Visually Impaired Students and Online College

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Earning a college degree while living with significant visual impairment or blindness can add challenges to the already difficult experience of navigating your higher education. This can make the prospect of attending college especially intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Online college provides plenty of flexible options to earn your degree from your own home, on your own schedule, and structured around your unique needs.

Online degree programs allow you to earn an education on your terms, utilizing assistive technology and college-level learning accommodations to maximize your potential. No matter your level of visual impairment, there are options and support services that are right for you.

Read on for a look at the wide array of accommodations and assistive technologies that can help you earn an online degree and take the next step forward in your life.

In addition to the resources identified below, there are plenty of advocacy groups
both general and condition specific
for individuals with disabilities. If you are seeking direct support or communication engagement, check out our index of Disability Resources and Advocacy Groups.

Want to know more about how disability legislation can shape your college experience? Check out our resource on Key Legislation Impacting Students with Disabilities.

Accommodations

Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, disability accommodations have become more and more commonplace. These aren’t just for students on campus. Online colleges also provide a full selection of accommodations and benefits:

1. Disability Resource Center

When it comes to getting the accommodations you need, a school’s disability resource center should be the first place you go. Here, you can work with counselors to identify your learning disability and determine what accommodations you’ll need. Disability counselors work with you to help you meet your specific needs, connect you with other groups and services on campus, and provide advocacy. Counselors can also help you seek out and apply for scholarships and funding to aid in your education, or in acquiring assistive technology. Some schools, but not all, offer some assistive technology, which may be provided directly within the resource center. The disability resource center is also the starting point if you need to report a grievance concerning discriminatory or exclusionary practices.

2. Additional Time

Additional time is a common accommodation that can apply equally to online and on-campus students with disabilities. For a variety of reasons, the standard time limits on essays and exams can place undue stress on students with disabilities, especially if you are visually impaired and must rely on assistive technology. With a documented request from the campus disability resource center, many professors are happy to accommodate students with a reasonably-prescribed sum of extra time.

3. Alternative Completion Options

Professors and departments must allow you to complete assignments and exams through alternative completion options, which may include assistive technology designed to accommodate your visual impairment. It’s important to consider the compatibility of your assistive technology with the applications used by your college or course. Be sure that your professor is aware of any compatibility challenges you might have and is prepared to make special accommodations to help you navigate these challenges. This may include an alternative method of completing and submitting your assignments and exams, one that accounts both for your visual impairment and the assistive technology you might be required to use.

4. Online Library Services

Though not strictly “disability accommodations,” online library services are extremely useful to everyone, and for disabled students in particular. Unfortunately, many students are unaware of these resources. Researching can be tricky, but research librarians can help through one-on-one research consultations, discussing your project with you, leading you to the right databases, and aiding you in getting the most out of search techniques and filters. Moreover, most libraries provide digital document delivery, which means that any document that you need (and they have in the catalog) can be scanned and delivered to you as a PDF, which can be super useful when combined with some of the assistive technology listed below. Contact your school’s library for more details.

5. Online Tutoring Services

Tutoring services are also useful and available to everyone, but may fly under the radar as a category of physical learning accommodation. This is especially useful if learning disabilities make it difficult to keep up with the pace, instructional approach, or material in your course. A tutor can help you fill in the gaps. Tutors come in a variety of forms, and are available in every subject. Moreover, many colleges (especially those that have a high number of online programs) offer online tutoring services through chat or live-video platforms. If you feel like you need any kind of help wrapping your head around a subject, don’t hesitate to contact a tutor. Of particular value are online writing centers, in which writing tutors work one-on-one with you at all stages of the writing process. You can’t get through college without writing papers, but you don’t need to do it alone.

Assistive Technology

The greatest predictor of success in college isn’t intelligence or talent; it’s your ability to get things done. While traditional college comes with a certain degree of in-person accountability and support, online college may leave you feeling adrift. Fortunately there is plenty of assistive technology available to help you overcome obstacles and adversities imposed by your visual challenges. The right technology can be critical to studying, staying on track, and earning your degree. The following list assumes you already have access to more fundamental forms of assistance that meet you specific needs.

1. Computer Assistance

If you’re earning a degree online, completing your studies depends on using a computer. For a variety of reasons, using computers can be difficult for people with disabilities, visual impairments included. The following tools are designed to make using a computer simpler for people with visual impairments.

