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If you deal with a visual impairment and you're considering going to college, you are not alone. A little more than 1% of first-year students in 2002 reported being blind or having partial vision loss. Reduced or compromised vision cannot hold you back from achieving your goals, and today's technology and protective legislation makes it easier than ever for students with visual impairments to enjoy all aspects of a higher education.

Defining Visual Impairments

Anything that reduces or interferes with an individual's ability to see qualifies as a visual impairment. There are various legal and medical standards, however, that can help students find and access the best assistance for their unique needs. While many visual impairments may be treated with corrective lenses, some cannot.

Total Blindness: Totally blind individuals have 20/400 visual acuity and a 10% field of vision or worse. Many students who qualify as totally blind still have light sensitivity and a limited ability to read printed materials, though assistive technologies can make this much easier.

Legal Blindness: Legal blindness, acuity of 20/100, is a legal standard used to determine not only potential benefits an individual may qualify for but also what licensed, hazardous activities, such as driving, an individual may be allowed to do.

Visual Impairments: You don't need to be qualified as totally or legally blind to suffer from visual impairments. Anyone with 20/70 vision qualifies for special considerations and may benefit from assistive technologies and procedures.

Health Conditions That Impact Vision: Many medical conditions affect vision, including relatively common ailments like diabetes. Head injuries also frequently diminish visual acuity. Before beginning college, students should speak to a doctor about any health conditions or previous injuries that may limit their visual range.

Finding Support to Ensure College Success

There are many paths to success, and the right support can help. Academic and social success begin before you even go on your first campus tour. The resources are there for you, and your admissions counselor should help put you in touch with anyone you need to talk to.

Campus Resources: Even small campuses offer many opportunities for students with visual impairments to engage with the greater community, find specialized support, and connect with groups that support their lifestyles. Speak to student services before you even schedule a tour to find out what resources and support structures each college has to offer.

Classroom Connections: Remember, your professors can also be a resource, especially at a smaller university. Arrange for a meeting during your professors' open office hours to discuss how they can accommodate you in class, during tests, etc.

Legal Resources: As a student with a disability, you have protected rights. Know your rights before you get to campus, and know who to contact if they are not respected.

  • Section 504 protects your rights to equal opportunities, benefits, and services in federally funded or corporate spaces, including college campuses. Overseen by the Office of Civil Rights, Section 504 ensures that disabled students have access to classrooms. Although not all universities accept federal funding, the vast majority follow Section 504's guidelines.
  • The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) protects students against discrimination in all public and private settings. Regardless of whether or not your university accepts federal funding, this legislation protects students under Title II and Title III. Under this legislation, governed by the Department of Justice, not only classrooms but education as a whole must be made accessible to all students, regardless of disabilities or impairments.
  • The Assistive Technology Act helps disabled students by providing funding for assistive technologies. These can include specialized readers, wheelchairs, or voice amplifiers.

Community: Going to college is about more than just your studies. There are many ways to connect with your college's social elements, including Greek organizations and clubs. Take advantage of sororities, fraternities, volunteer groups, and extracurricular activities. Technology makes it easier than ever for visually impaired students to enjoy college, both inside and outside of the classroom.

Scholarships for Blind and Visually Impaired Students

Many charities, government institutions, and other organizations offer scholarships specifically for visually impaired and blind students. These programs include:

New scholarships appear every year, so it's a good idea to search frequently for new funding opportunities.

Tools and Assistance for Visually Impaired Students

Every student is different, even if they deal with similar visual impairments. That is why it's so important to know your options before setting foot in the classroom. Assistive technologies and techniques can cater to different learning styles, personalities, classroom settings, and subjects of study.

Reserved Seating: Simply being closer to visual class presentations may help you absorb more information. Discuss what types of materials your professor plans to share in class, and arrange for a reserved seat near the front of the class to make participation easier. Reserved seating also helps totally blind students navigate the classroom.

Braille Textbooks and Audiobooks: Speak to your professors and student services about Braille textbooks. They may also have audio options available. Even if they do not have them in the campus bookstore, they should be able to help you find an accessible copy.

Recorded Lectures: Taking notes in class isn't always a feasible option for visually impaired students. Although special assistive technologies may allow you to type notes in Braille, not all campuses have these tools. Getting permission to record lectures or borrow official university recordings can make studying much easier.

Apps, Software, and Hardware: If you've dealt with a visual impairment for a few years, you may already have some of these tools installed on your computer or tablet, and these technologies will serve you exceptionally well in college. A screen reader with basic Braille commands is vital for online research. It may also help you navigate college websites to learn about housing information, meal plans, tuition details, and course selection. Voice-to-text word processors can make writing much easier, as can Braille keyboards.

Additional Assistive Technology Resources

Article written by Lexi Westingate
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