A lot of people on social media have been talking about a viral article that shares reasons why a college professor does not allow students to have phones in class, and one of the first thoughts that came to mind was how glad I am that none of my professors were ever like that. This is because I have low vision, and I frequently use my phone in class as assistive technology to help support my learning, and make it easier for me to see different materials in the classroom. While I’m not against professors disciplining students for being distracting in class, it’s important for people to know how students with disabilities, especially those with visual impairments, use their phones to help support their learning, not distract from it. Here is how I use my phone as assistive technology in the classroom, and how students of all ages can benefit from having their phones in the classroom. It’s worth noting that I have an Android phone, though many of the apps I talk about are also available on iOS.
The Technology-Related Assistance to Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 (Tech Act) defines an assistive technology device as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.” The Tech Act also defines an assistive technology service as “any service that directly assists an individual with a disability in selection, acquisition or use of an assistive technology device.”
By these definitions, there are lots of different ways that cell phones, their accessibility settings, and applications can be used by people with disabilities to help increase their ability to complete different tasks and activities successfully. Many major tech companies have released free assistive technology and accessibility centered apps that can help students be successful in the classroom, and people with low vision routinely find ways to be creative when trying to access information with built-in phone apps. I’ll be talking about a mix of different free applications and techniques that use built-in accessibility settings or hardware for different phones.
A lot of my professors allow all students to use their phones in the classroom, and trust that the phones will not be a distraction. However, I have it listed in my college Disability Services File that I am allowed to use personal devices such as my cell phone for assistive technology purposes when needed. I also had permission from my high school teachers to use my phone for certain activities, though many of the apps I use now weren’t around when I was in high school. I do not use my phone or other electronics during testing or exams unless I have been given specific permission to do so.
At my college, I’ve only ever had one professor tell me they would not allow students to use phones under any circumstances in their classroom, even if they were using a phone as assistive technology. Since I found this out the first day of class I immediately dropped their class and transferred to a new professor who was fine with me using my phone.
If I ever want to quickly zoom in on something, I will frequently take out my phone camera and use the zoom feature to magnify faraway text, objects on my desk, or other information that may be too difficult to see otherwise. This is especially helpful when reading math problems that have several smaller exponents or symbols, because often times the exponents or subscripts are not in large enough print for me to be able to see on my own.
Recently, I was showing a younger student how they could take pictures of the whiteboard in the classroom using the free Microsoft Office Lens app, so that they could see what was on the board at a later time or take a picture of writing they did for an assignment. I use this feature in a lot of my programming classes for when my professors are drawing charts or networks, and insert the pictures into my notes at a later time. Besides scanning in pictures of whiteboards, I can also use Microsoft Office Lens to scan in documents, photos, and business cards for later reference.
Once upon a time, the magnification tool that I use in one of my data science classes started glitching out, and nobody knew how to fix it. I had bookmarked websites that I could use to find more information about the CentOS operating system that was giving me problems, and I was able to use my phone to quickly look up information. I was able to fix the issue before I missed more than a few minutes of class time, and I felt more comfortable holding my phone than I would have trying to look closely at my tablet.
Have you ever wished that you could have an assignment read out loud, without having to ask someone to read it to you? I frequently use the Google Lookout and Microsoft Seeing AI apps in order to accomplish this task, as they can read text out loud without storing any images. While it’s no replacement for proper accessible materials, having these apps allows me to read almost any text that I come across in my classes.
When working on assignments in the lab section of my geology class, I would pull up the websites or lab instructions that were assigned and read them on my phone, while I had the lab worksheet in a digital format on my iPad. I’m not a fan of using the split-screen view on my iPad, so having the instructions in my phone in large print means that I can easily move my phone next to whatever I am working on, and have the information available in large text or read to me with Select-to-Speak.
In high school, there were times where I would have to carry a calculator for an activity in the classroom and perform calculations standing up, something that is difficult to do when the standard calculators in the classroom are inaccessible, or while balancing a computer with an accessible calculator installed. Instead, I would use an accessible calculator app on my phone (my favorite is the myScript calculator) so that I didn’t have to worry about dropping my computer on the floor or having to ask people to do calculations for me.
If I’m having trouble seeing something and I want to increase the contrast, I will frequently take a photo and make the photo brighter, increase the contrast, or other display filters so that it is easier to see. One of my best friends does the same thing so that they can take notes in class, and organizes the pictures by class in different folders for easy reference.
I know this is a post about low vision, but one of the causes of my low vision is a brain condition called Chiari Malformation, which can also cause minor hearing issues. One of the tools that helps me follow along in a room where there is lots of background noise is Google Live Transcribe, which creates real time captions with fairly high accuracy in several different languages. I love the large font options in Google Live Transcribe, as I can easily read the transcript during a lecture and copy/paste text of what they are saying.
Another part of my low vision condition is that I have trouble reading my own handwriting, mostly due to dysgraphia (a condition that causes poor handwriting). I frequently use apps such as Google Keep, Microsoft To-Do, and Notes so that I can quickly write down information I might need for later, as well as type reminders for assignments when my professor is talking about them. I prefer to type while someone is talking about a topic instead of waiting so that I can ask any follow up questions if needed.
While this isn’t necessarily an academic use of my cell phone in class, it is definitely an important one. Since I use a blindness cane to get around, it’s helpful for me to travel with a human guide when possible so that I am able to navigate campus quickly and safely, especially at night or during times where there is lots of construction. I’ll send friends text messages a few minutes before the end of class telling them where to meet me, or if I will be getting out early/late from whatever class I’m in. I’m not bored and checking the time to see when I’ll be leaving- I’m making sure that I won’t be stuck in a building waiting for someone to come get me.
I will admit that I use my phone for non-academic purposes in class at times, just like any other student might- just because I have poor eyesight doesn’t mean I can’t text, check social media, or see what’s on the lunch menu in the dining hall. However, having access to my cell phone in class means that I am able to complete tasks related to my coursework with the aid of assistive technology, instead of having to ask someone for help or panic over trying to balance multiple applications at the same time. While I am beyond grateful to have had awesome professors that understand how my phone helps me in class, I hope that other professors will stop seeing phones as a tool that only serves as a distraction, and instead as a tool that can help a student to thrive and be independent in the classroom.