Learning Ally Blog: Access and Achievement


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.

Ivory Towers and Stone Walls: How to talk to professors about your disability
Side of building on a college campus

September 3, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio

By Will Butler, former College Success Program Advisory Panel Member

I'll never forget the puzzled silences of my professors - the moments of mutual confusion we shared, at least once a semester, trying to figure out how to solve the challenges presented by my vision. Having a conflict or tension with a professor is not right or wrong, but a normal result of being an outlier in an assembly-line system. Being an outlier has positive and negative trade offs. The biggest thing I learned in college is that the way you talk about your disability can help or hurt you, and result in your biggest failures or successes. This is true in all social settings, but today I just want to focus on how to talk to your professors.

Here are a few types of professors you might encounter this year at school. These are real experiences I had at UC Berkeley just a few years ago, with the names changed to protect the innocent or, as it were, guilty.

First, there was Mr. Stonewall: Mr. Stonewall viewed himself as a high intellectual. He only interacted with brilliant students and those who didn't meet his standards mostly just learned to hang back and try to stay afloat. He was fond of the Socratic method and practiced a hard-knock, tough-love school of lesson-learning for the urban theory course that he was famous for. In my case, Mr. Stonewall didn't want to give me extra time to take my exams. When the topic was broached, he peppered me with questions, trying to poke holes in the rationale for giving a student using a computer rather than a pen and paper extra time on a written exam. The Stonewalls of the world are tough and intimidating, but ultimately their bark is worse than their bite. They're trying to make sure you're "legit," which isn't right, but it's to-be-expected, since they've heard every excuse in the book, and they're naturally suspicious. Their challenging questions are enough to make you back down and even question the legitimacy of your own accommodations, which you should never do, on principle. Don't let these types of professors cause you to question yourself.

My biggest failure was with Mr. Towers. Mr. Towers was an older professor who had been teaching very small, very elite classes for many years. He quite literally worked in an ivory tower and, as a result, was detached and ambivalent about the needs of young ambitious individuals, particularly those with disabilities. I had to audition for his class, was accepted on merit, and everything was fine with Mr. Towers until he saw a hint of weakness during regular coursework. I had trouble reading some of the non-text graphics that were necessary for the course and, because my vision loss was a recent thing for me, I didn't know what the best system was for adapting that information. Rather than become a voice of support and assure me that I could be given the time and resources to find a solution, Mr. Towers detached and became emotionally inaccessible. These types of professors are often even more difficult to deal with than the more confrontational Stonewalls, because as they detach, so do you. As a result, I ended up walking away from the class and the prestigious opportunities it could have brought. There's a tough reality here: sometimes you have to pick your battles and decide if an unhelpful professor is worth the emotional toil. If there's another way to achieve your goals, there are rare cases in which dropping a class is the best way to preserve your energies, but it should never be your first response. Mr. Towers' class was not critical to my major or minor, but if I had really cared I like to think I'd have figured out a way to make it work. There's no happy ending here except the lesson learned: when they detach, you have to push forward.

A happier story is that of Mr. Manchester (sorry these are all male professors, that's just how it happened for me, but in my experience, female-identifying professors are more accommodating in general). Mr. Manchester was young and enthusiastic, a vibrant public speaker with tons of energy. In such a professor lies great opportunities to not only be well-accommodated, but transform the needs of your disability into a creative opportunity. In this case, I had a medical event correspond with our midterm paper, and straining my vision to write the paper was just not an option. I sat in Mr. Manchester's office and we talked about it. I still remember his bearing: thoughtful, playful even, mulling over how we could solve this problem in a creative way. Then he offered: what if I recorded an audio essay instead of a written one? He knew I had some ability to record audio and that this would not only be easier for me than writing with magnification, but more fun. Because I took the time to come to his office hours and invite him into the accommodations process, he waived a significant amount of work for me and allowed me to express myself in a totally other, creative way. I got an A on the assignment. Accommodations don't need to be the same for every class - and when your communication is strong, a professor can be your best fiend.

As blind or low vision students, the education system is set up to fund us with money and to back us up with accommodations, but no one teaches you how to talk to your teachers. If I could go back and change one thing about my college experience, this is one of the first things I would do differently. The way you communicate with your teachers is probably the single-most important skill for a student with a disability. We are often not prepared though. And if no one has taught us how to have quiet, uncompromising confidence about our capabilities, how can we expect others to have confidence in us in turn?

