Before your college tour: make a To Do list

How students who are blind or visually impaired can make sure their college tour is accessible.

Part of the College Readiness Resource Center, by College Success @ Perkins

By: Annie Tulkin, MS, Founder/Director, Accessible College

Visiting colleges can be a powerful opportunity to learn about the differences between high school and college. Visiting can help your students consider the fit and feel for different types of colleges, as well. For many students, the process of planning for a college tour is as simple as selecting the college and signing up for the in-person tour. However, for students who are blind or visually impaired, there may be a few more steps that need to be taken in order to ensure that the tour is accessible. For more information on how to begin a college search, see this article that introduces the many things to consider.

Start here

Most tours start with the college’s Admissions Office. In order to sign up to go on a tour, students will need to register online or call the college’s Admissions Office. It’s important to know that most of the tour guides are current students, so, while the guides may be able to answer general questions about the college, they likely won’t be able to answer specific, disability related questions.  

Benefits of virtual tours

Your student might also be able to engage in virtual college tours, which gained a lot of popularity in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. They typically provide general information (number of students, types of majors, etc.) as well as feature a campus tour via video, where the user can click on different buildings and areas of campus to learn more. While virtual tours may be technically accessible for screen readers, most lack the types of descriptions and information that may help students get a sense of the feel of a campus. Students might want to pair their virtual tour with a visit to the campus to ensure that they get the full picture before enrolling in a college.

Inform before arriving

Prior to going on an in-person tour, students should be proactive in letting the Admissions Office know what their needs are in advance. You can follow these steps to request accommodations for the tour, and we encourage your student to take the lead in arranging these tours. We have outlined some tips to help your student get prepared for this process.  This includes requesting accommodations before the tour, and some considerations to keep in mind while on the tour.

Things to make a college tour valuable

Here are some considerations to improve your tour and experience. 

  1. Accessible Materials. Most in-person tours have printed materials which are distributed before or after a tour.  Sometimes, a video is shown prior to the tour. Students can request:
  1. Tour Accessibility. Generally, tours of the campus are walking tours. Some schools offer golf cart tours. Depending on the campus, the terrain may be varied. Consider the things that the student typically needs in new environments (enhanced descriptions of surroundings, a parent or friend to accompany them, etc.). Questions to ask the admissions department: 

Tours are meant to give students a sense of the campus layout and culture, and to provide highlights of what that specific college has to offer. Students who are blind or visually impaired are considering those pieces, and much more!

During the tour

For example, if the student chooses to live on campus, they will be spending a lot of time on campus and in the residence halls, and will want to be sure that they are comfortable navigating the space independently. In some cases, just touring a residence hall can help a student understand the complexity of navigating this new space independently.

Here are some other considerations:

  1. Try to get a sense of the space between key landmarks — the dining hall, residence halls, library — on campus. Some small campuses are only a few acres, while other large schools can cover up to 400 acres of space! 
  2. Ask if there is on-campus transportation provided for the general student population or for students with disabilities. If on-campus transportation is not provided, the student will need to assess how they feel navigating the campus on foot, independently.   
  3. Experience the terrain. Historic campuses may have cobblestone or brick streets, while newer campuses may have more consistent concrete surfaces. Some campuses are quite hilly, while others are more flat. The student will need to think about what is going to be more navigable for them once they are living independently, as a day or residential student. The tour experience can also help inform what O&M skills your student may need to work on before they transition to college. A student’s O&M skill development list for high school may include skills such as: accessing school/public transportation, travelling at night, and crossing large intersections. 

It’s important to understand that colleges do not typically provide Orientation and Mobility (O&M) training or sighted guides for enrolled students. The expectation is that the student will be able to get around campus independently, day and night, in all weather.  

Digging deeper

Often, tours do not show attendees the dining hall or the inside of residence halls. As this might be helpful information for the student to have, your student can ask the Admissions Office if they can arrange a tour of these facilities or other facilities on campus that the student is interested in. Note: In our current Covid environment, many tours of residence halls have been eliminated.

Finally, your student might also want to think about factors like the typical weather in a particular region (hot, cold, snowy, rainy).  Your student might consider accessibility to transportation in those given weather conditions. Essential trips for groceries and other personal items, as well as internships as a student gets older, may be difficult if there is not dependable public transportation. Ensuring available transportation to potential jobs, internships, social and community-based activities will play a big role in determining your student’s overall experience.

Connecting with the disability services office (DSO)

One of the keys to college success for students who are blind or visually impaired is having a supportive Disability Services Office, or DSO. Prior to the tour, the student can make an appointment to meet with the DSO to discuss many things, including the following: 

  1. The process for requesting college accommodations
  2. The specific accommodations that the student will be seeking
  3. The accommodations available throughout the campus (academic, housing, transportation, and programmatic) 

We have crafted a list of questions to guide the student when they are speaking with the DSO. After the tour, they’ll have their reflections to refer back to when deciding on the best match for their interests and needs.

Take time to help your student develop a list of requested accommodations, so your student will be prepared with questions and an understanding of how to describe their requests. Parents – remember – this is a time to step back and let your student lead the way.

Changing roles

Students and parents should be familiar with the change in disability related laws, supports, and services as your student shifts from high school to college. Students can check out this article to learn more about the laws and rights that drive this difference.  Parents can read this article highlighting critical changes in their role as their student transitions out of high school. This will help set the stage for your student’s conversations with the DSO. Keep in mind that the DSO’s role on campus is to provide “reasonable accommodations” in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for qualified students with disabilities. The DSO supports students with many types of disabilities including:

As every college approaches accommodations differently, your student will want to make sure they are assessing these variations at the colleges that they are exploring.

Students will need to provide documentation for each disability (such as a certificate of legal blindness, or audiology report for an auditory processing disorder). Individual colleges offer varying levels of accommodations and support to assist students with disabilities. If the student has multiple disabilities or conditions that may impact their academic or housing needs at college, it may be a good idea for your student to discuss all of their conditions and needs with the counselor in the DSO. This way, the student can start to understand what will be expected of them in college, and can be better prepared for the transition. This would be a good time to encourage your student to take notes. 

Consider the DSO experience

Students will want to make sure that they feel supported by the DSO. It can be helpful to ask if there are other students with low vision or blindness on campus. As this is a low incidence disability, there’s a chance that many colleges have not encountered students with visual impairments. Your student can ask the DSO to connect them with current students who have similar conditions so they can learn from their peers about their experience on campus and in the classroom. 

Touring a college campus, even if it’s not necessarily a college your student intends to attend, can be a great way to get a sense of a college and its environment and culture. It can help your student better understand what “college” is, including the level of skills and independence needed.

Learn more about the value of college visits, both for students staying near home, and those looking far from home, in this companion article. By preparing for these tours, and setting up accommodations for the tour in advance, students can mitigate some of the barriers that they may have to face, and obtain the information they’ll need to make an informed decision about planning for their life after high school, including which colleges may be a good fit.

Stay in the college readiness conversation.

Our team is committed to changing the way students with blindness and visual impairment prepare for life after high school. Stay up to date about the latest insight, research and resources.


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