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.


Learning Ally's CSP Summer Workshop Virtual Choir Presents "Lean On Me"
Learning Ally's College Success Program presents the CSP Summer 2020 Workshops Virtual Choir singing

September 21, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio

Throughout the summer of 2020, the Learning Ally College Success Program conducted free workshops where students participated in fun and engaging virtual environments with their peers, while learning new skills or expanding on existing ones. These workshops, run by CSP mentors and held weekly over the course of 6-8 weeks, included Creative Writing, Coding, Wellness & Mindfulness, a Book Club, and a Virtual Choir.

Five students and five mentors from the Virtual Choir worked hard over the summer, collaborating and combining their voices virtually, and the results of their hard work have paid off in this amazing version of "Lean On Me". The CSP is excited and proud of this accomplishment by our students and mentors.

We hope you enjoy the CSP Summer Workshop Virtual Choir's rendition of "Lean On Me"! You can access the recording here - https://youtu.be/vshpGyFKAlk - or by visiting the CSP YouTube channel.

You can follow the College Success Program on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter!

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#Words of Affirmation: Volunteers Motivating Our Students
Video of Volunteer sharing a positive word with our students

September 17, 2020 by Jhara Navalo

We know this year has presented its challenges and our children are truly feeling the brunt of this pandemic especially as it relates to the new school year. As a way to show their support, our volunteers recorded a few inspirational messages to let your child know they are not alone.

Please take a moment out of your busy day to curl up with your child and enjoy a few words of affirmation from our volunteer narrators.

Post from volunteer Ali S.

Post from volunteer Joan W.

Post from volunteer William P.

Post from volunteer Laurie F.


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 17,500 schools, empowering over 375,000 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

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The Joys and Perils of Guide Dogging
Labrador retriever guide dog lying at the feet of its handler.

September 15, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio

In celebration of National Guide Dog Month, we are re-sharing this post from former College Success Program Mentor, Alecia Iwima. Alecia shares the benefits of having a guide dog, but also the struggles that can come with it. She shows us that it's okay to chose a cane over a guide dog or a guide dog over a cane, it's a preference and all about what works for you. And just because you chose one, doesn't mean you have to stick with it forever. Be sure to read the About the Author section at the end of the blog for an update on Alecia and whether she's still using a cane or working with a guide dog again. This post originally appeared on Learning Ally's blog on October 23, 2017. 

The Joys and Perils of Guide Dogging
By Alecia Iwima, former College Success Program Mentor and Avid Blogger

Dear 85% of the People I've Met in the past 6 years,

I forgive you.

For devouring me with your eyes every time I walked into a room. For announcing me as an exhibit. For withholding from me the freedom to be known. For blatantly disregarding my requests and my safety. For the guilt trips and the invasive questions and the forgetfulness of my personhood. I forgive you. You didn't know what you were doing.

And neither did I. The first time I traveled with my guide dog at night, I was overwhelmed to tears with a sense of liberty. I weaved effortlessly with her through mazes of tables and poles and people, none of which I could discern through the darkness. She faithfully alerted me to street corners and uneven sidewalks and obstacles; nobody cooed and nobody stared. I felt confident and unhindered and empowered.

And I don't regret having gotten her. But when I left the town where we trained - where life was on pause and everyone was accustomed to the sight of cute guide puppies - things were different. For the first three years with Brownie, I spent the vast majority of my time on a small college campus in the middle of nowhere. Within two weeks of her arrival, everyone was used to Brownie's existence and educated on service dog etiquette. During the day, I hardly needed her, and at night her guide work was inconsistent. But I loved not having to wait for my eyes to adjust before maneuvering a crowded room and not having to struggle to see stairs. She quickly found doors and empty pathways. It was a substantial amount of work to care for her and to maintain her training, but she was helpful. Besides, I loved her, and surely it would all pay off when we moved to a big city, right?

