Learning Ally Blog: Access and Achievement

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Now more than ever, people with learning and visual disabilities are flourishing in the classroom, launching productive careers and becoming assets in their communities. This blog spotlights remarkable individuals who demonstrate that having a visual or print disability is no barrier to educational success.


What Braille Means to Us
Close up of two hands reading braille.

October 8, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio

Compiled By: Kristen Witucki, College Success Program Curriculum and Content Editor

Six of Learning Ally's College Success Program employees reflect on what braille means to them during National Braille Week, held October 5-11, 2020, and Blindness Awareness Month, held every October.

Mary Alexander
National Director, Program Initiatives for the Blind

"When [my son,] Cooper was learning braille, he was very slow. Learning to read with only one hand is hard. We paired a Learning Ally audiobook with the same book in braille and it really helped him learn his contractions. I'm very thankful for braille and for Learning Ally."

Megan Dausch
College Success Program Mentor

"Braille gives me the freedom to create with language, to taste the syllables of words as I read, allows me to silently enjoy books in the dark and the quiet, but also enables me to share them aloud. As a child, I reveled in the ability to read in the dark when no one else could."

"Not only can I engage in two of my favorite activities because of braille - reading and writing - but I have the privilege of using braille every day at work, in my home, and on my iPhone. Thank you, braille, for being a constant in my life, from dreaded page-long long division math problems in elementary school, to enabling me to rapidly type on a touch-screen to allowing me to control my iPhone and laptop completely via braille display. Thanks for being one of my daily reminders that every tiny thing in this ever-changing world matters; every dot, every cell, every word, every thought, every dream, every unfolding story..."

Rachel Grider
College Success Program Mentor

"I have always loved libraries. Whenever I walk into a school or county library, with its floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with thousands upon thousands of books, I am filled with awe that such a vast amount of knowledge can be contained in one building. However, this awe is tempered by an equally potent sadness, because all those books of knowledge are inaccessible to me."

"With the advent of programs like Bookshare and BARD, getting my hands on an electronic braille book has never been easier. These online libraries have opened up new worlds; if I want to read a book, I can simply search for it, and, more often than not, I can have it at my fingertips in minutes. When I was a child, however, these online libraries were not part of my reality, and getting my hands on a hard-copy braille book was not easy. About three times a year, I would receive a catalog from the Braille Institute; the catalog was in braille, and I was allowed to choose four braille books, three fiction and one non-fiction, and those books would be mailed to me to keep. My fingers itched for that catalog; I would read it cover to cover, feeling the full weight of the choice before me, as I would not have another chance to order books for several months, and some of these books might not even be in the next catalog at all. After I sent in my selections, I would eagerly anticipate the arrival of my books, and when they would finally come, I would try hard to savor them, doing my best to make them last until the next shipment - but, of course, I always finished them way too quickly."

"Now, I have thousands of braille books on my BrailleNote alone. I have online databases at my disposal where I can download and read books in braille, audio format, and document form. The knowledge to which I have access is truly limitless. Even so, I will never be able to find a substitute for the weight of that think braille volume in my arms, the smell of the paper, the rustle of turning pages, and the feel of the braille under my fingers."

Rashad Jones
College Success Program Mentor

"Braille has been a constant in my life for as far back as I can remember! For me, braille is my first language other than the spoken word; it is reliable, because I can take notes when I need to speak. I am so grateful to have this method of communication!"

Abigail Shaw
Mentor Coordinator and Production Coordinator

"I truly began to learn braille during my sophomore year of high school. My parents had attempted to give me the opportunity to gain the skill in the second grade, as they knew my vision would very likely deteriorate due to a genetic condition. As a seven-year-old, however, I didn't understand the freedom that the tactile way of reading and interacting with the written word would provide me and was consequently a terrible student. Picking up braille later in life was tough, and I wish I had truly mastered it early on."

"Braille has made me a more confident traveler when navigating unfamiliar buildings. Because of braille, I am a better public speaker who can seamlessly reference notes without having to look away from an audience. Braille has also made me an insightful vocalist in a community choir - even if my voice isn't that great, at least I know what note I should be singing."

Kristen Witucki
College Success Program Curriculum and Content Editor

"Although my brother is younger than I am, he could read years before I could. The world around him was full of print. In frustration and curiosity, I colored in his books. They felt blank to me, but he was upset that I was covering the words he could read. Maybe that was not a coincidence. My parents did the best they could, but I did not have that same early childhood visual immersion in language, and learning braille was a deliberate act. Once I understood that braille was the key to everything, I was determined to learn, if only to show him that I, too could read."

