The summer before my first year of high school, my dad and I toured a large Virginia public university, and thought we came up with smart questions to ask before choosing a college. When we came back to visit four years later, we realized that the school was the absolute worst fit for me, and the disability services coordinator told me not to even bother applying because they didn’t know how to handle a student with low vision.
This came as a shock to us, since it was such a large school that was very well respected, but overall I’m thankful for the experience because it taught me how important it is to ask questions before choosing a college. Here are ten important questions to ask before choosing a college, and questions to ask colleges before applying.
Surprisingly, it isn’t always guaranteed for all four years, or even the first year. Since I have low vision, I do not drive and I wanted to avoid having to rely on public transportation in order to get to campus as much as possible. However, some colleges may have their own transportation services for students living in graduate housing or surrounding apartment buildings, which can be a great option for students who want to live close to campus.
At one school I visited, the answer was zero, and they admitted that they were not sure how to accommodate a student with vision loss in my prospective major (which at the time was computer science). Before applying to the college that I ended up attending, I met with the low vision/blindness coordinator and they went over several of the accommodations options that would be available to me as a student with low vision, and I felt much more confident that I would be able to be successful at that college.
One school asked me what assistive technology was and if I would need it as a student with vision impairment. That was a huge warning sign for me that the school wouldn’t be a good fit, because I use assistive technology in a lot of different ways.
Some of the assistive technology resources at my current college include:
While it wasn’t a college campus, I remember I was at an informational interview for working at a company after graduation, and I frequently had to walk across the company campus and cross busy intersections – I almost got hit by a car several times in the process as well. When I mentioned this to my recruiter, they said that part of my job would involve regularly walking to all of these buildings and that I would just have to trust that I wouldn’t be hit by a car. I was not a fan of this answer at all.
One of the important questions that students with vision loss should ask when choosing a college is about whether the buildings are easy to get to – can students easily locate the main campus buildings, or will they have to spend a long period of time walking uphill or through an underground tunnel (which was the case at one college I visited). At my college, I can realistically get from one end of campus to the other in about 30 minutes, and most of my classes are concentrated in three buildings near my dorm.
Do you need to have a dorm with an elevator? What about a single room or a dorm with air conditioning? It’s important to figure out disability accommodations for housing early on and to ensure that this school would be able to provide the needed disability accommodations. If the school discriminates against a student based on their disability when it comes to housing, the state Protection and Advocacy organization can support the student and help them get the housing they need- in Virginia, that group is the Disability Law Center of Virginia.
One of the funny stories from my first year of college takes place during the second semester when I decided to take a mythology class to satisfy the literature requirement for my major. On the first day of class, my professor announced that they believed in a “pencil and paper” approach to learning and that they would ban all technology from the classroom. I pulled up the class registration portal, dropped the class, and walked out of the classroom, choosing to register for a class on disability in literature instead.
While this was an easy issue to solve at my college that had hundreds of class options available, this would have been more difficult at a school that did not allow students to bring technology to class or to use the internet. I later learned that schools that tout their “pencil and paper” approach to learning often don’t invest in the infrastructure needed for strong internet or technology resources.
I always check websites like RateMyProfessor to find out what professors are the best at following disability accommodations and have found that majors that have had multiple students with vision loss tend to be really awesome at following accommodations, or recommending professors that will ensure my Disability Services file is followed. While I am technically the first person in my major to have low vision, other low vision students have taken classes within my department with fantastic results.
Is the local grocery store an Aira access location that can help people get their groceries? Are there assistive technology resources at the local library? Does the mall have a place where glasses can get repaired? While staff members may not know the answers to all of these questions, they are helpful to research ahead of time so that students can know what resources are available to them.
When I talked to the Disability Services coordinator, I asked them this question as their college was my first choice and I wanted to make sure that I would get in. Some of the ideas that they gave me to make my application stand out included:
I’m happy to say that doing all of these things worked, and I was accepted to my dream school!
It’s easy to force yourself to overlook flaws in a college or to settle for something that is “just okay.” However, I remember looking at the two other colleges I applied for and noticed they were missing things like the major I was most excited about, assistive technology resources, and a Disability Services office that would take proactive steps to ensure accommodations are followed. Honestly, neither of those colleges were a good fit for me, and while my college is not perfect, I have many more opportunities here than I would have had anywhere else.
By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes, www.veroniiiica.com
Updated October 2023; original post published June 2017.
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