In every case, you must meet your professors more than half-way. In academia, a professor is supposed to be a leader, but they will often follow the lead of their students. The best professors will draw out even the tiniest glimmer of a student's potential - but the majority of professors are in a reactive mode. Students who are brash and headstrong must be corrected righteously; students who never raise their hand are often ignored; and students with disabilities will not be accommodated unless they are their own advocates.

Talking to a professor is not easy, but most of the hard part happens in you, before the actual conversation. Ask yourself a few simple questions: Am I able to talk about my disability openly? Am I comfortable enough to inspire confidence in others? And how do I react when challenged? Having answers to these sorts of questions is the best way to prepare for the inevitable bumps in the road that come with being a student navigating a diverse and unpredictable campus. When all else fails, though, jump the Stonewall, escape the Towers, and head for Manchester.

Will Butler previously served on the College Success Program's Advisory Panel and as the Communications Director at the Lighthouse for the Blind in San Francisco, CA. He currently serves as the Vice President of Community at Be My Eyes.

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Top Takeaways From Our Webinar - A Crystal Ball for Blind/Visually Impaired Students: A Glimpse Into Your First Semester At College Part 2
Torso of girl student holding books and a backpack

August 11, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio

By Jonathan Zobek, Learning Ally College Success Program Intern

Once a month, the College Success Program (CSP) hosts a webinar on a topic of interest to high school or college students that are blind or have low vision, their parents, or professionals who work with them. On August 5, 2020, CSP Mentor Glenn Dausch moderated a webinar titled "A Crystal Ball for Blind/Visually Impaired Students: A Glimpse Into Your First Semester at College Part 2." Our guest panelists included CSP Mentors Maureen Hayden and Rashad Jones, and CSP student members Mikayla Gephart and Faizan Jamil, who all offered insight into the college journey based on their experiences.

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

1. Preparation Is Important
Starting college is a huge step in your life journey, and it is essential that you prepare. Luckily, there are many steps you can take to do this. First, even when you are still in high school, you can have conversations about college with your TVI. Ask them questions and get their thoughts on various situations, technology, and more. Secondly, it is crucial that you meet with the Disability Support Services Office at your college. If you can, schedule a meeting as soon as possible. You and the staff will get to know each other. Starting conversations with them early also ensures that you can be a part of the process of writing your accommodations letter, the official document you generally must present to each of your professors during college.

2. Prepare For Your Living Situation
If you will be moving out of your home, it is important to prepare for your specific living situation. If your college is far away, travel lightly and only pack the essentials, such as assistive technology. You can always buy toiletries and other incidentals while at college. Also know that you will most likely live with a roommate, so keep your space limitations in mind while buying and packing.

3. If Possible, Have O&M Lessons On Campus Early
College is a new environment, and it is important to know how to navigate campus to ensure that you get to class on time. If possible, schedule O&M lessons early so you are prepared for the first day of classes. If you are unable to meet with an orientation and mobility instructor, try walking around campus with family or friends. It can also be helpful to go on tours with student advisors, RA staff, or peers. Older students can fill you in on more of the small details about navigating campus, such as the quickest routes to certain buildings or the times of day certain paths are most crowded. Also, learn multiple routes because your favorite route can change due to construction or other restrictions.

4. Fellow Students Are Willing To Help
If you are unsure about anything on campus, such as how to get to a new building, navigate a dining hall, or complete an assignment, your peers are an invaluable resource. They can point out where certain foods are in the dining hall or read menus. Friends will learn how to accommodate and best help you. For academics, you can form study groups with your peers. This allows for multiple perspectives on the material when available, and friends teaching one another benefits you all. You will not always be the person asking for help. Explaining material is just as valuable as having material explained to you.

5. You Are Your Own Team Leader
In college, you will be responsible for a lot more than you were in high school. Everything, such as ensuring that your professors are aware of your accommodations, coordinating testing and scribe services, and speaking up when you need help is up to you. While it may seem daunting, it is completely manageable. It is important to form relationships with your professors and DSO to ensure the smoothest process. You can email your accommodations letter to your professors before the semester starts, and discuss it during one of the first office hour sessions. This allows for a personalized conversation and will better ensure that your professor knows your needs. If the professor has never dealt with a blind or visually impaired student, you may need to do a little more explaining/self-advocating.