In the fall of 2014 I relocated to Dallas, Texas. I am pretty extroverted and always surrounded by people and, as it is usually not feasible to use a guide dog and talk with friends at the same time, it was common for me to have Brownie with me but not end up using her much. She was also slowly beginning to develop a lot of anxiety, which made her guide work tentative and halting, and eventually rendered her unable to travel in cars without being terrified. And this was not my tiny private college anymore: I was in the vicinity of new people almost every day. And all of them loved dogs; all of them "just couldn't help" but caress/talk to her; all of them had a story about their pet or a question about my blindness or a comment about her appearance. And yet, somehow, at the same time, none of them saw me. It wasn't just you. It was normal. And you couldn't have known you were the twelfth one that day.

Brownie was a pretty good guide, but I hated the constant attention so much that, for the first time in my life, I came to dread social gatherings; for the first time in my life, I thought you were my enemy. You existed to assail me with discomfort whenever I entered the public sphere - to show up and say something that would strip me of my ability to enjoy a lively party or a beautiful concert; worse than that, you existed to convince me that I was not a person beyond her - that my essence was in her and that I was not worth knowing apart from her. Sometimes, Twelfth Person That Day, I was terse with you and impatient. Sometimes, I hated you for your insensitivity and inconsiderateness, without ever having engaged in a real conversation with you. I derided you with my friends and fantasized about angry Facebook posts I could write in your honor. You made a thoughtless comment one morning at Walmart, but I made a consistent decision not to love you. Please forgive me. I didn't know what I was doing.

And it's over now. I retired my guide dog in July, and have been using a cane ever since. It is not able to guide me through mazes of tables or quickly locate exits, but I am again overwhelmed with a sense of liberty. The truth is, canes just don't incite acts of unintentional dehumanization the way dogs do. No one comments; no one stares. For the first time in six years, you're remembering to ask my name! When you initiate conversations with me now, it's about the weather or my work or my life. It's refreshing to be able to stow away my mobility device at my leisure, and to not need to constantly be monitoring the behavior of an animal or of the people who take interest in it, but it is most of all refreshing to be finally seen.

With no resentment now, I recognize that some of you are wondering, "But how do you get around with out her?" Because, I confess, I was often too impatient with your "ignorance" to quell it, even when you asked. Guide dogs are trained to avoid obstacles, while canes are designed to detect them. Neither a cane nor a dog can function in place of a personal sense of direction: just as a cane is unable to take me to science class on command or tell me how to cross a street, neither is a guide dog capable of performing those tasks. Each, then, comes equipped with its own advantages and disadvantages. While a cane is unable to discern a pathway through a restaurant, for instance, most dogs are unable to reliably identify signposts or texture changes that may be extremely helpful landmarks for a blind pedestrian. While a dog can be taught to follow people or locate specific objects on command, a cane requires no training or maintenance whatsoever. A dog will stop to alert you to a patch of uneven sidewalk; a cane will show you the exact nature of its unevenness. It's a preference thing.

I'm thankful to be able to have this conversation with you, now that I'm slightly removed from the experience. But I'm even more thankful that, as a cane user for the time being, I can participate in my community knowing that there will be no Twelfth Person to have it with tomorrow.

About the Author
Alecia Iwima served as a mentor for the College Success Program and is now beginning her second year of law school. After taking a break from working with a guide dog, she realized that traveling with a cane was not conducive to her particular lifestyle. So, she switched from working with a very people-oriented golden retriever to working with an intimidating German shepherd, and interference from the public greatly decreased.

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Dealing with DOR
Close up of two hands in a handshake

September 10, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio

By: Rachel Grider, College Success Program Mentor

When we think of college and what makes our experiences different from those of our sighted counterparts, we tend to focus mostly on aspects relating directly to our lives on campus - relationships with professors and DSO, adaptive technology, campus navigation, social life, etc. There is one very important aspect, however, with which most of us deal but which is often overlooked: our relationship with our state rehabilitation agencies. The name of this department varies from state to state, but for the purpose of this blog, I will call it the Department of Rehabilitation (DOR). Simply put, the job of DOR is to help individuals with disabilities find a job, including helping them through college and trade programs; they may do this by helping with tuition, technology, or training.

During my first year of college, I did not take my relationship with my DOR counselor very seriously; I soon learned, however, that DOR could be an invaluable resources to help me be successful. Here are eight tips for dealing with DOR. Keep in mind that not every state has the same laws and resources, but the general principle applies to all.

