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.

Announcing The 2021 National Achievement Award Student Winners

May 30, 2021 by Learning Ally

Learning Ally's 2021 National Achievement Award (NAA) student award recipients have been selected for The Marion Huber Learning Through Listening Award and the Mary P. Oenslager Scholastic Achievement Award.

For over 60 years, our organization has offered the two endowed scholarship awards to students in high school and college with print and learning disabilities. These outstanding learners have overcome great obstacles to achieve extraordinary goals in school and beyond. As an organization, we can take pride in this beneficial program that acknowledges underserved students who rise above all expectations.

About the NAA Student Awards

The Marion Huber Learning Through Listening Award (LTL) is granted to student members who are high school seniors with learning disabilities in recognition of their academic achievement, leadership, and service to others.  

The Mary P. Oenslager Scholastic Achievement Award (SAA) is given to college students who are blind or visually impaired, who are also high achievers and stellar individuals. 

This year's award recipients are exemplary role models and an inspiration to all students who are challenged in ways many of us can never imagine.  The top three winners from each category (LTL and SAA) receive a $6000 scholarship award. Students who receive special honors receive between $2,000 and $3000 monetary awards.  

Please join us in congratulating all winners and participants! You can learn more about each of our students by clicking on their names. These individuals can be immensely proud of their outstanding academic prowess and personal achievements. They are stellar role models for students who learn differently and who demonstrate the highest standards of performance and commitment in their classes and communities.

Winners of the LTL Awards

Samantha Widdison, Winner - Belmont, MA

Carragon Olles, Winner - DePere, WI

Pauline Simonson, Winner - Salt Lake City, Utah

Nicholas Talik, Special Honors - Houston, TX

John Andrew, Special Honors - Gloucester, MA

Benjamin Payson, Special Honors - Cape Elizabeth, ME


Winners of the SAA Awards

Katherine Barba, Winner - New Rochelle, NY

Qusay Hussein, Winner - Austin, TX

Jonathan Zobek, Winner - Kenilworth, NJ

Yolanda Keahey, Special Honors - Jersey City, NJ

Debra Whitt, Special Honors - Springfield, MO

Jennifer Ratliff, Special Honors - Oklahoma City, OK 

You can learn more about our application process and our award programs at LearningAlly.org/NAA and view the video submissions of our 2021 winners. 

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Top Takeaways From Our Webinar - Cane to Canine: Guide Dog Readiness
Jake Koch from Guide Dogs for the Blind and his guide dog, Forli. Jake and Forli are standing in a grassy area with trees in the background. Jake is wearing a blue button down shirt and brown pants and is squatting next to Forli, who is a black labrador retriever.

February 12, 2021 by Katie Ottaggio

By: Katie Ottaggio, CSP Engagement Operations Manager

Each 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. On January 21, 2021 the CSP hosted a webinar called "Cane to Canine: Guide Dog Readiness". Our guest was Jake Koch, the Community Outreach Specialist at Guide Dogs for the Blind. Fellow guide dog user and CSP Mentor, James Boehm, moderated the discussion, and their conversation gave us a lot of insight about the guide dog lifestyle.

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.

Understand the difference in mobility between a cane and a dog.

A guide dog and a cane are the two primary forms of mobility for someone who is blind or has low vision, but there are key differences to know when evaluating which option is right for you. You should think of a guide dog as an object avoider, whereas a cane is an object locator. Dogs use the principle of seeing and avoiding, while a cane is used to detect first and then possibly avoid. If you're leaning towards a guide dog, it's important to understand this role they play - they are there to help with the safety aspect of seeing and avoiding obstacles along your route.

Don't stop your O&M training.

Orientation & Mobility training is your foundation to success no matter what aid you use. In the case of a guide dog, most guide dog schools recommend and in some cases, require O&M training. They will build your guide dog lifestyle skills upon this O&M training.

Consider your living situation and the travel you'll be doing.

