Classroom chair and desk

Preferential seating and low vision

Here are some things to think about when using preferential seating accommodations in K-12 and college classrooms.

One of the most helpful disability accommodations that I received in my 504 Plan, IEP, and college Disability Services file was for preferential seating, or the ability to choose any seat in the classroom. Even though I have low vision and have trouble seeing more than a few feet ahead of me, I discovered that the best seat in the class wasn’t always in the front row, center seat- there were other factors that went into choosing what I liked to call “the best seat in the house.” Here are my tips for how I utilize preferential seating accommodations and find a seat that works well for me.

What is a preferential seating accommodation?

Preferential seating accommodations allow teachers and/or students to choose a seat that is most beneficial to classroom learning. Some accommodations list a specific location that works best (i.e in the front row) or are left intentionally vague so students/teachers can choose a seat that will work best. Preferential seating accommodations can also exist outside of the classroom, such as at events or shows.

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General things to consider with preferential seating accommodations

When I am trying to choose the best place to sit in a classroom at the beginning of the semester or after experiencing a vision decline, some of the questions I ask myself include:

Where is the nearest outlet? Can I plug in my laptop?

While I might not need to charge my laptop during every class period, it helps to have an outlet close by, especially for classes that are later in the day when my device’s battery might be running low or when we are doing an activity that drains my laptop battery more quickly. Another thing to consider is that the charging cable should not create a tripping hazard for myself or others. If I can’t find a seat with an outlet nearby and my device needs to be charged, I typically ask my teacher or professor if I can charge my laptop at their desk in the classroom, which has always been fine, and I make sure to charge my device before class whenever possible.

If I need a larger desk, will it fit?

For classes such as science or math where I am using multiple devices, it helps to have a larger desk or table to work on, so I don’t have to worry about knocking items over. In the case of a statistics class, my teacher and I discovered that the larger table in the classroom that would fit my laptop and tablet at the same time didn’t fit where I had originally planned to sit since it was too long, so instead they had me use two student desks that were pushed together.

Where does my teacher talk? And what are they writing on the board?

Some of my teachers don’t sit in the front of the room to teach and instead write or present materials on a board that is on a side wall of the classroom, or they use screen sharing tools that make it so everyone can see what is on the board. In another class where a larger classroom table I wanted to use didn’t fit, my teacher changed how they presented information on the board and gave me detailed copies of notes and presentations so I could follow along on my own device without needing to sit in the front of the classroom.

Regardless of where I was sitting, I also had an additional disability accommodation that said I could walk up to the board to copy down information or ask the teacher for a copy of the class notes/presentations.

Can I store my belongings without creating a tripping hazard?

While I’m sure no one else was paying attention, I once tripped over my clarinet case when getting up to ask my professor a question and came very close to slamming my arm into a desk. This was an almost-painful reminder that the area where I was sitting didn’t have an area for me to store my things like other students who had under-desk storage, and that I had to be more cognizant of where I put items so that I didn’t accidentally hurt someone. This is more of an issue in college than in middle/high school, as I was able to store items in my locker or the band room, but I would resolve this issue by either making sure my desk had enough clearance so that items didn’t spill out into classroom walkways or I would store items in another area of the classroom if I absolutely had to bring them to class.

Wondering how to store a blindness cane or other mobility aid in class? I have an entire post about blindness cane storage solutions in the “Related Links” section.

Is this area well lit? Do I have to worry about flickering lights?

I don’t like sitting somewhere that is right next to a window as bright sunlight can affect my ability to read LED screens, and flashes of lighting (also known as nature’s strobe lights) are a personal migraine trigger, as are flickering fluorescent lights. For this reason, it’s distracting for me to sit near a lot of windows and I try to avoid them when possible. If I notice a light is flickering inside, I ask my teacher or professor to put in a work order to fix it as soon as possible and move to another area of the classroom temporarily- since I have a documented neurological condition triggered by flashing lights, these work orders often are labeled as high priority.

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How I chose where to sit in middle/high school

The majority of my classes in middle/high school revolved around copying information that is written on the board, which was typically towards the front of the classroom. If I was in a class where it was important that I be able to read every letter/number that was being written down, such as in math or science, I would ask if I could have a friend sit next to me so that I could copy down their notes or have them read me things as needed. My seat would not change even if the classroom seating chart changed, and if my teacher rearranged the desk layout they would typically assign a seat that was close to wherever the majority of content would be displayed.

How I chose where to sit in college/university

One of the big things people talk about is that there are no seating charts in college, though students generally sit in the same area during the semester. Classroom layouts are also pretty consistent across classrooms, and a student can choose to take classes in the same building if they like the seating arrangement there. Some of my professors would write information on the whiteboard, while others would read information from slideshows and have students copy down notes, so I didn’t always need to sit towards the front of the room- sometimes it made more sense to sit near the professor’s desk.

Enforcing preferential seating accommodations in lecture halls

When I was in a class that had a large number of students in a lecture hall setting, I came in early on the first day of the semester to reserve my seat and shared my disability accommodations letter with the professor. Since this professor often got to class early, they would put up a sign that says “reserved” on the seat I chose to ensure no one else sat there before I could get to class. Since this was a very early morning class, I really appreciated this!

Preferential seating in music/performing arts classrooms

Students often sit in specific sections during band/music classes that correspond to their instrument, which may be in a location where the student cannot see the director. I have an entire post about tips for watching the conductor with low vision, though another option is to either split the section into two rows or have the student sit in a different area during practice time. When I was the only person playing my instrument at a given time (yay bass clarinet!), my director would often allow me to sit in the front row even if I would be traditionally sitting somewhere else.

In other performing arts classrooms such as dance, theater, and choir where I would be moving around frequently or be expected to sit in a given area, I would sit close to the teacher during practice so it was easier to mirror their movements or facial expressions.

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What about assistive technology for preferential seating?

There are several different assistive technology options that can be used in conjunction with preferential seating accommodations. These include:

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More tips for choosing a seat and using preferential seating accommodations

By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes,

Updated August 2023; original post published August 2017

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