Another aspect of being your own team leader involves being proactive. It is up to you to ask for help. One great way to do this is to utilize your professors' office hours to the greatest extent possible. Professors are willing to help students who go the extra mile and seek help outside of class.

Get a record of the essence of every conversation in writing. Follow up every in-person conversation or phone call with an email noting what was said and by whom. Everything will be available in writing just in case there was a misunderstanding or if something goes wrong.

6. Keep Track Of Important Dates
In college, there are many important dates, most of which can be found either on the academic calendar or syllabi for class. From your syllabi, you will figure out when tests take place and when group projects are due. Knowing this information can allow you to set up testing accommodations, such as a different time and location and scribe services. For group projects, be the member who is constantly texting and keeping track of other members. Nothing will get done if there is no leader. Knowing the deadlines will allow you to remind other group members and get the required work done. If possible, try to look at syllabi before class starts.

From your academic calendar, you can figure out add/drop dates and registration dates. It isn't uncommon to drop classes, but timing is important. Also, know your registration date, make sure that all fees are paid and that you know what classes you need to take. This will ensure a smooth registration process and that you will get into required classes. Not every class is offered every semester, so it is important to enroll while you can.

To keep track of these dates, enter them into an electronic calendar, such as the one your phone and set reminders before the actual date. The academic calendar can be found online, so you can bookmark that page, or keep a copy of it at your desk.

7. Maintain A Work/Life Balance
College may be a lot of work, but don't let it overwhelm you. Taking breaks and creating a schedule is important. College is a time to redefine who you are and discover new interests and hobbies, so it is a great time to get involved in extracurricular activities and hang out with new friends. You may discover that you enjoy yoga, working out, or simply hanging out and playing games with friends. Maintaining a balance is important. Being proactive is also important and can be easier if you have connections to other people. One way to do this is to create a schedule with someone else, whether that be a friend or someone in Disability Support Services. The other person can hold you accountable to your schedule. Plus, it feels great when you accomplish a goal. Overall, it is important to find that delicate balance between work and social life to ensure the best college experience.

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Summer Reading Recommendations Part 4: More Learning Ally Staff
Open book in braille

July 30, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio

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

The College Success Program decided to put together a summer reading list so that we could encourage our students and each other to gravitate toward good books we've either read or plan to read. I've recently learned about enough great books to start a blog series! I have to admit that hearing about the many recommended books leads me to feel almost frozen by the thought of all the books I might not get to! We hope these book lists will help give you a sense of who we are and our program, and also offer some reading entertainment for everyone! For the third and fourth parts of our series we asked Learning Ally staff from across the organization to contribute their favorite books. As you may already know, the College Success Program is a very tiny part of Learning Ally, a mission-driven non-profit which works to ensure that teachers have the tools to deliver high quality reading products to their students with visual, learning or physical disabilities. Our solutions have grown from the audiobook, so naturally our company is full of bookworms. On Zoom, the platform we use to carry out our work, our Literature and Audiobook Experience Lead, Alexis (pronounced Alexie) created A Place to Talk Books. From that channel, I received more recommendations than I could possibly use - maybe that means I need to write a mini winter break reading list! But in any case, we hope these recommendations will get you started!

Please note: These books are not necessarily available in the Learning Ally catalog.

Alexis, Literature and Audiobook Experience Lead
The Knowledge Gap
by Natalie Wexler
Incredibly insightful book which provides a sorely needed historical context for diagnosing the issues with literacy instruction in the US today. I found the main argument very persuasive. Very relevant to Learning Ally's mission!


Christine, Instructional Texts Administrator
Young Elizabeth: The Making of the Queen
by Kate Williams
Biography of Queen Elizabeth before she becomes queen. Interesting and well researched and written. You realize how much history she has seen and has been a part of.


Daniel, System Support Specialist
Start With Why
by Simon Sinek
This book will ask you why you do what you do in life, in your career, in your work environment or any social circle that you are a part of. It is very illuminating.


Jane, Inside Sales Representative
A Piece of the World
by Christina Baker Klein
Beautifully written, moving story inspired by Andrew Wyeth's painting "Christina's World."


Julia, Manager of Development
by Nora Ephron
"Comical drama" about breakup, relationship, and cooking. Engaging, funny and a very easy read.