Will you be living at home? In a dorm? Off campus housing? Is your campus in a rural, suburban, or urban setting? Maybe you'll be in an urban area during the semester, but when you're home on break you're in a rural area. These are all factors that will not only dictate the specific dog you'll get but also what their needs will be, particularly while you're in college.

Take a gap semester on your guide dog journey.

Consider using a cane for your first semester, particularly if you are still learning the campus. You may have been able to visit with your mobility instructor and learn your routes, but the first few weeks and months of college can be a lot. Putting a hold on getting a guide dog until you've become comfortable with your college life can enable you to focus more on your dog and less on the new aspects of college as you'll already be familiar with your surroundings. Your dog will look to you for leadership, so it can be a good practice to get used to living in a dorm away from your parents for the first time.

Timing is everything.

If you're graduating high school in June and starting your first semester at college in August, the chances of getting matched with a guide dog and up and running with them before your first class are zero. You could possibly face months of waiting, but don't be discouraged!

Think about the best time to apply. There are a few options for guide dog schools and each one has a different admissions process and wait times. You'll also need to take some time to fill out and provide documentation about your current mobility, lifestyle, health, etc.

Don't forget to factor training into your schedule! Once you do get matched with a dog, you'll need to spend time learning how to work together. Depending on the school, training may take 2, 3, 4 weeks or more. You won't be picking up your dog and heading right back to campus, so keep that in mind.

Guide dog schools are there to help you plan. They answer your questions and provide you with information to make decisions, learn, and succeed with your dog. So be sure to utilize them!

Do your research, and not just on the internet.

The first place most of us go to start our research is the internet. And, when it comes to guide dogs, there is a wealth of information out there (including this blog!). But, make the internet just one element in your research. Try some of these:

  • Find and join a Facebook group. Yes, this is technically on the internet, but these groups are places dedicated solely to the guide dog lifestyle. And, you'll be able to post a question and get feedback in a matter of minutes from people who are living this life every day.
  • Attend conferences. These are places where you can meet both guide dog handlers and guide dog school representatives.
  • Call the guide dog schools directly. The emphasis here is on schools, as in plural. Ask the same questions to all schools you call and compare their answers.

Ask the right type of questions.

It is important to get various perspectives when evaluating whether or not you might want a guide dog, because everyone's perspective is different. To get the best information from your questions, don't ask "Do you think I should get a guide dog?" Instead ask "What has your experience with a guide dog been like?" Ask about the differences people have found in various mobility aids, what challenges they've faced with a guide dog and the benefits they've found.

When contacting guide dog schools, you can talk directly with the admissions department, so be sure to ask questions like:

  • When should I apply? Be sure to share the things you're planning for your future as well as your current situation so they can give you an accurate answer. If you'll be attending school in the fall or taking a semester off, tell them. If you're living in a dorm or commuting from home, tell them.
  • When should I come to class? How long are the classes? Is the training for 2 weeks, 3 weeks, 4 weeks? Will the training be done in my home or do I need to travel to your location?
  • What does ongoing support look like? Will you provide support long term? How do I access the support?

Be sure to review the school's website and generate your list of questions prior to calling so you're ready for the conversation. It's important to identify what is important to you and find the guide dog school that feels like a good fit. It's like college, not every college is good for every student, so make sure you find the right one for you.

I have to feed them AND clean up after them?!?

Yes. Yes, you do. One of the most important things to think about when considering a guide dog is your willingness to take on a living being. You will be the one taking care of it 24/7. Not your mom, not your roommate, YOU! You can still live your life, party with your friends, but it also means you are responsible for their wellbeing.

Guide Dogs: Assembly Required

There is a variety of equipment needed when using a guide dog. You'll want to think it through, not only so you know how to use it but so that you can be prepared to care for and store it. Each guide dog has a collar, a leash, and a harness...

The use of the collar is two-fold. First, it's for identification purposes. You'll keep your dog's tags on the collar (and don't forget they need to always be up to date). The collar is also used as a communication tool, to reinforce the behaviors you want.

