Equal access is a cornerstone of education. I am a computational organic chemist nearly finished with Ph.D. research. Throughout my tenure as an undergraduate and graduate student, I have participated in incredible access and in no access at all. Access in its purist form in the higher education setting is achieved when every student in a classroom, disabled or not, feels that he or she receives the same educational opportunity as all other students. If a video is shown in class that is particularly visual, for instance, the instructor should give the student who is blind or visually impaired access to the material presented in that video. Regardless of how access is achieved, it should happen in a method that works for both of them.
Lack of access occurs when faculty or staff do not make reasonable accommodations so that a student can participate fully in the classroom experience. For example, if a blind student approaches a general chemistry instructor, eager to enroll in his course, the instructor should not simply tell her that the course is too visual and, therefore, impractical for her. Since barriers to access often occur due to ignorance or lack of education, our job as blind and visually impaired students is to educate our instructors on what we really can do. The same chemistry instructor who tells a blind student that his course would be impossible for her might not know about safe and easy laboratory techniques which can make any general chemistry laboratory accessible. Therefore, we must work with instructors, explain what works and what does not, and advocate strongly for ourselves. Most instructors love learning what works and are extremely willing to provide you with what you need.
Lecture settings are perhaps the easiest places for you to lose focus and for instructors to forget you are in their class. I try to meet with my instructors before the first day of class if possible; if it’s not possible to meet ahead of time, I’ll sometimes meet with them after the first lecture to tell them things that we may consider obvious. I explain to them up front that I am blind and cannot see the board. Using humor to loosen things up is a great idea. I ease their worry by informing them that I will sit near the front of the classroom and be very vocal.
The key to success and full access in a lecture setting is not being afraid to ask questions and, at times, interrupting the lecture to tactfully inform the instructor that he or she is not being accessible to you. In science and math classes, which are the majority of what I took in college, instructors present a lot of the material in a visual way. Most commonly, they write on the board and forget to say what they are writing. By sitting near the front, even in a large lecture setting, I can remind instructors when they are not saying what they are writing. One great method I use to show instructors how inaccessible they are being is to record a bit of their lecture and then privately play it back for them. They hear themselves saying things like “This over here goes with this, that goes with this arrow here, and then we fit these together to get the answer…” Instructors immediately realize that this method of teaching doesn’t work for blind students and is probably less effective for the entire class. When they adjust accordingly, their instruction to the entire class improves. Finally, whenever I sit near an assistant or human notetaker, nine times out of ten, the instructor will look at that assistant and ask if the concept “makes sense to him or her” rather than asking me. People don’t mean to be rude; it is just easier for them to ask someone with whom they can make eye contact rather than the BVI student. As a result, I greatly prefer going to all lectures independently, and if I do bring an assistant, I make sure to sit away from him or her. If you command your own presence and there is nobody there for the instructor to fall back on, he or she will treat you like an actual student and respect your explanation of what you need. As the student, you need to advocate for yourself and make very clear what does and does not work for you. Most instructors will be glad to work with you and accommodate you to the best of their abilities.
Group work is an area in which we can sometimes feel like we are not receiving full access to the project or material. My most successful strategy when working in groups is to know the material better than the other group members. I have found that most of the groups I’m in like to help me whenever they can as long as I have something meaningful to contribute. Most students appreciate when I can provide the necessary content knowledge to a project and they can fill in the gaps. This makes groups actually excited to work with me rather than afraid of my blindness. I have found that group study sessions are one of the most effective ways for me to solidify course material, because teaching makes me a better learner. Other students love studying with me and if I need assistance understanding a particularly visual concept, they are happy to help. If you are competent with the material and you put extra time into understanding it beforehand, group work should come fairly easily.
Of course, we have all had the group situations in which people just don’t understand us. When we meet, they work on a group document or presentation without telling us what they are doing. Without access to the project, we can’t communicate, and we lose access to both content and to important decisions which should not be made without us. It is best to try to resolve these situations by addressing your group members about what you need from the group. If this doesn’t work, change groups and explain that you need to do this to receive full access to the material.
Access does not come naturally in the science laboratory setting. Most lab instructors and lab managers need to understand our abilities before they learn that they can provide access in the laboratory space. In most science labs, I needed to find an assistant who wouldn’t do the work for me but who would serve as my eyes during an experiment. Finding the right assistant is extremely important. You must make the extra time and effort to find the best assistant you can. Meeting with lab assistants ahead of time is absolutely indispensable to full access. I always met with assistants and read through the entire lab procedure and background information for several hours prior to each lab session. This made it much easier for both of us to ensure that I had full access to the lab material.
By showing the instructor that I was prepared with an assistant and that I knew the material, I demonstrated that I was in control of the situation, and the instructor could trust me not to kill myself in his or her lab. I also found that when I asked questions and spoke up confidently while in the lab space, instructors realized my dedication and became extremely willing to show me things and make any experiment fully accessible. Sometimes I would spend nearly half a lab period asking questions to ensure that I completely understood the lab setup before beginning the experiment. Having a mutually respectful relationship with lab managers, instructors, and your assistant should ensure full access in the laboratory setting.
Access means advocacy. The most important way to gain full access is to advocate for yourself. This was certainly difficult for me at first, and it will likely be difficult for you as you begin college. Remember that you come from the high school setting where a teacher of students with visual impairments generally advocates on your behalf. Thus your job in college is to practice explaining your needs until you become your own best advocate. If your instructors and classmates know you and respect you, you will have an easier time making solid connections with friends in class and instructors will not be afraid to have you in class. Much of a lack of access comes from lack of knowledge about how to treat blind students. Your job is to gain complete access by kindly telling people what you need and showing them through example that you are a normal student who happens to be blind or visually impaired. If you maintain regular dialog with everyone involved, access should come easily. Go to office hours, clarify unclear concepts after class, and stay in close contact with instructors, especially those who struggle with giving you full access. Never be shy. Be bold and be vocal about what you need and accessibility should follow. Always maintain high expectations of your instructors and of yourself.