Mir, Front-End Developer
Deep Work
by Cal Newport
A guide to finding focus and clarity in an increasingly distracted world.


Rachel, HR Generalist-Admin
White Fragility
by Robin DiAngelo
This is a great book for challenging the way you think about racism and what it means to be white. Excellent read for an open-minded reader.


Shelley, Inside Sales Representative
The Cost of Living
by Deborah Levy
This is a poetic/minimal/feminist autobiography about a woman rebuilding her life.


Sumedha, Senior Developer
The Forty Rules of Love
by Elif Shafak
Shafak beautifully weaves her modern story with Sufi poet Rumi and Shams of Dervish's story. It clarifies Sufism and its philosophies.


Looking for more reading inspiration? Check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this blog series of browse the Learning Ally Audiobooks.

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Impressions from the 2020 National Federation of the Blind Convention
NFB logo

July 29, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio

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

Learning Ally was thrilled to join the 2020 National Federation of the Blind Convention once again as a bronze sponsor. We enjoyed meeting many individual members in the exhibit hall, hearing and learning from their stories and connecting them with resources. As we reflect on the 2020 convention experience and plan next steps for our programming, we decided we'd like to feature the convention experiences of a couple of our community members. We hope you enjoy their reflections!

Miso Kwak, College Success Mentor
I have fond memories of attending two NFB national conventions while I was in college. The thrill of navigating an unfamiliar hotel, meeting old and new friends, and walking around the exhibit hall are some of the highlights I still remember. This year, the convention went completely virtual. On one hand, I was sad that it took away some of my favorite elements of the convention, and on the other hand, I was glad that the virtual nature of the convention enabled me to join the convention for the first time in many years, while also being able to juggle my work at home.

Despite no in-person interactions, I found the virtual convention experience as engaging and memorable as my previous experience of attending the convention in-person. I especially enjoyed the Upward Mobility seminar, which was packed with advice and insights on carving out one's career path from blind people working in various sectors. I also appreciated ways in which NFB highlighted the importance of diversity, inclusion, and intersectionality within the blind community.

Jonathan Zobek, College Success Summer Intern
I learned a lot at the 2020 NFB National Convention. I attended many meetings, from the National Association of Blind Students Business Meeting, to the Humanware Live webinar, to the meeting for the Committee on Autonomous Vehicles and Innovations in Transportation. However, the meeting that I learned the most from was the meeting for the Committee of Professionals in Blindness Education (PIBE). As an aspiring TVI, I thought that this meeting would be beneficial and educational, and it certainly was. After discussing business, there were great speakers, such as a representative from the American Printing House for the Blind, and they were all informative. After the speakers presented, there was a Question and Answer session with the speakers and other members of PIBE. As one would probably expect, the vast majority of questions centered around adjusting to online learning, considering how hands-on blindness-specific education is. The answers were interesting and pointed me in the direction of many resources such as the APH webinars about blindness related topics, the APH Hive, Distance Education Resources from the NFB, and Paths to Literacy.

Aside from the resources, it was great to find a network of blindness professionals, including TVIs, O&M instructors and many other professionals. As I begin my TVI coursework in the future, I will certainly reach out to this knowledgeable group of professionals for help. I look forward to becoming a more active member of this group.

Outside of individual meetings, I learned that it is possible to have a convention experience remotely. Even at the beginning of 2020, nobody would have guessed that the convention would have been held over Zoom, and for the most part, it was successful. It was nice to mingle with companies and organizations at the virtual Exhibit Hall, hear the familiar voices of friends in the Federation, and learn, network, and meet new people. Even though the convention was online, I was still exhausted at the end from the jam-packed agenda. This format also allowed for greater access to the convention, considering how it was free of associated costs, such as hotel, transportation, and food. Overall, my second NFB National Convention was a positive experience.

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Top Takeaways From Our Webinar - Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe - Which Assistive Technology Do I Need At College?
Student with back to camera sitting at desk with laptop and computer.

July 27, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio

By: Katie Ottaggio, CSP Engagement Operations Manager and Kristen Witucki, Curriculum and Content Editor

Once a month, the College Success Program (CSP) 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. On July 9, 2020 the CSP hosted a webinar called "Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe - Which Assistive Technology Do I Need At College"? CSP student, Jessica Karim moderated the webinar in which two of our CSP mentors, Megan Dausch and Emily Vasile, discussed many of the considerations around assistive technology in college.

