Filling the gaps: How to plan a Gap Year

Taking a well planned gap year can benefit students - especially those with visual impairments.

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

By: Leslie Thatcher, Director, Program Development and Strategy, Perkins Transition Center

It may feel like everyone around you — parents, school administrators, your student’s friends — is talking about college, and that is most likely because, well, they are. From the time our students enter freshman year of high school, conversations buzz with talk about plans for after high school, which typically includes the idea of attending college. Often, going to college is easier to claim as a goal than describing a job, or a career. As a culture, we have programmed our students to step onto the education conveyor belt, moving from elementary school, to high school, right on to college, without pause. We rarely stop to think, hmmm… maybe, just maybe, college is not the next best step. Or, you may have concerns about your student’s readiness for the next step to adulthood and growing independence, but are afraid to articulate them. Perhaps your student simply has not yet learned the many skills needed for independently tackling the demands of college and work world. You are not alone.  

What is a gap year, anyway?

A popular framework for taking a year between high school and college to mature, gain experiences, and additional skills, is a “gap year.” A gap year is an intentionally designed period of time, often nine to twelve months after, or during, the transition from high school to college timeline. It may even occur during a college experience, by taking a leave of absence, from a student’s current college. Some students use this time to address gaps in preparation, or life experiences, in ways that may lead to greater success and engagement once returning to college and career path. Students, with guidance and support, may attend training to develop needed skills, volunteer, travel, earn money to pay for college, or engage in internship opportunities to have hands-on experience with a potential career interest. Gap, or prep, years are not as rare as you may think. 

According to the Gap Year Association’s 2020 Alumni Survey, it’s estimated that over 40,000 students from the US and Canada engage in a gap year program each year. From the recent survey, 83% of respondents enrolled or continued their higher education after their gap year. For the students who took a gap year between high school and college, most engaged in a structured gap year program, and they reported overwhelming positive outcomes and benefits, across the board:

Gap year benefits for students with visual impairments

For students with visual impairments who aspire to attend college, a gap year can be an important opportunity to gain the critical skills often overlooked in the hustle of the K-12 educational experience. We know that blindness skills, especially the caliber needed to successfully complete a college degree and subsequent career, take time to build and refine. Building these abilities can be overlooked in the busy, day to day of K-12 school timeline; there’s sometimes not enough time to fit it all in. Considering a gap year allows your student to critically evaluate his or her individual skills and independence. They can explore many different options available to meet them where they are in their college preparation journey. In many cases, it is the exception, not the norm, to go straight to college or university. Statistics support this approach: over 60% of students with vision loss who enroll in college do not complete college. Additionally, over 70% of individuals with vision loss are unemployed or underemployed. There are many, complex reasons for these grim statistics, but lack of appropriate skills to meet the demands of a technologically driven workplace, is one of them.

Taking this “different” path in a gap year, and setting a different timeline, can be scary. What do you say to friends? How do you explain it?

Straying from this “socially acceptable” mold doesn’t mean your student is not fit for college, or that you have not done your job as a parent.

On the contrary, these choices suggest thoughtful understanding of your student’s strengths, and areas for growth before they invest in their next educational or work-based step.

Recognizing emerging gaps

Many times, by high school, Teachers for Visually Impaired (TVIs) and Orientation and Mobility (O&M) specialists work on a consult basis only with high school students who have blindness and visual impairments; there’s a sense that “students are doing well” or “just fine.” This reduction of service time to teach key blindness skills as students mature and plan for their future, and face increased demands from high school level academics, can lead to gaps in skills and limited experience with independence.  Grade inflation can also mislead students and families about actual skill development. Remember, grades may not be an adequate indicator of a student’s independence and readiness to take on college level work and responsibilities at the level that college (and work) assumes, and demands.  Taking the College Readiness Checklist can help parents and educators identify skills your student will need by high school graduation, when the supports of the K-12 environment end. 

Filling in the gaps in tech, academic skills, and independent living

Typically sighted students are taught technology skills in elementary school, and can use incidental learning to observe and gain skills with newly emerging technology. Students with visual impairments may not be taught, nor have time to practice, the unique access technology skills needed to access and process information at the pace needed to meet the demands of both high school and college. The loss of skills and learning can be cumulative. It’s not uncommon for students to receive introductory training in assistive technology, like JAWS or ZoomText, yet many leave high school not knowing how to type efficiently – a key skill in using a screen reader and in completing college work efficiently. as well as meeting the demands of many entry level jobs. The Technology Competencies for College Readiness can help you to learn the many types of technology skills to consider.