"Braille helped me write diaries that I did not have to hide, pass funny notes in class, and create a few funky pictures. Braille has also helped me to excel academically, write books, teach, and read to my children. It means everything to me."

Read More about What Braille Means to Us

Applying for Graduate School
Picture of Rachel Grider. Rachel is smiling, has long dark hair, and is wearing a red shirt.

October 1, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio

By: Rachel Grider, College Success Program Mentor

As your last year of college approaches, you must consider the ultimate question: What's next? What will you do after graduation? Will you apply to a graduate program, or do you already have the necessary tools you need to start working at your dream career? If the former, do you want to take a year off between college and graduate school to gain some perspective?

This is an important decision which you should not make lightly. In many cases, depending on one's major and career choice, graduate school is an option but not absolutely necessary. For example, a music major who dreams of a career as a full-time performer may decide to forego additional schooling and go straight into the job market; if that same music major wants to also be marketable as a teacher, however, he or she definitely should consider getting a graduate degree or a teaching credential.

In many jobs, a graduate degree is not only recommended, but required. Because of this, it is extremely important that you prepare yourself and be aware of the challenges in preparing and applying for graduate school.

Start Your Research Early
Just as when you applied for college, begin researching graduate schools as soon as possible; have a list of schools you are considering at least two semesters before you wish to start attending. Contact the professors who are over your major area, and, if you have the time and resources, take a trip to visit the schools. Learn each school's individual requirements, and network with professors and students. Just as when applying for a job, networking is everything. Case in point, when I had my grad school interview, the department head mentioned that she had heard about me from one of her students and that the student's recommendation had helped my application to stand out.

I would recommend applying to at least three graduate programs. Unlike most undergraduate schools, graduate professors are not merely viewing you as a potential student but as someone who has the potential to give back to the school in some way, not only after graduation, but also while a student. Graduate programs are usually of a more specific scope than undergraduate programs, and space is limited; also, there are usually opportunities to be considered for an assistantship or fellowship to add to your resume and to help with expenses. Because of this, applying for graduate school is very much like applying for a job.

Present Your Very Best Impression
Make sure your application materials are grammatically flawless and present you in the very best possible light. Ask your current professors for advice along the way, and have someone you trust review your materials before submitting them so that you can get a more objective perspective.

Acing the In-Person or Virtual Interview
Usually, if your application passes preliminary screening, you will be asked for a personal interview with the department. This is your opportunity to shine, and it can make or break your chances of being accepted. This is also when you may wish to address your blindness for the first time.

Always be prepared for questions, both spoken and unspoken, to come up about your blindness, especially if you are applying for a program which may require numerous adaptations, such as anything STEM related. Make a list before your interview of possible challenges which the program may present and ways you can address them. If you also wish to be considered for an assistantship, be sure to take all of the practicalities of that into consideration as well, having ideas on adaptations you might need to consider. For example, my assistantship required me to teach a music theory class, and in order to put the minds of my panel at ease, I had to explain just exactly how I would be able to teach in front of a classroom using music notation that was accessible to both myself and my students, not to mention how I would be able to grade homework and tests. Yes, it seems unfair to have to think that far ahead when your sighted peers may not have to, but that is the reality of our situation.

If possible, visit or talk with your prospective school's disabilities services office (DSO) before your interview to find out more about the specific resources available to you prior to your interview. You may feel that, as a graduate student, you should be responsible for securing your own accommodations - which is true, of course - but the DSO may still help you with things like getting your materials in an accessible format or paying for a reader.

During your grad school interview, conduct yourself with poise and confidence. Most likely, there will be a panel of faculty members in attendance; introduce yourself to them and take the initiative. Smile and relax. Answer their questions honestly.

If the question of your visual impairment does not come up, I would strongly advise that you bring it up yourself in a professional, diplomatic way; do not assume that simply because it is not brought up, there is no concern about how you will complete the program. It is my experience that once I start talking about my blindness in a situation when others have been reluctant to bring it up, questions which have been on everyone's mind begin to surface, and an open, enlightening discussion follows. Let them know that it is OK to ask questions, and don't allow yourself to become offended if a concern is addressed which you had not thought a problem. At the end of your interview, there will probably be an opportunity for you to ask your own questions. Take advantage of this; remember that not only are you being considered as a potential student, you are also considering whether or not this school would be the best school for you.

