This webcast is presented by Mary Alexander and Betsy Brint, both parents of college students who are visually impaired. In their presentation, Mary and Betsy present information that can help prepare students with visual impairments and their parents for the college experience. They talk about the necessity of teaching self-advocacy skills, social skills and the expanded core curriculum in order to ensure success in college.
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Presented by Mary Alexander and Betsy Brint
Length of time to complete: approximately 30 minutes
CHAPTER 1: Introduction
ALEXANDER: My family lives in Texas, in North Texas, and in Texas, they have very specific rules and laws just like most states that say you have to start talking about transition within the IEP meeting at a certain point. And I was really fortunate that the services in Texas for the blind and visually impaired say, “That’s not soon enough.” You know, “No matter what the law says, we really encourage parents to start it much earlier.”
And so, Cooper received services from the time he was three years old. We started talking about college from that point. You know, will he be able to or not? Because we didn’t know until he was maybe four and a half that he was cognitively able to do some of the things that would be expected of you, you know, at college. And now, of course, he’s brilliant, but we didn’t know that then. And so as a parent, you know, you..It was hard for us to think that direction because we just didn’t know.
We had no idea. He didn’t walk until later, and so, you know, you still have hopes and dreams. And so we started… When he transitioned out of the little baby program into the school system in kindergarten, he asked me before he went. He said, “Mom, why do I have to go to school?” And his older brother, who’s about almost four years older than him, said, “Because you don’t want to be stupid and because you want to go to college.”
NARRATOR: We see a photo of Cooper as a young boy. He is holding a whiffle ball bat, taking a swing at a piñata that hangs in front of him. A woman wearing glasses stands behind him holding his shoulders lightly to orient him towards the piñata.
ALEXANDER: And so it wasn’t his father and I that started that college talk, it was his siblings. And so we were… you know, I think having older siblings is a huge help, personally. But he… so, we started it then. So Cooper knew that if his siblings were going… if his brother and sister were going to college, that’s where he was going. So it was… it was just, you know.
BRINT: Yeah, I agree. I think talking about college from the very beginning, just like you would, you know, anybody else in your family. Or whatever the track is for your family. Whether it’s vocation, training, or a four-year college or a community college.
Whatever you think is going to be right for your family, you talk about it. And that’s what we did, you know, just like Mary said, with all of our kids. And when we went on family vacations, we would always include, you know, a trip to… driving by a school, or we’d talk about our college experiences when we were young, just around the dinner table.
NARRATOR: We see a photo of the Brint family. A teen-aged Alan sits between his mother and sister on a bench. His father and older brother stand behind. The picture appears to be taken on a college campus in the fall.
BRINT: College was part of, you know, the daily discussions, the weekly discussions. It was just always out there, so there was never a question whether or not, you know, he was going to go to school. It was just, you know, part of the plan.
CHAPTER 2: The IEP — High Goals for Higher Education
BRINT: The TVI, the O&M instructors, the speech teachers, the PTs. I mean, everybody involved at that table through their goals… You know, I have to say, it was always frustrating as the parent because you’d see these goals and you’d think, “Oh, gosh, they’re never going to reach the goal.” You know, “These goals seem so impossible.” And as a parent, I would leave the meeting. Sometimes I would cry and I would think, “How is he going to get there?” “How are we going to make it to the next grade?”
Or I’d freak out in eighth grade thinking about high school and worry about, you know, how is he going to fit in, how’s the socialization going to happen? What’s going to happen in this class and in this class?
And then, when I would get to the next IEP meeting, the one freshman year in high school, I’d look back at what he had accomplished, and I’d say, “Wow. What was I worried about?” You know, “Look how far he’s come.” And so they know. You know, these teachers, the trust that you have to have in these teachers… and sometimes you have to push them a little bit, too, depending on what your team is about, and sometimes the parents know better than the teachers.
But they do, they seem to really look to the future and they know, when you look back… I sometimes find that more useful — to see how far they’ve come in that year — almost, than looking forward.