  • Big Keys Keyboards
    Some products are exactly as advertised. Big Keys specializes in making computer keyboards with extra-large keys, designed to meet the needs of those with low vision. The keyboards come in a variety of styles, included QWERTY and ABC layouts, and with colored or black and white keys.
  • Brailliant Braille Displays
    Available in a variety of character display sizes, Brailliant Braille Displays are some of the most popular refreshable braille displays on the market. The Brailliant devices allow blind users to confidently navigate text documents and the web, translating digital text to braille characters in real-time.
  • Braille keyboards
    A simple solution for computer users with total vision loss, braille keyboards come in standard QWERTY configurations and feature keys with raised braille dots.
  • Braille keyboard stickers
    Providing a quick and inexpensive solution, braille keyboard stickers can be easily overlaid on any standard computer keyboard to make the keys accessible to users through embossed braille dots.
  • JAWS
    Compatible with Windows operating systems, JAWS is a majorly popular screen reader software that includes OCR conversion, Skim Reading, Text Analyzer, and other useful features.
  • NVDA Screen Reader
    A totally free screen reader software for people with visual impairments, NVDA (Non-Visual Desktop Access) interprets and reads digital text on Windows systems through a synthetic voice or through an accompanying braille display device. The software is also open-source, allowing developers and programmers to build on it for niche applications.
  • VoiceOver
    If you have an Apple device, you already have VoiceOver and may not even know about it. VoiceOver is a feature of Apple iOS devices that uses a synthesized voice (think Siri) to describe what is happening on the device, and to guide the user in making selections and performing functions.
  • Zoomtext
    Made by Freedom Scientific, Zoomtext is a magnifier and screen reader software. It comes in a stand-alone version, as well as a “Fusion” package that combines with JAWS.

2. Math Assistance

Everyone who goes to college has to complete some amount of mathematics credits. Fortunately, there are a variety of assistance tools that can help you navigate your math courses. Some of these are tools are specific to students with visual impairment while others are geared toward more general disability challenges.

  • MathTalk
    MathTalk includes several useful programs for students with visual impairment, including speech-to-text software, which can allow students to learn mathematical concepts and complete assignments entirely through speech and audio functions.
  • Talking calculators
    Simple but effective, talking calculators announce numbers, answers, and functions as the user completes equations. Talking calculators are produced by multiple companies, each with their own variations designed to offer unique, specialized assistance, including some with large-print or braille-embossed keys.

3. Productivity and Organization Tools

Staying organized and productive can be tricky, especially in the high-speed world of smart phones, social media, and streaming services. If you have trouble making effective plans and staying on task, there are lots of tools available to maximize your productivity and organization, some of which are made specifically for those with visual impairments. Below are a few.

  • Edison
    Online college comes with lots and lots of communication via email. Edison is an email assistant app for Apple devices that helps you keep your inbox from overflowing.
  • Finish (iOS)
    Available for iPhones, Finish is a productivity app that helps you manage to-do lists, calendars, and goals to guarantee that you get things done.
  • NantMobile Money Reader
    Even if you are paying all of your school expenses online, you still need to deal with cash every once in a while. The NantMobile Money Reader (for Apple iOS devices) allows users to photograph cash, which in turn can be recognized and named aloud by the app.
  • Say it & Mail it Pro
    Available for Apple devices, Say it & Mail it Pro allows you to manage, dictate, and send emails all through vocal commands.

4. Reading Assistance

At the core of any college education is loads and loads of reading. However, if you are visually impaired, this can pose a challenge. Acquiring and reading the texts you need isn’t as simple as just going to the library. Fortunately, there is no shortage of assistive technology that can make reading with visual impairment a simple task.

  • Audible
    Through monthly subscription, Audible provides access to the largest selection of audio books anywhere (thanks to Amazon), all accessible by your computer or mobile devices.
  • ClaroRead
    Functioning as both reading and writing assistance, ClaroRead can read a wide array of digital documents (including OCR) with high-quality, human-sounding speech. With multiple options for playback, ClaroRead makes text of all varieties more accessible.
  • Eye-Pal Vision
    More than a desktop magnification device, the Eye-Pal Vision scans and converts printed text into large-print, high contrast digital text, and also reads the text aloud.
  • Handheld Magnifiers
    Just because they aren’t high-tech doesn’t mean they aren’t useful. Handheld magnifiers come in a wide range of sizes and levels of magnification, with or without lighting, and provide an easy solution for reading on the go for people with low vision.
  • NaturalReader
    With several programs available, NaturalReader provides text-to-speech software that can handle a wide array of document formats, including OCR and web documents.
  • Online OCR
    OCR (optical character recognition) technology can be super helpful when combined with text-to-speech software. Online OCR allows you to convert image PDFs to OCR for free.
  • Prodigi Duo Electronic Magnifier
    With options for at-home desktop use, as well as for magnifying on the go, the Prodigi Duo Electronic Magnifier provides high-quality digital magnification and text-to-speech functions.
  • vBookz PDF Voice Reader
    If you can get it in a PDF, vBookz PDF Voice Reader can read it to you. vBookz makes several other useful apps, including an OCR scanner, making virtually all text accessible in a text-to-speech format.
  • Voice Dream Reader
    Available for Apple and Android devices, the Voice Dream Reader converts a wide range of document types into audio, so users may listen to and follow along with text.
  • Wizcom Tech Reading Pen
    Useful for reading on the go, the Wizcom Tech Reading Pen allows users to scan text (in the same motion as one would use a highlighter) and have the text read aloud, as well as look up specific words in its dictionary.