Many students learning with a visual impairment reach college without mastery in screen reading skills which, combined with other approaches (braille, large print) allow reading at the pace needed to engage effectively and efficiently in college or the workplace. These skills can also help students manage visual fatigue, which can otherwise slow reading and writing, and impact academic success. Some students are fluent braille readers, but still require other access technology skills to fully manage their responsibilities, which requires a plan for teaching and practice of these skills. Note taking, strategies for writing and editing well organized research papers, reading large assignments, taking tests, and other academic tasks all demand many layers of skills, which take time to develop.   

Beyond the crucial academic and technology skills needed for successful engagement in college level work, independent living skills are often not addressed with depth in the K-12 system, leaving your student with gaps in knowledge, or even lack of awareness about tasks they may be responsible for.  Your student may be, for the most part, independent in preparing for his or her day, managing self-help skills and appropriately managing his or her time, but can he or she prepare their own meal? Three times a day? Go shopping to prepare for the week of meals? If the answer is no, a gap year may be an opportunity for your student to gain those skills, creating more options for their future. 

All of these skills also contribute to successful independent living and work/career engagement, regardless of a student’s interest in attending college.

Extra time can build maturity and confidence

Whether your student is totally blind, visually impaired with residual vision, or losing their vision gradually, the transition from high school (living at home, with support at arm’s reach) to a college routine, curriculum and campus lifestyle can be challenging.

A student may not fully understand the leap in independence, if they have not already experienced it in high school. 

And, the laws determining the new role and responsibilities of your student once they graduate from high school, create what can be a sudden change from the supports found in high school. Your student will need to advocate for accommodations on their own.  These changes demand a lot from your student, and may take time to get used to and be ready to take on.

For these reasons, a Gap Year can be valuable time to grow, develop and practice independence. This may be especially true when working in a coordinated way with your student’s high school TVI and VR counselors in your student’s state commission for the blind.  A Gap Year can be constructed to include skill development in a blindness skills training program, taking a sample course at a local community college, and possibly engaging in volunteer or work experience to gain insight into how your student’s interests intersect with actual job opportunities in different fields. 

Incidental learning – bridging the gap

Essentially, while a Gap Year allows time for increased maturity, it is also a critical chance for our students to gain insights about their interests, through experiences.

For those who lack the incidental learning acquired via visual input, a Gap Year is proven to increase success in college experiences.

Real world experiences based upon authentic interests are crucial for our students to build intentionally, repeatedly, and to strengthen over time. Students with vision loss are no different in needing these opportunities to gain insight about themselves, their interests, values and how they may play out as they become adults. For some students, a Gap Year may allow them time to understand that a college degree may not be the most appropriate next step. 

Take action now

Check out this College Readiness Checklist to understand how developed your student’s skills are, and to begin to make a plan to develop the skills needed for successful engagement after high school. You and your student may determine that a Gap Year will create opportunities and time for the layers of growth and skill development that high school has simply not allowed.  

Considerations if you think a gap year might be a good option

A Gap Year should not be 365 days to: 

A Gap Year should be:

Planning for an appropriate post high school experience that is right for your student is quite possibly the most complicated decision of their young adult life. It’s okay to pause and to reflect. Mistakes will happen. That’s all part of the process!

Throughout your student’s K-12 journey, whether it leads your student to a Gap Year or directly to college or work after high school, it’s important to work with your student’s educational team and Transition Counselor, through the state’s Commission for the Blind. Working together as a team, you can assess your student’s blindness skills, based on your student’s goals at the beginning of high school and develop a realistic plan for skill development, and possibly include a gap year. With this, you will be prepared to determine what additional skills your student may need to develop after high school, to be ready for college or the workplace. 

The Gap Year, at its core, can create increased opportunities for success, based on your student’s unique situation, rather than forcing them into rigid timelines.

These narrow high school pathways often do not consider the complex skills needed for students learning with low vision and blindness to successfully transition into adulthood, or the additional maturity and experience that college assumes. Consider the value of additional time for your student, and make a plan that is appropriate for your unique student’s goals and skills!

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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