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Students: Take the lead with the college’s Disability Services Office

How to advocate for your own accommodations with the DSO as your parents step back, and there’s no TVI!

By: Leslie Thatcher, Director of College Success @ Perkins

Your new team: Y-O-U and D-S-O  

The biggest shift between high school and college is the change in support and responsibility. This is driven by the change in the law that covers the different learning environments. For example, in college, you are responsible for identifying yourself to the Disability Services Office (DSO), requesting accommodations, and then using those accommodations to learn! That means that things are going to change. We want to help you begin to imagine how this might change how you are learning. And, we want you to begin to imagine what you need to learn now, or get better or more independent at, before your next step to college or work!  Here’s a few things to consider:

It will be YOU, the expert on your needs and your personal goals in education, and the Disability Services Office, also known as the DSO. They will be responsible for implementing all college accommodations for students with disabilities. You must reach out to them, which will also be a very different dynamic from the way it was in high school.

It’s up to you to reach out to the Disability Services Office – you’re the expert on your own needs and personal goals in education.

You may be asking yourself why it works this way, all of a sudden? Well, as a college student, and as a person 18 years old or older, you are considered an adult. As an adult, you will be expected to understand your visual impairment and other learning needs if they exist, and be able to clearly discuss this information with the campus DSO to receive accommodations in college. Your parents do not have the same responsibility to protect and advocate for you – that shifts to you. Therefore, you will need to know how to maintain regular, proactive communication with your DSO to ensure that you have everything you need in order to access course material. Neither your parents nor your TVI will have a role in this process. They will not be calling professors to ensure you are getting the accommodations you need.

Beyond your age impacting your rights, the laws change, as well. Remember the IDEA and ADA mentioned earlier? The ADA, which is the law that directs how DSOs support you, must only provide reasonable accommodations of course materials so you can then meet the unmodified demands of the course. That means that you must do the same work as your classmates, with the same deadlines. This may or may not have been the case in high school, where the curriculum may have been modified, based on your IEP.  

A few things to think about…

If you are not reading grade level material (and a lot of it, like 50-100 pages a week), taking notes independently, and feeling comfortable writing well-organized, well-documented, properly formatted, multi-page (5-7 page) papers, now’s the time to take charge. Check out this College Readiness Checklist (you may need your parent’s permission to download it!)  

Start learning how to be on top of your current work in school and at home so you can begin to prepare for the rigors of college expectations. That means exploring what it’s like to complete homework at home, without support.  Consider how long it takes you on your own.  How easily can you access material, such as an assignment online, or a textbook?  Produce homework just like that of your peers?  If it’s taking many hours to do one assignment, it may be time to explore if your access technology skills are where they should be (you should be typing 45 words per minute on a laptop and other devices by the end of Grade 11) or if you’re texting your friends too much (we know it happens!), or if there’s another issue going on. Now’s the time to figure this out to meet your goals of attending college and working in whatever your chosen field is.  These are not skills you’ll learn overnight but there’s good news: with practice and learning from mistakes, you can gain a greater understanding of how you respond to these demands, as you develop skills to manage the work.  

You’re in charge: A privilege, not a burden  

 Taking on new responsibilities and being in charge can be daunting at first, but there is no one that understands you better than you. No one can feel the motivation to succeed in this new college venture, more than you. You are the best person for the job; so look carefully at what you’re good at, what you need to work on, and make plans, over time, to meet your goals.

As you step away from the comforts of high school into the new environment of college and/or work, it’s important that you know what you’re considering:  college is demanding, and assumes that you are willing and able to complete significant, and increasingly complex work, over time.  It requires stamina, and some curiosity!  There’s a lot to learn!  (Check out this article on options instead of, or before, college).  The colleges and their DSOs will be required to work with you, in some capacity, to ensure you have your materials in an accessible format, but you must have the skills to work with those documents (no, your phone will not be enough, now, or at your first job!) Colleges are not required to ensure that you DO that work.  

As you prepare to advocate for yourself, working with the DSOs, here are some skills you can sharpen and muscles you can exercise before stepping onto campus:  

Disability Services dress rehearsal

Lead your IEP meeting by the time you are a junior, if not before, if possible. This will help you learn how to discuss your disability, your needs and the accommodations that can help make your high school experience one that will best prepare you for your post secondary plans, including college, a career training program, work or a combination. This is the type of self-advocacy you’ll be expected to have when working with a DSO, so take a few dry runs.

DSO Q&A

You will need to foster and nurture a relationship with the DSO, and, as visual impairment is a low-incidence disability, you will most likely need to be explicit, direct and communicative about the services you need. Your DSO office may not have worked with a visual disability before, or not one like yours (there’s huge range of visual impairments, and related issues): 

It’s important to understand the two critical pieces of legislation, the IDEA and the ADA, that impact your life as a high school student, college student and future employee. Taking the time NOW to understand how your responsibilities will change, once you graduate from high school, can help you to better advocate for your needs and develop the level of independence that you’ll assume once you graduate. Start now, by asking to discuss next steps with your TVI and your parents – and for more information on other topics, check out the College Readiness Checklist and our other resources for college-aspiring students. 

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