As a student with low vision, I am used to requesting and explaining disability accommodations in my college classes and in other testing environments. However, one of the things that surprised me when I started taking primarily virtual classes and exams is that I needed to add additional accommodations to my existing Disability Services file so that I could thrive in the virtual environment and focus on my studies, not on my visual impairment. Here are seven unexpected disability accommodations I have had to request for virtual learning at my college, a local community college, and in online testing environments.
When I sat for a technical certification exam in December, I was surprised to learn that my prescription tinted glasses were not permitted to be worn during the exam, because the proctors and proctoring software were unable to see my eyes or track their movement. After explaining that I wear tinted glasses for photosensitivity, I was able to get an approved accommodation to wear my glasses during the exam, but from that day on I’ve had to list “use of prescription tinted glasses” when requesting accommodations for exams or virtual classes in general. My tinted glasses are different than traditional sunglasses as I can see screens without having the darker tint distort the display.
Normally, whenever I take a quiz or exam online, I am able to use built-in accessibility settings within my web browser, such as large print, zooming in on the page, and use of in-browser screen readers or reading tools. Well, for one of my classes, I was told by the professor that I would need to have formal accommodations to use these tools, even though these tools were available to all users. Since I was already approved to use more specific assistive technology tools such as screen readers and screen magnification, Disability Services had no problem adding this to my list of accommodations.
One of the things that I love about taking virtual classes is that I can easily convert file formats and create my own accessible materials as needed. However, there have been some cases where I have had trouble converting between file formats due to the way the original file was saved- for example, a low-resolution PDF may not convert well when I try to enlarge it with Microsoft Word. My accommodations say that I can request assignments in alternative formats (i.e digital formats), though it is up to me to specify what formats I want and how the professor can assist me with getting them.
This wasn’t originally listed in my Disability Services file, but since there have been times where my professor includes low-resolution images in assignments or lecture materials, I have started requesting image descriptions for graphics so that I can figure out what I am looking at and get important information about math or physics problems. A younger student I work with also mentioned how getting image descriptions has helped them in their classes since they can’t ask their friend next to them to tell them what is in an image.
Since many virtual classes aren’t 100% accessible yet, it is helpful to have access to remote visual assistance apps and tools that can help with filling in the blanks. For example, I might use the image recognition function in Seeing AI to help me read a screenshot of text, or ask an Aira agent to help me with reading a math problem with lots of complex symbols. I am not using these tools to get an unfair advantage, rather I am using them to help me read information so I can do work on my own. I was able to get this accommodation approved as I didn’t have access to scribes or sighted guides like many other students would in this situation.
Did you know that many online tests and quizzes that allow users to use their textbook as a guide don’t allow users to access the digital version of the textbook? One of my friends found this out shortly before their first exam and ended up meeting with the professor to figure out what to do since they were unable to read standard-sized print and couldn’t have their textbook open in another window. They ended up getting a specific accommodation to be able to use eBooks and other digital materials in tests and quizzes when permitted, just like the other students in their class, though they did have to go through additional steps so that their exam could be properly proctored. While the additional steps vary from class to class, they typically involve sharing their screen to the proctor, taking the exam on a webcam, and using a different secure browser.
When I started taking all of my classes virtually, I realized that I was getting eye fatigue quicker than normal and felt like I was running into a lot more accessibility issues than usual. On top of that, I ended up dealing with a short-term medical issue that left me with much less usable vision than usual. Because of all of these factors, I asked for an increase in my extended time and went from receiving time and a half to double time on timed assignments and quizzes/exams as needed. While I do not always need the extended time, it is definitely helpful to have when I am using a screen reader or other technology I may be less confident with.
While I love taking virtual classes as a student with low vision, it’s not always a smooth transition to the virtual environment, as students often find that their digital classroom experience is much different than their physical classroom experience. I hope these seven unexpected disability accommodations for virtual learning are helpful for other students who may be struggling to stay on track in their classes!