The leash is used when you want to guide your dog and general dog handling activities. An example is when you're taking your dog out for a potty break. You can use the leash when you're standing in the middle of an area where they can circle you to relieve themselves on command, or when you take them for a walk while using your cane.

The harness, which is typically made of leather and highly reflective materials, buckles under the dog's belly and sits on the back. There is a handle on the back of the harness that you will hold and it is through this that you're dog will communicate with you. You'll feel every tilt and roll of the dog, you can feel them veering in a certain direction or becoming distracted. The harness is provided by the guide dog school, as is the case with Guide Dogs for the Blind, and is customized to each specific dog.

What does the application and admissions process look like?

At Guide Dogs for the Blind, the admissions process takes about 8-10 weeks. You start by completing an application that collects information about your lifestyle and a minimum of 3 destination routes. These routes should be about a half mile of walking round trip and you want to make sure it's purposeful travel, you're leaving your home and you're going somewhere. This helps determine need, which is very subjective and different for everyone.

The current wait time for a Guide Dogs for the Blind dog is 12 months at the time of this publication, and is due to the pandemic. During normal times, the wait is 4-6 months.

Guide Dog Training 101

When training with your new guide dog, you'll be spending not only a lot of time with them, but also with your instructor. The training is intensive. Not overwhelming but very busy, and necessary. Your guide dog school may recommend that you NOT try to keep up with school while in training. The training can be physically demanding, as well as emotional, and it is life changing, so you really want to be able to allocate that time to your dog and your instruction to maximize it.


After your guide dog training is over, you're not left to fend for yourself. There is a support system available to you. At Guide Dogs for the Blind, you can refer to your lecture materials, call the support center, utilize the emergency after hours line, connect with a regionally based field service manager who is a guide dog instructor that visits you at home or on campus and helps you troubleshoot one on one. The more you reach out for support when you need it, the more likely you'll be successful with your guide dog.

If you only remember 3 things they should be - Navigate, Communicate, Advocate

Jake from Guide Dogs for the Blind recommends...

Navigate - Know where you're going, maintain your line of travel, stay situationally aware, and use your O&M skills to maximum effect.

Communicate - Communicate effectively and consistently with your dog and be open to receiving communication back from them. Understand what you're trying to tell you and take them seriously.

Advocate - Advocate for yourself and your dog whether it's to sit in a certain place or book a certain seat, etc. Do your best to keep them safe and avoid dangerous situations. Advocate for their needs as they can't speak for themselves.

When it comes to getting a guide dog, you don't decide you want one on a Monday and bring one home on Thursday. This is a process, and one you don't want to skimp on. Your dog will be by your side for a long time and you'll be supporting each other, so be sure this is something you've thought through thoroughly before jumping in.

Read More about Top Takeaways From Our Webinar - Cane to Canine: Guide Dog Readiness

Audiobooks for Kids: President's Day
Abraham Lincoln

February 11, 2021 by Jhara Navalo

In celebration of President's Day and long weekends, we're featuring three extraordinary audiobooks to get your child excited about reading. Click the "book trailer" to hear a passage narrated by our awesome voice artists, volunteers and authors who bring stories and information to life for the reader. We have also included a link to a list of additional recommended titles for each grade band. We know students will find these audiobooks to be very compelling reads.

I Am : George Washington

by Grace Norwich
Elementary: Grades 3-5 

George Washington


This inspiring tale of an American hero's journey to become the first President of the United States. Just in time for President's Day, children will be moved by Washington's revolutionary vision for our country. Celebrated war hero, George Washington used his progressive ideals to become the first President of the US, earning the nickname "Father of his country." Readers will be inspired by Washington's heroic journey to make America a better place.

Spy School Secret Service

by Stuart Gibbs
Middle School: Grades 5-7

Spy School Secret Service


Thirteen-year-old Ben Ripley has been called in on a solo mission--and the fate of the United States of America is on his shoulders alone. The Mission: Prevent a presidential assassination by infiltrating the White House, and locating the enemy operative. And when everything goes wrong, Ben must rely on his Spy School friends to save his reputation...but even friends can double-cross or be swayed to the enemy's side.