1. BE RESPECTFUL.
When interacting with your counselor, either in person or otherwise, be respectful of his or her time and attention by arriving on time and being prepared. Dress nicely and be well-groomed for an in-person or virtual meeting. In short, treat your DOR counselor with the same respect you would treat a professor or disabilities office counselor.

2. BE DECISIVE.
There is nothing wrong with taking some time to decide on your major and career path during your first few semesters in college or in changing your major at any time; generally, however, DOR prefers its clients to have a fairly solid idea of their career paths from the beginning. Because of this, it is not a bad idea to declare a major right when you start college, even if you think you might change it later. Always be decisive when communicating with your counselor; he or she has many other clients, and your sense of purpose will help you to stand out among them.

3. STICK TO YOUR DECISION.
Once you have chosen a major, taking into account all factors such as aptitude and job market, do not allow yourself to be swayed by DOR. Often, a DOR counselor may try to persuade a student to choose a major with more job security or fewer adaptations which need to be made; do not let your passion be quelled simply because your counselor tries to convince you to change your major. If you are serious about your choices and have accepted any risks or sacrifices, you will hopefully earn the respect and help of your DOR counselor. If your choice of majors may cause DOR to drop you as a client, you will need to decide whether it is worth that sacrifice.

4. DO YOUR RESEARCH.
Having a dream is great, but it is up to you to know how to make that dream a reality. Show your counselor that you are serious by knowing all the facts and figures, as well as any adaptive technology you will need. Don't rely on DOR for every little thing, but when you ask them for something, make sure it is truly essential for what they see as your ultimate goal: obtaining a job.

5. BE PROACTIVE AND PROMPT.
Don't always wait for your counselor to contact you. Check in at least once a month to update him or her on your progress. Always respond to emails and phone messages promptly, and send requested materials, such as transcripts or financial aid forms, as soon as you obtain them.

6. KNOW YOUR LAWS.
You are entitled to certain benefits and rights under your state and federal laws. Understand what your counselor is supposed to do for you, and if you feel that he or she is not doing his or her job, do not be afraid to bring it up with your counselor or even speak with a supervisor if necessary.

7. DO YOUR BEST WITH YOUR RESOURCES.
DOR is investing in your future; in return, they expect you to do your part. The technology and financial means which DOR provides are there to help you achieve your academic and career goals; the technology does not really belong to you until you have achieved those goals, and it can be taken away at any time if they find that you are using it for anything else. Always do your best with what you have, maintaining a high GPA and taking advantage of all opportunities which will help your progress.

8. REMEMBER THAT YOU ARE NOT THE ONLY CLIENT.
Your counselor most likely has a large caseload of clients. If you do not appear to take your schooling seriously, or if you are otherwise difficult for your counselor to work with, your file will probably find itself near the bottom of the stack, and your counselor will be less likely to help you when you need it. If, however, you strive for academic success, utilizing your resources and cultivating your relationship with DOR, your counselor will most likely recognize that you are serious, and he or she will be more likely to give you what you need when you need it.

The above tips are meant to be tools to help you maintain a healthy relationship with DOR. Of course, there are other factors which will influence your experience - such as your counselor's personality and commitment - but overall, if you follow these suggestions, you will most likely see that DOR can indeed prove to be a key to your success in college and beyond.

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Top Takeaways From Our Webinar - BTW, I Have Low Vision: The Pros and Cons of Self-Identifying Having Low Vision
Woman in coffee shop looking towards a window with sun shining across her. She's wearing a red long sleeved jacket and black rimmed glasses.

September 4, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio

Compiled by Kristen Witucki, CSP Curriculum and Content Editor

Once a month, the College Success Program hosts a webinar on a topic of interest to high school and college students who are blind or who have low vision, their parents, and the professionals who work with them. In the month of August, we hosted two! You can find the summary of our previous webinar, "A Crystal Ball for Blind/Low Vision Students: A Glimpse Into Your First Semester At College, Part 2" here. In our second webinar of the month, Maureen Hayden, a CSP mentor and doctoral student in marine biology, moderated a panel of mentors, Brilynn Rakes, Sam Van Der Swaagh and Emily Vasile, entitled, "BTW, I Have Low Vision: The Pros and Cons of Self-Identifying Having Low Vision." This webinar discussed the highly sensitive topic of low vision disclosure, whose nuances change depending both on the individual and the situation.