ALEXANDER: Well, the whole IEP process, you know, you’re supposed to. That’s where you’re supposed to set in place educational goals for your child, right? And so… But it’s also the place where the separation between child and parent starts happening. And so IEP meetings were hard for me. Because I would cry after every single one of them.
I mean, up from the first to the last, I cried at the end of every one of them. And it was more because, I guess, I’m a control freak. I don’t know, but it was hard. That letting go part is really hard. But, looking back, I realize that that is a really important part of my place as a parent in transition — is, it’s about letting go, you know, having confidence in those teachers of the visually impaired.
BRINT: Alan started going to his IEP meetings in junior high school. And then starting in high school, he didn’t allow me to speak very much. I was allowed to; he didn’t encourage it.
NARRATOR: A photograph shows Alan on a commuter train using his laptop computer. He is on the way to school. His backpack is beside him and across from him, we see an open braille textbook on top of his folded mobility cane.
BRINT: He liked to really kind of run the meeting. It was very important to him to be a leader and I think that was very good for him. How about Cooper?
ALEXANDER: It was the same. So, Cooper started attending his IEP meetings, it was probably sixth or seventh grade. And that bothered me. I don’t know about you, but I. Because sometimes they talk about the student as if they’re… not a thing, but, you know, it’s… They go through so many of these, especially the special education team that don’t work with your child on a daily basis.
They just know the boxes that they have to check, you know, and it’s the people that give direct services that actually have the relationship. And so it tends to happen more on that SPED team where, you know, “Did we do this form? Did we do that form?” And I just didn’t want Cooper to feel objectified or to feel, you know, badly, I guess, because
BRINT: Did he feel that way?
ALEXANDER: No, it was me.
ALEXANDER: You know, it was another reason to cry.
BRINT:Al loved it. Are you kidding? It was all about him. (laughing) Greatest day of his life.
ALEXANDER: Yeah. And, yeah, it was just me being overprotective. But, no, Cooper loved it. Because he likes running a meeting. Right. You know, he wants to be in charge of something like that. And so I think both of our kids are really bossy and that helps a lot, you know, to have… it’s that feeling of empowerment.
NARRATOR: In a photograph, we see Cooper and a young woman who is visually impaired sitting side by side at a table. They are attending an assistive technology workshop and they share a pair of ear buds that is plugged into an iPad. They are listening to an accessibility app.
BRINT: But it is, and it’s that self-advocacy tool that is so important, and that’s where it starts. It starts by being involved in your IEP meeting, knowing what it is that you need and knowing what your goals are and knowing what’s expected of your teachers and the tools that you need in the classroom. And it’s all laid out for you in that meeting, and so when our children are involved in it, they learn to go up to the teachers and say, “You know, I’m supposed to have the notes taken for me, and they weren’t emailed to me.”
Or, you know, “The test is supposed to be, you know, “given to me in a separate classroom and it wasn’t ready for me,” or this or this. And they can be… not going to say demanding.
ALEXANDER: Assertive. But they need to know.
BRINT: Right, which is good.
ALEXANDER: You know, self-determination is this word that’s tossed around a lot, but it’s something that, because our boys started in their IEP meetings really early, that they learned that just organically. You know, they learned, “I’ve got to talk about my disability.” “I have to say that I’m a braille reader. “I have to say that I need things in this format. “I’ve got to learn all of those things that are connected to my vision impairment.”
BRINT: There’s a young woman who we know. When we visited college campuses, we went and visited her. And she’s a blind student, she’s a sophomore. And she was taking us on the tour of the campus.
NARRATOR: We see a photograph of Alan and the young woman standing together on a campus during the tour, both holding their mobility canes. Alan has his arm around the young woman’s shoulder as they smile broadly into the camera.
BRINT: I asked her about the cafeteria and I said, “How do you manage getting your tray and your food?”
And the first thing she said was, “No cafeterias have trays anymore. They don’t do that and they’ve all gone green.” So no tray system, great.
“How do you handle your plate and your this?” And she said, “You know what I’ve learned? “The key to independence being a blind student is knowing when to ask for help.”