Watch Book Trailer

Malice Toward None
Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address

by Jack E. Levin; (Preface by) Mark R. Levin
High School: Grades 9+

Malice Toward None

As humble and faithful as the president who delivered it, Lincoln's landmark Second Inaugural Address still resonates today. The speech was an attempt to unite a fractured people in a time when our nation was at its most divided, nearing the end of the Civil War. As you navigate this beautiful book, you'll start to understand the significance and poetic power of this speech while you come closer to the man behind it.

Browse our Audiobooks and search for great president books that will work best for your student.

About Learning Ally

Learning Ally's reading accommodation and audiobooks will help you level the learning field for students with reading deficits. Use the library to ensure that all students receive equitable access to grade-level text on their intellectual level, as well as to popular books and genres that interest them. Learn more about membership or if you are a school representative sign up for a demo to experience the satisfaction of seeing your emerging and early learners, as well as older students, improve their foundational reading skills, learning confidence, and academic potential.

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Audiobooks to Celebrate Black History Month
Youngest Marcher

February 9, 2021 by Learning Ally

In celebration of black history month, we're featuring three extraordinary audiobooks to get your child excited about reading. Click the "book trailer" to hear a passage narrated by our awesome voice artists, volunteers and authors who bring stories and information to life for the reader. We have also included a link to a list of additional recommended titles for each grade band. We know students will find these audiobooks to be very compelling reads.

The Youngest Marcher: The Story of a Young Civil Rights Activist

by Cynthia Levinson
Elementary: Grades 0-3 

Young AA Girl Marching

In our first selection, early learners will meet Audrey Faye Hendricks, the youngest known child arrested for a civil rights protest in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. This picture book proves you're never too little to make a difference. Nine-year-old Audrey Faye Hendricks was confident, bold, and brave. Read this remarkable and inspiring story of one child's role in the Civil Rights Movement. Watch Book trailer

Other good reads: Black History Audiobooks Elementary

Rebound: Prequel To The Crossover

by Kwame Alexander
Middle School: Grades 5-7

Kwame Alexander Rebound

Middle school readers who loved the Crossover by Kwame Alexander will enjoy this prequel about Charlie Bell, the father of Josh and Jordan Bell, who grew up making his own moves on the basketball court. Go back in time to visit the childhood of Chuck "Da Man" Bell during one pivotal summer when he is sent to stay with his grandparents and discovers basketball and learns more about his family's past. Watch Book trailer

Other good reads: Black History Audiobooks Middle


by Yaa Gyasi
High School: Grades 9+

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

The story takes place in the eighteenth century and follows the parallel paths of two half-sisters born into different villages each unaware of the other. One will marry an Englishman and lead a life of comfort in the palatial rooms of the Cape Coast Castle. The other is captured in a raid, imprisoned in the same castle, and sold into slavery. Follow their descendants through eight generations: from the Gold Coast to the plantations of Mississippi, from the American Civil War to Jazz Age Harlem. Learn about the troubled legacy of slavery and the nightmare of captivity that is a part of our nation's history. Watch Book trailer

Other good reads: Black History Audiobooks High

About Learning Ally

Learning Ally's reading accommodation and audiobooks will help you level the learning field for students with reading deficits. Use the library to ensure that all students receive equitable access to grade-level text on their intellectual level, as well as to popular books and genres that interest them. Learn more about membership or if you are a school representative sign up for a demo to experience the satisfaction of seeing your emerging and early learners, as well as older students, improve their foundational reading skills, learning confidence, and academic potential.

Read More about Audiobooks to Celebrate Black History Month

Steps to a Successful Summer, Even In A Pandemic
Close up photo of Caitlin Mongillo. Caitlin has shoulder length light brown hair, is wearing a navy blue shirt, and is smiling at the camera.

