By: Annie Tulkin, Director, Accessible College
All students have a lot to consider when they are exploring life after high school, and colleges present a range of new questions and concerns. Students may wonder about everything from, “how much will it cost?” to “what’s the political culture like on campus?” and so many things in between. For students who are blind or visually impaired (VI), there are even more factors to take into account. For many students, college might be the first time that they are living independently, away from home. For others, managing the life of a “day student” raises other considerations. In order to make sure that you, the student, are looking at this process holistically by considering all parts of the college experience, we have outlined some ideas to assist you as a student with blindness/VI. We hope this helps to guide your questions and concerns regarding college accommodations, so that you can feel supported and successful, in and out of the classroom.
Many students with disabilities don’t know this, but accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) apply to many aspects of life on a college campus, not only to the classroom environment.
ADA accommodations apply to housing, dining, recreation, campus programs and activities.
As you investigate different college options, it’s important to learn about considerations for making housing and dining more accessible. You can also learn about ways that you can get information about the disability culture on campus. This article explores some foundational ideas that will help you understand your rights and responsibilities, and how they change once you graduate from high school.
If you intend to live on campus, think about your current daily routine. Once you go to college, you will most likely be living in a residence hall (dormitory) without the assistance of your family. Start to identify skills that you may need to work on in order to live independently. Here are some questions to help guide your process.
Think through these questions, and start to develop strategies with your TVI and family, to make a plan to master these skills prior to living on campus. All of these pieces are essential to independent living both in college, and in adulthood.
It’s important to note that most colleges do not offer Orientation and Mobility (O&M) training for blind/VI students. If you need O&M, ask the Disability Services Office (DSO) — the office in charge of providing accommodations for college students with disabilities — if they will provide it. If not, you may need to seek out an O&M provider in the community to provide that training to you, possibly through the state commission for the blind of the state that your college is in. Note: O&M may be limited to teaching you specific routes each semester but not additional skills, such as independent travel, street crossings, among other things.
Residence halls look different at every college. If you are going on a campus tour, reach out to the Housing department, sometimes called the Residential Living or Residential Life Department, and the DSO to ask about touring a typical first year residence hall. This can help you get a sense of what it might be like to live there. Additionally, you might want to request accommodations through the DSO to support your experience living on campus. Finally, some colleges require that you live on campus for a certain period of time, such as freshman year, or all four years. You can find these requirements on the college website. Note: As a result of the pandemic, tours of residence halls may be limited or not available.
Here are examples of accommodations that some blind/VI students may want to request:
There may be other needs that you have related to your living situation. Be sure to write down your questions and raise them with the housing department and the DSO.
Eating is essential! Most colleges have at least one dining hall and larger colleges have many! Students may also have other options around campus, where they can get food through a meal plan subscription or by using cash or credit card. When you live on a college campus, you will likely be eating most of your meals in the dining hall. The following accommodations may help you know what is being served and provide you with support in selecting food. You can work with the DSO and dining services to request:
If there are other supports that you will need in order to acquire meals or access the dining halls on campus, ask the DSO.
Connecting with the DSO during a campus tour, or setting up a time to speak with a DSO administrator is a great way to learn more about the types of accommodations that the specific college may offer to blind/VI students. Be sure to ask them if they can connect you with current students who are blind or visually impaired. This way, you can hear the perspective of students who have navigated this territory.
Some colleges have clubs for students with disabilities, and currently at least 8 universities have Disability Cultural Centers.
These spaces can provide students with disabilities with a place to connect, learn, and share information. If you are interested in attending a college with a vibrant disability community, be sure to research and ask questions!
It’s important to explore housing and dining accommodations as part of your college search process. When you live on campus, the first friends you make might be the people who live on your floor, or the person who stands behind you in line at the dining hall. Asking the right questions and thinking through your needs can help set you up for an easier transition. Try to keep in mind that some colleges may never have worked with a blind/visually impaired student before, so they may not be thinking about all the areas on campus where you may need support. That means it’s even more critical that you know your needs and are comfortable expressing and defining them clearly.