And I said, “That is my favorite new line.” And she says, “It’s great. “I walk in and they know me now and they always get somebody “to help me, and I make it through the line, “they help me to my seat, I get my food, and then I can eat peacefully, or whatever.” And there’s nothing wrong with knowing when to ask for help.
ALEXANDER: Exactly. I think that is. I met a young lady at NFB this summer. That was my favorite line from the entire conference was, she called it “strategic independence.”
BRINT: That’s great.
ALEXANDER: Knowing when to ask for help. And when not to. When to do things on your own, you know? And she said, “You know, you’ve got to know how to manage that,” and so I love that, yeah.
CHAPTER 3: Standardized Tests — Challenges and Accommodations
ALEXANDER: During this process, he’s also deciding, “Do I need to take the SAT or the ACT?” That’s an important decision because you either take both or you know that your college requires one. And so the University of North Texas, which is where he decided he wanted to attend, they require SAT.
So SAT prep is… that’s a big part, I think, of that college choice. And how do you get access to those materials? And you know, so all of that we’ve tried to encourage him to do on his own. And he did. And he went out and found these things. Learning Ally had the SAT prep, so that was nice. But, you know, it’s just all a part of the process. You’re in that same boat now at the beginning.
BRINT: Right, and we had a little different process. Ours… in the Midwest — we’re from Chicago — and most kids take the ACT. They don’t do the SAT. And our school actually does the Prairie State, which is the ACT for everybody.
And so our TVI had Alan signed up for getting the special testing– the extended time and to have it in braille, the test in braille. So that was all done in advance, but we had to go online and register him and then get the books in braille to get a test sent out in advance. So you can do that and that’s free of charge. So if you go to either of these sites…
NARRATOR: We see the order form from the ACT website that allows students and parents to request alternate format practice tests. Among the format choices are braille with raised-line drawings, a braille writing booklet, and a large-type booklet.
BRINT: They’ll send you the test materials in braille. They have that all and that’s free of charge. So you can get practice tests and things like that, which I’m sure he’s studying very hard right now as we speak. So you can, you know, do that, and you can, you know, study with groups and things like that. The extended time is helpful. You know, you can get extra rooms, you know, to take it.
Whatever, you know, different needs that you have, they’re very accommodating. So, it’s hard. You know, a lot of the things are very visual. The math section, the science section, is challenging for kids with visual impairments. Hopefully the schools take a little bit of that into consideration when they look at the scores. I think it varies from school to school, but, yeah, it’s an important thing that they have to do.
CHAPTER 4: The Expanded Core Curriculum and Transition
ALEXANDER: Parents need to be more open, I think, to… to some of the goals that the IEP team sets. I know that at times I felt like, “Why do we need this?” You know, I just didn’t understand the process. And maybe that’s something that an IEP team could do better for the parent, is explaining how this fits within the whole journey of, you know, getting your child from kindergarten to college, you know. Because as parents we don’t always understand. I look back on the things that… the IEP goals that were set. And some of the most important goals in those meetings were, are, expanded core curriculum goals. And so, community travel without me.
NARRATOR: In a photograph, Cooper is shown in a bookstore having his picture taken with a local minor league baseball player and the team’s mascot character. The player wears a jersey with the name “Cats” across the front, as does the mascot, which is a large black cat with bright yellow eyes.
ALEXANDER: Learning how to do kitchen skills, you know. I don’t know about you, but I’m a control. I like my kitchen. I’ve never let Cooper cook in our kitchen because it’s my area. My husband doesn’t cook in our… I mean, it’s just not what I do. And so when his teacher of the visually impaired came to me and she gave me this gift card and she said, “I would love for you to go shopping and spend the day” — it was for Barnes and Noble or something — “spend the day at Barnes and Noble.” And she was just getting me out of my house so that they could do that. And I…
BRINT: That’s great.
ALEXANDER: But, you know, I look back on it and it had to happen because… you know.
BRINT:We did. Alan did a community outing with his O&M and they went, they took the bus to Nordstrom’s and she got my approval. And she said, “All right, I need your Nordstrom’s card.” And she said, “Alan’s going to get a shopper and he’s going to go buy a pair of jeans.” And they did that, and it was so great.