Waiting for What?
After your interviews comes the most painful step of the graduate school application process - waiting. Try very hard not to obsess over your application. Instead, keep yourself busy with an academic, professional or volunteer project if you can.

Hopefully, when the wait is over, you will receive an acceptance letter from your dream graduate school, complete with a beautiful scholarship (or stipend) and an assistantship. Unfortunately, however, this does not always happen; sometimes, the acceptance letter does not come with any financial benefits, or, worse yet, it isn't an acceptance at all. While this may be difficult and frustrating, hopefully, you have applied for multiple schools and have at least two others on which to fall back. If, in the unlikely event you are not accepted into any schools to which you had applied, don't think that graduate school is closed off to you forever. There is absolutely no shame in taking a semester or two to gain some work experience or in taking some courses to better prepare yourself for the next time you apply to grad school.

 

Read More about Applying for Graduate School

Top Takeaways From Our Webinar - Navigating an Online Coronavirus Landscape: College Academics
Man wearing headphones sitting in front of a computer with his back to the camera. He is sitting at a window and the sun is setting.

September 29, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio

By: Katie Ottaggio, CSP Engagement Operations Manager

Each month the College Success Program hosts a webinar with topics of interest to students who are blind or have low vision. This fall, we are taking on the ways in which COVID-19 has altered the landscape for students in all facets of life: academic, personal and professional. This month, CSP mentor Glenn Dausch talked with two of our other mentors, Tabitha Brecke and Preston Radtke, about navigating the academic landscape.

In case you missed it, here are the top takeaways from this informative webinar. You can also view this webinar in its entirety by clicking here.


General tips for academic success

  • Plan ahead. Before the semester starts, find out what platforms each of your classes will use so you can start understanding and practicing with it. This might not always be possible, but if it is, it's a great practice to help familiarize yourself.
  • Communicate. With professors, faculty, your disability services office. Open the lines of communication and keep them flowing.
  • Stay on track. Utilize your calendar and scheduling apps to stay up to date on assignments, class times, and meetings.
  • Be professional. Treat your online classes as you would in-person classes. Be on time, be respectful of professors and peers, and ask questions when you need to.

Tips for succeeding in online meeting platforms like Zoom or Google Meets
  • Practice, practice, practice. Ask a friend to hop on a practice meeting with you and give you feedback in real time as you learn how to navigate the platform.
  • Try it on different devices. Each platform may look different and have different capabilities on a desktop vs. mobile vs. a tablet. For example, screen sharing or access to the chat may not be easily usable on one device but are much more accessible on others. Become familiar with the platforms on all the various devices you may be using so you know what you can and cannot do when using them.
  • It's ok to cheat when it comes to key commands. Find a list of key commands online or create your own and keep it close at hand. Until you're really familiar with the platform, you'll want to reference this list frequently.
  • Mute your microphone and turn off your camera to maintain control. Maybe you have a dirty pile of laundry in the corner of your room or your roommate likes to practice their yodeling at the same time as your statistics class. Your professors and peers don't want to see or hear either of those things. Configure your settings so that your microphone and camera are off when you first enter the meeting platform. You can turn either of these on and off as you feel comfortable. If you're not speaking, be sure to mute to eliminate background noise.
  • Be proactive about screen sharing. Professors may utilize the screen sharing feature of the platform, which may be convenient for them but makes the content inaccessible for students using screenreaders. Ask your professor to send documents or links beforehand so you can access them while they're sharing their screen, giving you a more equitable experience.
  • Utilize the recording feature (if your professor okays it). This will allow you to go back and review any content you may have missed. You may want to consider working with your disability services office to get this as an accommodation. You can also use a recording to gauge how you sound or how your camera is positioned, so you can make any necessary adjustments for the next call.

Apps that can support your college journey
  • To access books try BARD Mobile, Read2Go, Voice Dream Reader, and of course, Learning Ally.
  • For assistance with the world around you try Seeing AI, Aira, and Be My Eyes.
  • For help with productivity try Glean, for note taking, and the calendar app on your device to keep track of classes and assignments.
  • For help on campus try TransLoc Rider, if you're using campus transportation, and campus apps for food service, which often have menus that are more accessible than other formats they're provided in.
  • For assistance with transcription try Otter Voice Meeting Notes and Just Press Record. Keep in mind that your transcriptions, with any service, will only be as good as the recording, so be sure to have your recordings as clear and understandable as possible.

