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Coronavirus & Blind/Visually Impaired College Students - Navigating a New Landscape Together

Categories: Blind or Visually Impaired, Students

By: Megan Dausch, College Success Program Mentor

Across the globe, students are being asked to engage in online learning due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Anxiety abounds, not only about the Coronavirus, but about how, as a BVI student, you will engage in equal learning alongside your peers. Here are some tips to consider as we all navigate this new landscape together. While everyone's experience will be different, we hope that you may find some of these tips useful.

Find Out How the Class Will be Run
When learning remotely, it is important to know how the class will be conducted. Will the class be conducted synchronously or asynchronously? A class that is synchronous is one in which all students are logged on to a platform at the same time, and discussion and engagement occurs in real-time, while an asynchronous course can be taken at any time. An asynchronous course often consists of lectures that you need to listen to and discussion forum in which you need to participate.

Preview the Learning Environment
If you've never experienced the Learning Management System or conference platform your professor will be using to provide instruction before, preview it as early as you can. If your professor is using Zoom, for example, and you're not familiar with that platform, see if a friend or family member can start a Zoom call with you so you can explore the interface in a way that is less stressful. Practice using the features of your school's platform, such as raising your hand, using the chat or muting your audio.

Try Googling the name of the platform you will use and the term Accessibility. For example, "Zoom accessibility," "Blackboard accessibility," or "Canvas accessibility." Many companies have information about the best screen-reader and browser to use with their platform and tips that may help you navigate.

Be Aware of Your Video and Audio
If you are participating in synchronous learning, your sighted professors and classmates may use video to see one another. It is important to be aware of whether your video is on or off; you may wish to test this prior to taking your first online class. If you want your video on, you might wish to practice holding your device so that others can see you well. It is very easy to inadvertently show the ceiling of your home or your feet instead of your face if you're not aware of how to position your camera. When I need to use video for a conference, I find it easier to log in on a computer so I don't need to hold my iPhone. You also may wish to use a stand or find something you can prop your phone against when using it for video calls.

Similarly, be aware of your audio background, and be sure you know how to access your mute button when you need it. Even if you aren't talking, muting yourself can be helpful to the background noise of the class. And remember, even if you are muted, you should try to find as quiet of a location as possible. While some background noise just can't be helped and everyone is a little more flexible than usual, out of respect for the class, do what you can to minimize noise.

Ask Questions and Reach Out
Use the power of your networks; if you're on email lists for blind students, have a mentor through the College Success Program, or are a part of any assistive technology groups, ask them what their experiences have been with the platforms you're using. Keep in mind that technology is always evolving, and your experience may be different from another person's experience who used the platform last year. Reach out to your DSO to see if they can provide you with any tips or additional support. If you're struggling, consider a remote session with a trusted person to get support. You can use a solution like JAWS Tandem or Team Viewer to allow a trusted person to log-in to your computer remotely and work together to solve a problem.

Keep a Schedule as Best as You Can
It might be tempting to sleep late and binge-watch Netflix. After all, you don't have classes to attend and extra-curricular activities to participate in. But keeping a schedule will help you build a routine and stay on track when all of your classes are virtual. It will also make returning to school and daily life a little bit easier.

Communicate and Advocate
If you're having trouble accessing a class, no one will now unless you speak up. Contact your DSO; discuss the situation with your professor. If a document that has been posted is not accessible, or you're having trouble submitting a document electronically, you need to let your professor and the DSP know this so you can all work together to come up with an accessible path that will work for you. If a professor is using a screen-share that you cannot access, remember to advocate for yourself just like you would need to if a professor were showing a PowerPoint face-to-face that you could not access. Having the information that the professor is sharing ahead of time will make a tremendous difference in your ability to follow the information as it is presented.

Create a Study Group
If you can, contact a peer or two to see if they would be interested in forming a virtual study group. This will not only give you the opportunity to discuss course material in a small group that may help crystalize what you have learned, but also may help you to feel more comfortable using the technology your professor is using. A study group can be a safe space to experiment with the technology, such as trying out the chat feature or the raise a hand feature on the platform.

Use All Available Tools
Many meeting platforms and learning management systems have multiple methods for access. For example, you can use Zoom on a Mac, a PC, and Android or an iPhone. If you have more than one device, experiment with the pieces of technology you have available to you. Perhaps you are more comfortable accessing your college's virtual learning system on iOS for joining meetings, but you prefer to submit assignments to Blackboard or Canvas using your Mac. Give yourself the space to explore and experiment with all of the devices you have to see which combination works best for you.

Consider the Positives
While jumping in to online learning unexpectedly may feel daunting, there are certainly some positive takeaways. Participating in an online class now may give you a taste of whether you enjoy learning remotely. However, do consider that many online classes during this era have not been optimized for online learning due to the need for speedy conversion of in-person classes to online classes. You will also have the opportunity to stretch your technology muscles and learn how to work with new tools. You will likely encounter accessibility challenges, but you will also find that you experience many successes and the opportunity to strengthen your problem-solving skills by finding workarounds. You will have the chance to advocate, collaborate and interact in new ways. Furthermore, many of the tools you are using in online classes will help you when you transition to the workforce, as remote meetings are commonplace in many fields.

Be Kind to Yourself and Those Around You
Right now, we are all navigating an unknown world together. We are all exploring what it means to learn and engage virtually. Realizing that you are not alone as you traverse these unknown valleys can be calming during this challenging time. Remember to celebrate your small accomplishments; be proud of yourself for logging into a meeting, for using the chat system, for finding a document on Canvas and for connecting with your peers and your professors. At the same time, realize that your professors and DSO are also navigating these unchartered waters with you. They might not have all of the answers you seek right away, and they may feel just as overwhelmed as you feel with this transition. There will be bumps along the road for everyone.

While learning online might feel like you are far away from your support system, know that you are not alone. Use the technology to stay in contact with your support system, ask for help when you need it, and remember, even if we are physically alone, we're all in this together.