5. Speech Recognition Software

Speech recognition software can be useful for everybody, but is especially valuable for students with visual impairment. Having the option to dictate writing to your computer can make a huge difference for those with limited vision or total vision loss. Below are some useful software options.

  • Apple Dictation
    If you are an Apple user, you already have this, even if you don’t know about it. All iOS devices come with some array of dictation options, with newer devices offering more and better features. The process for turning Apple Dictation on can be different for each device.
  • Dragon NaturallySpeaking
    Useful for everybody, Dragon NaturallySpeaking follows speech commands to allow you to operate your computer. If you have trouble sitting still and focusing on a computer screen, or difficulty reading computer text, you can dictate an entire paper with this software. Moreover, you can program specific commands that allow you to navigate your computer hands-free. This is the ultimate tool for hands-free workflow.
  • Google Docs Voice Typing
    Google Docs, Google’s free word processing software, includes a dictation function, which can be useful for writing papers. It also comes with some voice commands. All you need is a Gmail account to access it, which is free too.
  • Windows Speech Recognition
    Windows devices offer speech recognition functions that can allow you to dictate writing and navigate your computer hands free. However, Windows Speech Recognition is not as advanced or functional as the other speech recognition software options on this list.

6. Study Assistance

If you don’t study, you aren’t going to pass your exams. Studying, however, can pose practical challenges for students with visual impairments. The following tools are designed to help you find a study method that is both productive and takes into account your need visual limitations.

  • BrailleNote Touch Notetaker
    One of the most advanced devices on the market, the BrailleNote Touch uses a responsive touchscreen that allows for easy, accurate, and on-the-go braille note taking. The Braillenote Touch comes in two sizes.
  • BrailleSense U2
    A powerful digital braille note taker, the BrailleSense U2 features a 32 cell braille display, an LED diplay, and a Perkins-style keyboard for braille note taking.
  • Dolphin SuperNova Magnifier
    Capable of magnifying digital text and images up to 64 times, the Dolphin Supernova Magnifier is a screen magnifier that lives up to its name. It can be downloaded, or purchased as a USB stick that can be used on any Windows device.
  • Livescribe Echo Smartpen
    Extra useful for keeping notes, this smartpen records writing and audio and transfers all of it to your computer. Its features can help you study by recording and organizing your in-class notes and rearrange them in a way that is easier for you to work with while studying.
  • MindNode
    With software for all operating systems, MindNode offers note taking and study assistance through a visual, intuitive interface. The program allows students to organize information in a format that better suits their needs.
  • SoundNote (iOS)
    Available for Apple devices, SoundNote is a notetaking app that allows you to type, draw, and create audio recordings while taking notes.

7. Writing Assistance

Writing claims a spot of major importance in earning a degree. You don’t have to like it, but you need to be able to do it. Below are some tools that can help.

  • Co:Writer
    Utilizing advanced predictive-text technology, Co:Writer helps you draft, revise, and edit by suggesting words and changes based on your writing.
  • Draft:Builder
    Another tool from Don Johnston, Draft:Builder helps you through the writing process with handy outlining, note-taking, and draft-building tools.
  • Ghotit Real Writer and Reader
    Ghotit Real Writer and Reader provides a full array of writing assistance functions, including dictation, spelling and grammar assistance, and an integrated dictionary.
  • goQ Software
    Offering a variety of programs, including wordQ and speakQ, goQ Software provides students with writing assistance in the form of speech-to-text and predictive text technology.
  • Grammarly
    Free and useful for anybody, Grammarly offers spelling and grammar editing assistance in the form of a Google Chrome app.
  • Voice Dream Writer
    Available for Apple devices, Voice Dream Writer aids in the writing process through proofreading functions, as well as reading text out loud.

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