Services and resources
  • Notetaking assistance - You can continue to lean on your disability services office for notetaking assistance. They may have some new approaches to notetaking that could be especially beneficial in a remote environment.
  • Student services - Student services from your college or university are still available, just in a virtual capacity. Tutoring, counseling, the career center, even student clubs and organizations, are all still ready and waiting for you to take advantage of them. There are plentiful resources within your university; it may not be the exact same experience as in-person, but they're still valuable.
  • Mentoring programs - Outside of the college environment there are mentoring programs such as Learning Ally's College Success Program, where you can connect with someone who is more than willing to assist with your college journey. They can point you to resources within the CSP as well as others you may not be aware of.
  • Student divisions of blindness organizations - Many organizations like American Council of the Blind and National Federation of the Blind, have student divisions that can be especially beneficial as they are made up of your peers going through the same experiences and challenges. You can also look into divisions of these organizations that focus on specific professions to start connecting with mentors and students in your field of study.
  • Assistive technology - For those that use assistive technology and need resources in that area, you can visit the websites of the vendors and dive into the documentation they provide. There are also user groups of the various technology that you can join as well.

Continuing existing accommodations and identifying new ones
  • Re-evaluate your accommodations. Many accommodations will carry over from your in-person courses, but talk with your disability services office early to confirm how they'll be offered. Things like extended time may remain the same, but if you need a quiet testing environment, you will most likely need to provide that for yourself.
  • Think everything through. Each student's situation is unique, but when considering what accommodations to request for your online classes, it's important to think through what you need for a virtual learning environment. For each task, ask yourself, "how am I going to complete it?" It is important to do this well in advance and not to wait until a project is due or the morning of a test, when it can be too late.
  • Voice your concerns. If you're using a new online tool, whether it's to access your courses or complete a project, approach your disability services office with any concerns. They can loop in the professor or even an instructional designer to address any issues and come up with a solution, including the possibility of a new accommodation or an alternative tool.

Communicating with your professors
  • Be up front. Communication with your professors is vital to your success. Building rapport with them will also ensure that your needs don't come as a surprise to them when they arise.
  • Make a list. When reaching out to your professor, whether it's via email or office hours, prepare a list of issues you want to address. This will help you organize the conversation.
  • Be a record keeper. Follow up each conversation with an email detailing what you discussed and the outcome or next steps. This gives both you and your professor the opportunity to clear up any misunderstandings. You will both have a written record of the conversation in case any questions come up later.

Working in virtual groups
Even if you're spread across the country, your professor may still require you to work in a group with other students.
  • Be clear with your communication. Make sure everyone knows and understands who is doing what.
  • Have a clear "agenda", even if it's just for yourself to follow. This should include all the things you want to accomplish during each meeting.
  • Play to your strengths. Acknowledge to the team the things you may not do well but also elevate tasks you are good at. This will show your initiative to take on projects and do your fair share, while working in a way you feel comfortable.

Disclosing your visual impairment
A question that often comes up when working in groups is whether and when to disclose your visual impairment. In some cases, you may never need to tell your classmates. But if you find that some of the work required is more difficult or isn't as accessible in an online environment, you should have an honest conversation with your team. It can feel awkward, but remember that others appreciate honesty and your assignment will turn out better for it in the long run.

 
When preparing for this conversation, it's important to think about what you are contributing, now what you can't do. This will give everyone on the team an opportunity to share the work.
 
For those with low vision, you can learn more about whether and when to disclose your visual impairment in our recent webinar - BTW, I Have Low Vision: The Pros and Cons of Self Identifying Having Low Vision. You can access the webinar recording here and read the top takeaways from the webinar here.
Read More about Top Takeaways From Our Webinar - Navigating an Online Coronavirus Landscape: College Academics

Communicating with Professors
Female teacher and female student talking in front of a white board

September 23, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio

By: Jonathan Zobek, CSP Intern, Summer 2020

An important part of college is interacting with professors. Their knowledge, after all, is what college is all about. There can be many benefits to reaching out to your professors, such as a strong professional or personal connection, academic or career development opportunities that extend beyond your college years, and discovering that you love a new subject area. The possibilities are endless. These relationships can form in many ways, whether visiting during their office hours, talking after class, or just raising your hand and participating during class. A lot can take place during in-class discussion! Some professors even sponsor small group discussions about their subject.

