student may need you to advocate for them, or be present for general moral support. A short-term move alongside your student may provide them the support they need during the first few weeks, which are often the hardest. Some universities even offer assistance for parents and caretakers of students with disabilities. Make sure to look for such accommodations.