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.

Two Tales of Disclosure
We began the webinar with a couple of cautionary tales which our panelists volunteered to share.

Brilynn Rakes, who studied dance, felt that she disclosed her low vision too early. During her orientation, when the whole dance program was brought together, she felt proud of her accomplishments thus far and wanted the people she would be working and studying with for the next four years to know her as she was, since orientation is all about getting to know people. However, she discovered later that disclosing her low vision early was a mistake. The program administrators weren't able to focus on her capabilities and some even considered her a liability, they didn't want her to hurt herself or others and consequently didn't give her many of the same opportunities that they gave to other students in the program. If she had waited to disclose her low vision, she could have proven to the administrators that she could participate in the program just like anyone else. Brilynn feels that early disclosure of low vision is appropriate in most situations, but in the arts, which is often competitive, it might not always be a good idea.

Sam Van Der Swaagh offered his story of trying to get through a class without disclosing his low vision. He took a math course which he thought would take place mostly online. He figured he didn't need to bother the professor about his low vision or to request a human notetaker. It turned out that the course was not online, he could have benefitted from the assistance of a notetaker and he did not do well in the course. In retrospect, he felt he should have either been more forthright with the professor or changed courses.

Academic Disclosure
Brilynn feels that in general, it's very important to disclose your low vision to professors and disabilities offices in advance if possible. Professors are extra willing to help a student who shows initiative. Emily points out that a professor may not legally discuss your low vision with colleagues, so it is the student's responsibility to bring up low vision with each instructor. As a professor herself, Emily values receiving descriptions from the students about what they need rather than relying solely on their accommodations letters.

Professional Disclosure
The issue of disclosing low vision professionally can be especially fraught. During job interviews, which are mostly taking place virtually now, our panelists recommend making sure your technology is reliable and your appearance is good on camera. Maureen points out that interviewers may not legally ask you about your low vision, so if you feel it should be discussed, you will need to identify it. Sam says that if someone asks about your low vision, you may sometimes need to give that person grace if you want the job.

Once you are hired, disclosure can still be a source of tension at times. Emily felt that one of her employers worried more about whether she was capable of doing her job once she disclosed her low vision. She recommends asking yourself if you can perform a job without additional accommodations. If you can't, it's important to disclose your low vision early so that you can perform your job well. But if you can, it may be better to wait to disclose your level of vision.

Social Disclosure
When online dating, Emily did not want to disclose her low vision immediately, because she wanted people to get to know her as herself. Yet she knew that sometimes people could tell from her pictures that her eyes are two different colors and her left eye drifts. Because of that, she got some insensitive feedback from some people, so she learned the hard way it was usually better to disclose her low vision or let some comments go.

Sam feels frustrated when people sometimes fixate on his low vision but he wants to talk about something else. Eventually he learned tactics for helping move the conversation along while still sharing enough info that the person he's talking to will still remember he might not recognize them by sight next time they see each other.

Helping Others Understand Low Vision
Brilynn is color blind, so she explains to others that she sees in gray scale. She prefers to tell people she was born with her low vision and is independent and happy, in order to help others not feel pity.

Sam and Emily often use paintings to explain how they see - for example, when Emily covers one eye, life looks like a Monet paining through the other.

All of our panelists feel that using online simulators of vision loss or creating their own goggles for people to use can be especially helpful.

Changing the Low Vision Channel
All of our panelists agree that talking about low vision all the time can drain them. Emily and Brilynn recommend taking a step back and answering calmly whenever possible rather than feeling emotional about or offended by people's curiosity. Sam prefers to get the conversation off himself by asking what struggles they have or what they enjoy doing. People often move on quickly and remember the next time when he doesn't recognize them that he isn't ignoring them. Maureen prefers to use humor and to tell people how she accomplishes things. For instance, if people feel bad that she does not have a car, she reminders then that she doesn't need to worry about gas or insurance. Overall, our panelists agree that they want people to know them for themselves and how they can contribute to the world.

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