Professionally, a professor could be a great career connection, and a letter of recommendation with their name on it could go a long way. Additionally, a professor can help you dive deeper into your subject area and develop your interests. It took years of research and writing for professors to obtain their positions, and they are certainly willing to help the next generation of interested scholars. For example, when I showed interest by going to office hours, a professor in a research methods class was willing to work closely with me to ensure that I found the best research for my proposal. While this professor helped everyone during class, showing interest and putting forth extra effort to attend office hours went a long way.

Additionally, more personal connections can form. Even though professors have advanced degrees, and may be intimidating, they are people who may have similar interests or backgrounds as you. For example, I was able to connect with my Interpersonal Communication professor personally based on a discussion in class about regional differences in communication. As an example, he used New Jersey, the state where my college is located and where most students are from. I found out that this professor grew up in the town right next to mine. This was especially surprising because not many people have heard of my hometown, which is about two square miles. We were both familiar with the area, and this commonality fostered a deeper connection beyond the fact that I was studying the same subject that he taught.

Moreover, meeting with professors can allow you to discover a subject area that you did not know about previously. For example, during my freshman year, I took the introductory Communication Studies course. I frequently attended office hours with the professor who taught the class, and she explained a lot about the area of Communication Studies. She explained what further coursework would consist of, the versatility of a Communication Studies degree, and how many applications it has in the real world. This sparked my interest in the field, and I soon switched majors to Communication Studies.

Going the extra mile and showing interest can also lead to professional and academic opportunities. An example from my own life took place while I was taking an Intro to Media Communication class. The professor who taught it was the director of my college's Office of Instructional Design, and who holds training sessions for the integration of technology in course curricula. After working closely with this professor to ensure accessibility in the classroom, she said she saw a call for a journalistic article about accessibility in the classroom, and she asked if I was interested in co-writing it with her. I gladly accepted, and we wrote the article during the summer, and submitted it for a poster session at an academic conference in Seattle, Washington. Later, the paper was accepted for the conference. Even though the conference itself was cancelled due to COVID-19, we presented the article to students in a Special Education class at my college. Although on a smaller scale, it was still a great way to present the article since we could not do it at the conference.

Overall, there are many benefits to connecting with professors during college. It can lead to long-lasting professional, and possibly even personal, connections. These can later be used for LinkedIn connections, and even letters of recommendation for graduate school or other pursuits later in life. It can also lead to more unexpected opportunities that will allow you to grow professionally and academically. While letters of recommendation and other benefits should not be the only reason for connecting with professors, a little extra effort does go a long way.

About Jonathan
Jonathan Zobek graduated from The College of New Jersey with his degree in Communication Studies. He served as an intern for the College Success Program in the summer of 2020.

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Audiobooks for Kids Who Struggle with Reading
Pamela Taylor, Dyslexia Specialist

September 21, 2020 by Jhara Navalo

Pamela Taylor Founder of Lexiability

Earlier this year we met with Pamela Taylor, Lexiability founder to discuss why she believes audiobooks and Learning Ally Audiobook Solution can truly help transform the lives of struggling readers.  Pamela Taylor is a Certified Dyslexia practitioner, certified Orton Gillingham teacher, Certified Masters Barton tutor, and with over 100 student referrals a Learning Ally Reading Champion.  We are so grateful for her investments of time, talent, and treasure to moving forward the Dyslexia Awareness movement.

 

We asked Pamela a series of questions that relate to the importance of providing struggling readers with the right accommodations to ensure their academic success. Here you can find her responses by topic in audio format.

 

Audiobooks is not cheating!

Audiobooks & Word Exposure

Audiobooks as an accommodation for various learning differences

About Learning Ally

LEARNING ALLY is a leading education solutions organization dedicated to transforming the lives of struggling learners. The Learning Ally Audiobook Solution is a proven multi-sensory reading accommodation for students with a reading deficit composed of high quality, human-read audiobooks, student-centric features and a suite of teacher resources to monitor and support student success. Used in more than 18,000 schools, empowering over 425,000 struggling readers annually, this essential solution bridges the gap between a student’s reading ability and their cognitive capability, empowering them to become engaged learners and reach their academic potential.

Learn More About Becoming a Learning Ally Member

Read More about Audiobooks for Kids Who Struggle with Reading

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