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

Technology Becomes Your Responsibility
When you move from high school to college, you move from a system which supports you to one in which you must manage everything related to your technology including: figuring out how it works, applying it to your college life, troubleshooting and maintenance and reaching out for help when it needs to be fixed. You will also need to explain the use of technology to others such as professors, classmates and even disability resource centers. You'll need to tell others what the technology can do for you and any limitations which will affect your schoolwork and how you plan to overcome them.

Many Ways to Figure It Out
Although you are ultimately responsible for your own learning, there are many ways to learn about assistive technology. Reading everything you can, including the product documentation, social media posts, reviews, and articles from organizations such as the National Federation of the Blind and the American Foundation for the Blind can be a great starting point. You can also talk to friends, mentors, or assistive technology experts to find out what they think of devices and what they like or don't like. Finally, reach out to the vendors if you still can't find information. You can contact their technical support with questions, or you can attend blindness conferences to try out or learn about the equipment they offer.

Affording Technology
For most students, the primary resource to cover the cost of technology is your state agency for people who are blind or have low vision. Connect with your state's vocational rehabilitation department if you have not already done so. Local grants, such as those from the Association of Blind Citizens or Lions Clubs in your area, can also sometimes help. Finally, remember that you can use some college scholarships, particularly those for blind students, to cover technology costs. American Council of the Blind has a list of scholarship resources.

Apps and Devices for Students with Low Vision
Many phones have built in magnifiers. They look like cameras but allow you to zoom in and out, change color contrast, etc. You can also use a number of apps, including:

Visor - Turns your phone into a video magnifier with options to change color contrast, zoom things in and out, change backgrounds, etc.

Seeing AI - Allows you to take a picture of any text and it will read the text out loud to you.

Voice Dream Reader - Allows you to upload anything such as textbooks, worksheets, articles, PDFs, etc. You can read from it but also edit as well as import from the Google drive and Dropbox.

Super Vision - This app is a handheld magnifier, you can zoom in, change backgrounds, change colors, etc.

With regard to devices, they often require a prescription so a specialist is needed to figure out the proper magnification for your particular eye condition. However, handheld magnifiers or binoculars can help you to read everything from street signs to notes in a lecture hall.

Apps and Devices for Students Who Are Blind
Many apps can assist with creating, augmenting or maintaining a home wherever you are. Here are some that are helpful:

Seeing AI - This app can identify products such as food boxes.

Way Around - Allows you to purchase tags and affix them to items in your room. You can then record your label into your phone, hold your phone near your tag and it will tell you what it is.

Be My Eyes - This app offers volunteers that will assist you through your phone.

Having a color identifier app may be helpful to separate your laundry or to know what you're wearing. And don't forget apps for your downtime such as book or music apps.

As for devices, remember not to depend on one device because flexibility is key. It's important to have a computer and to know how to use at least two different web browsers, because you'll never know when a website experience will work better in a different browser. Be sure you know how to use sharing programs/apps such as Google Docs and you're school's learning management system. If you are a braille reader, having access to a braille display can be invaluable for proofreading and making presentations. Be sure to include low tech devices, such as a braille writer or maybe a label maker. Finally, your disabilities office may help you with scanning documents, but you might find a way to do this independently as well. You can use regular scanners or apps such as Seeing AI, Voice Dream Scanner, Canopy Reader, etc. Try a few and see what might work for you.

Talking About Technology
As soon as you know your professors' names, send them an email explaining who you are, your needs, your tech, and ask to meet with them. At the end of the first class introduce yourself, and remind them that you want a meeting. Advocate and make a name for yourself.

People are genuinely curious about assistive technology and how it works. They want to talk and ask questions. Explain that it helps let you do what your sighted peers do and how it does that. Demonstrate how it works to help with their understanding.

Advice for the COVID Crisis: You are Not Alone
Don't feel like you're the only one who is frustrated. Your sighted peers may not be using a screenreader or other technology like you, but they're frustrated as well. If you're preparing to start the next semester online, find out what technology your professor is using ahead of time and then practice so you're more comfortable using it. Finally, always have a backup plan. Try your meeting, course management and other software on your phone, computer, iPad, etc. Technology fails and that's okay as long as you can figure out a workaround.

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