Questions for visually impaired students to ask the disability services office

Get the information you need from the DSO to advocate for college accommodations.

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

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

Students who are blind and visually impaired have more considerations to take into account when they are exploring colleges. It’s time to really practice your self-advocacy skills as you prepare for the next, big step after high school.

Colleges offer varying types of accommodations, and the way in which accommodations are administered can be very different from school to school. It’s essential that you are asking the right questions to be able to inform your college search and selection process. 

College students with disabilities should connect with the college’s Disability Services Office (DSO). The DSO is the office on campus tasked with providing reasonable accommodations and access for students with disabilities. It will be important for you to understand your vision and how it impacts your learning. You will need to be able to describe your needs to the DSO and ask questions that help you learn the types of accommodations that they may provide. Let’s explore what that looks like.

Common practices and procedures at the DSO

Every college has a DSO or an administrator who is tasked with providing “reasonable accommodations” for qualified students with disabilities. The name of this office varies from college to college. Here are some examples from colleges and universities around the US: Disability Support Services, Student Accessibility Office, Student Access and Support Services.  We will refer generically to all of these offices as a “DSO.” Prospective students can contact the DSO to ask questions about the types of accommodations they provide and the process for requesting accommodations. It’s important to note that the Admissions Office for any college or university and the DSO on the same campus are not the same entity nor are the offices connected. In other words, your disclosure of a disability to the DSO will not impact any admissions decision. 

When to start

Many high school students begin their college search process during their sophomore and junior year. This is a great time to start identifying the colleges that you are interested in and start planning to go on college tours. In addition to touring the physical campus and learning more about the college and its culture, students should reach out to the DSO and set up a time to meet with a staff member. 

You can prepare for a conversation with the DSO by having a list of questions and potential accommodations written down prior to meeting with the DSO counselor. It’s important to note that accommodations apply to nearly every aspect of college life.

If the college is offering something to the general student population, it should be accessible for all students in order to be compliant with federal laws.

Work Your High School Support System

Before you start going on your college tours, sit down with your counselors/Individualized Education Program (IEP) team/Teacher for the Visually Impaired (TVI)/family and have a conversation about your needs. What do you anticipate your accommodation needs will be by the time you get to college? Considerations may include additional time for training in O&M, Independent Living, and Assistive Technology – in order to be ready to manage and juggle the complex demands of college. Also, consider the increased independence assumed once you graduate from high school.

Anticipating your needs

Make a list of the types of accommodations that you plan to request in the college setting. It can help to look at the accommodations you receive on your IEP, 504 Plan, or academic plan and identify what those accommodations might look like in the college setting. It’s important to note, though, that these accommodations may not directly transfer over to college. Also, remember that colleges do not provide “services” such as a paraprofessional or TVI. 

Examples of accommodations may include:

What to ask

Prior to going on a college tour, contact the DSO and request a meeting. Typically, you can find the DSO’s contact information on their website. Go to the college’s main homepage and type “disability services” into the search box. That should take you to the DSO page. Let them know when you are visiting campus and arrange a time during your visit to speak with them. It may help to inform them that you are blind or visually impaired. Some colleges will even have a specific DSO counselor who supports students with vision loss. 

Here are some examples of questions that you may want to ask the DSO:

  1. Do you have/have you had any students who are blind or visually impaired?
    • If the answer is “yes,” ask them if they are able to reach out to the students to see if they would be willing to talk to a prospective student about their experience on campus.
  2. What is the process for requesting accommodations and what type of documentation do you require?
  3. I understand that colleges are required to provide course materials in accessible formats such as braille and/or accessible electronic documents. How does that process work?
  4. Do you provide any orientation and mobility training for students?
    • Note: colleges are not obligated to provide O&M training.
  5. Do you provide any assistive technology software? Do you also provide training on how to use the assistive technology if the student does not know how to use it?
    • Note: colleges are not obligated to provide assistive technology training.  Check out this Technology Competencies Checklist to see where your skills rank in terms of college readiness.
  6. Can you tell me how the testing accommodation process works? Is there a private testing room for me to use a computer and screen reading software or screen magnification?
  7. Can you tell me about the housing accommodations process? 
  8. What other types of academic supports are available for students?
    • Note: Colleges often have academic support services such as a writing center, a math assistance center, and tutoring services. For these services, you have to be able to identify on your own when you need help and go and seek it out. Some colleges also offer academic support services such as one-on-one coaching or workshops on skills like time management and study skills. 

Reflecting on Your Visit and Planning Your Next Steps

Consider your specific needs and ask questions that will help you understand what the college will and will not provide. When the meeting is over, sit down and capture the information via notes so you can compare the answers that each college provides. This will help inform your college planning and application process. Additionally, having these conversations with the DSO early on can help you decide which schools to apply to and which schools will be a good fit. 

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