January 29, 2021 by Katie Ottaggio

By: Caitlin Mongillo, CSP Mentor

CSP Mentor, Caitlin Mongillo, shares her advice for college students who are blind or have low vision as they get an early start on planning their summer activities during a pandemic.

I am not a fan of the winter. The bite of frost ever present in the New England air from November to March causes me nothing but displeasure. On this late January evening, my thoughts are turned, not unusually, towards summer. As a college student, yours should be, too. Of course, the summer will be an opportunity for you to kick back, relax, hang out with friends and hopefully have a nice reprieve from some of your academic responsibilities. But I would encourage you to think about your summer now, while January still clutches at over half the country with aggressive, frozen fingers. View it with excitement, but also view it as an opportunity to gain some life experience. The Covid-19 pandemic has made this year like no other, and it's very possible that many of us will have a much more virtual summer than we would like to have. However, we do think these tips, with some modifications, can still help you to enjoy summer safely this year, as well as out in the world next year. Here are some tips to consider early, as you think about how you might spend your summer.

Get a Job

One of the most rewarding ways to spend your summer is by getting a job. Not only does this put some cash in your pocket, but it's also a terrific way to build up a resume and show a future employer that you are motivated and didn't just spend three months of your life binge watching Netflix and sun tanning. Summer jobs can be great ways to garner experience in a field you are considering as a career choice in the future. If you're considering becoming a teacher, look around to see if there are camp counselor positions available in your area or if a nearby family needs a nanny. If you're interested in accounting, see if a small business owner has a need for someone to keep their books. If you want to work with animals, check out local boarding kennels or animal shelters to see if they're in need of dog walkers or technicians. Be creative in terms of the jobs you look for; even if you're stuck working as a receptionist or performing maintenance duties, look for ways to take on additional responsibilities and really own that temporary position.

I am not so idealistic that I do not realize there are challenges to summer employment. First of all, businesses or organizations may spend an entire year being completely staffed, and have no need for extra hands. Second, and maybe most important, it can be exceedingly difficult to convince an employer that your blindness or low vision will not hinder your work performance. I urge you to start looking for work early; this way you're not scrambling if you do get turned down from some of the opportunities you apply to. Employers love confidence, not arrogance. If you have thought out contingencies for how you will cope with your blindness or low vision on the job, this will help to put them at ease. Make a plan ahead of starting for what assistive technology you will need to be successful, what transportation you will utilize to get to work, and what supports from agencies, coworkers and family you will need to help you solve problems if/when they arise. Your university probably has a Career Center. Staff there may be able to assist in generating ideas for employment you may want to pursue. And, if you commute or live locally, they may even have a list of area employers looking for summer assistance. You can also reach out to counselors available to you through your state's Department of Rehabilitation Services. They should be able to assist you in locating a job, advocating for your needs with an employer, and may even pay you directly to work with a previously established business or organization. They will understand the unique needs you have as a worker with a visual disability. Most importantly, don't lose faith if you can't find a summer job, you do have other options.

Get an Internship

Internships can be paid or unpaid. They are a terrific way to get specific skills you will need at a job in the future. You should look for an internship in an area you are seriously considering pursuing as a future career. Internships are set up a bit differently from paid work. Your university may have an internship development office, or career counselors may be able to assist you in finding an internship. If not, speak with your academic advisor. This is most likely going to be a professor in your major field of study, so they will be able to give you ideas for types of businesses and organizations which match your area of interest. As we all know, the internet is a wealth of information. Utilize it to the best of your ability to find an internship. This may look like surfing job search websites, finding places you could see yourself working, and calling to make an appointment to speak with someone in person. Even if they are not hiring, you can ask if they are looking for an intern; you might be stuck making copies, doing the requisite coffee run or being the designated meeting note taker, but you will hopefully be doing these somewhat menial tasks in an environment you want to work in someday in the future. Use those lunch breaks and quiet moments to speak with staff, understand how they got their positions, and really familiarize yourself with the duties of someone in your future field. This will help you to understand if, years down the line, you can envision yourself doing the same work.


There are so many ways you can volunteer. You can shape your local, or even your global, community. If you are interested in volunteering internationally, there are many organizations who are glad to send college students to other countries. Sometimes this looks like building houses in South America, working at a field hospital in a remote part of Africa, or conducting experiments related to land conservation on an isolated beach somewhere beautiful. Often, volunteer organizations offer stipends or scholarships for students who want to participate in their mission. It's so important to do your research and look into these opportunities early. Nonprofit organizations will most likely have a limited number of scholarships or a capped amount of funding they can provide. The phrase "the early bird catches the worm" is definitely true for these types of international experiences.

Volunteering certainly doesn't mean you need to leave your country. There are plenty of avenues you can go down locally if you would like to volunteer over the summer. Does your town have a senior center or nursing home? Maybe they need assistants to push wheelchairs or assist with recreational activities. Does your county have a hospital? There might be opportunities to rock babies in the neonatal intensive care unit or to deliver food to patients rooms. If you're more the outdoors type, find out if parks in your area need cleaning or playground equipment needs repairing. Volunteer activities look terrific on a resume, and make you feel good about yourself. If you have time and talents, which you doubtless do, consider sharing them with the world for free. It will make a big difference for you and for others.

Take a Class

It can be taxing to balance academic responsibilities with a social life and living away from family. Some college students may find that they are only able to take three or four classes at once, and that's OK. This can mean that summer is an excellent time to grab a few extra credits in a more relaxed atmosphere. A lot of students will take a course at a local community college over summer break. Some colleges/universities will allow you to take a summer course for major credit at a separate institution, but many prefer that you only take a general education course or two over the summer. If you've been putting off that dreaded mathematics course because it just seems impossible given your already daunting workload, try saving it for the summer when you have nothing but time to devote to Pythagorus and his theorems. Check with your academic advisor or department head about the university's thoughts on summer classes and how one might just be able to fit into your vacant summer schedule.

Network, Network, Network

The final way you can make the most of your summer is probably the simplest and requires the least upfront effort. Network as much as you can. Attending a summer blindness convention? Great, go to as many meetings as possible and reach out to as many individuals as you can while you're there. Seek out professionals in your future field, and talk with them about your major, your dreams, and how someone who is blind/VI works successfully in that field. Talk with anyone you can about what you're studying and what direction you want your life to go in after graduation. You never know what resource or piece of advice they may offer. Better still, you never know who their brother or uncle or grandmother could be and how that person's influence could help you some day in the future. When someone finds out you go to college, they will doubtless ask you what you're studying and hat you want to be when you grow up. Though it may seem exhausting to deliver the same answers countless times, try to look at those moments as opportunities to learn and to grow. After all, you never know what positive things can come out of any interaction.

Unique Considerations for the Pandemic

Covid-19 has put a wrench in some of these ideas. You may not be able to travel outside of your house, let alone around the world, this summer. Furthermore, many internship and volunteer opportunities have either disappeared or shifted online. However, the bizarre "silver lining" of this pandemic is that sometimes you are not limited to working in your geographical region. You can live in California and have an internship on the East Coast without worrying about airfare or summer rental options. As you look for jobs or internships, figure out the course you want to take, or network, use the virtuality of everything to your advantage.

The future is scare. It is this big, uncertain  thing that looms over us. It can be especially terrifying if you're in college and don't know yet how you want the future to look. But, take a deep breath and try to envision it as something rich with possibilities and choices. One of the best ways to define how your future might be is to really use your time wisely, and that includes your summers. As you can see, a lot of the greatest opportunities to explore your future can happen over the summer. Many do require some extra effort or action steps be taken early on, so use your spring semester as a means to shape your summer into something you can be proud of. Soon, the temps will soar and the icy lemonade will be plentiful. I hope that, on those days, you find yourself engaged in some kind of activity which brings you joy and a bit more knowledge about just how bright your future will be.

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