He was so proud of himself that he, you know, got himself a pair of jeans, got an outfit and did that. And they learned how to use the transit system. And these are all things that are going to help in college, learning how to… And when he went to California.
ALEXANDER: Yeah? Traveled by himself?
BRINT: He traveled by himself on an airplane.
NARRATOR: We see a video clip of Alan as he makes his way through an airport terminal. With his right hand, he sweeps his mobility cane and he pulls his carry-on bag with his left hand.
BRINT: And his O&M instructor, in preparation for these travels, took him to the local mall with a wheelie bag and they practiced going up and down the escalator with the wheelie bag. You know, these are things you don’t think about how difficult it is to navigate with a cane. You know, with your suitcase. Going through an airport, trying these things on your own. And if that’s written into your IEP that these are skills you need, then they can use school time to do it. So, it’s helpful.
CHAPTER 5: Disabilities Services Office — What You Need to Know
ALEXANDER: As a student with a vision impairment, that first year is going to be really tough. And just figuring out the whole process of managing your support network, you know? Because it’s on the student.
ALEXANDER: You know, the ADA, you go from being under the law under IDEA, to being under the law under ADA. And the requirements are just completely different. And so it’s all going to be student activated. You know, no one is going to come and ask them, “What can I do for you today?” You know? “Are you getting what you need?” That’s not going to happen.
BRINT: Yeah, you know, we noticed… we visited several different schools. And the disability offices are fantastic. They’re all, you know, every single one has said, “We’re willing to do whatever it takes,” whether it was a large school or a private college, a small, private school. Whatever it was, they’re all more than willing to do, you know, anything the student needs. But it’s completely student-driven, just like you said. So the student really needs to know what it is they need, what services, and what’s out there and what’s available.
NARRATOR: We see in a photo two young women sitting in front of computers in a college disability services office. Both of them wear headphones in order to take advantage of the audio accessibility options of their course assignments.
BRINT: Sometimes, depending on the size or depending on whether or not they’ve had other blind or visually impaired students there — and that’s a really important question to ask when you go and you interview these disability services offices.
Is there currently a student with a visual impairment there? Have you had one recently? You know, can I meet with them? What has their experience been? What do you have on site? You know, do you have an embosser on site? Is there access to one if I need it? Those are the types of questions you need to find out.
You know, do you work with Learning Ally? Do you work with other organizations? Sometimes we got blank stares. “Work with who?” “What is this?” And you might second guess, “Is this a college I want “to work with? I’m going to be, you know, running the show here.” Some kids like to take on that challenge, and they know they can still do it. It depends.
ALEXANDER: You know, their willingness to be open to help and suggestions is a big part. So if Cooper’s going to walk into disability services and feel like he’s listened to, that is half the battle, is just to feel like you have that support system if you need it. You know, do I need a note-taker or can I take notes on my braille notetaker? You know, am I proficient enough to be able to capture everything or do I need someone to sit in class with me and to take notes from the board?
You know, a lot of times instructors now will have things on their smart screen or even on a chalkboard. How does a student who’s blind access that information? So, you know, you have to know how to ask for what you need.
BRINT: When you go into an office of disability at a school, you want to make sure you ask about orientation and mobility services and we went into one school and asked about it, and the woman was so excited we asked because she actually was in a wheelchair and she said it was her favorite question.
And the reason was, not only do they, you know, bring somebody in from the outside from a local agency to come in and show kids their schedules, you know, their routes or whatever, but they actually work with their maintenance department and whenever they know that there’s a student with a disability, they put it on their maintenance schedule for snow removal.
And I thought that was, like, the best answer we had ever gotten. She said, “It is prioritized for priority snow removal.” Made me a little nervous that they get that much snow, but it’s priority for their route to always be taken.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, snow is not an issue in Texas, but…
ALEXANDER: Rain is an issue. Dust storms. Orientation and mobility for Cooper. He has mild cerebral palsy and so it is really important to him that there be elevators if he needs them, or if there are stairs that they’re easily, you know, that you can find where they are. So finding things are a big deal for him.
He is not the strongest cane user because of his CP, but he really thinks about, “How hard is it going to be for me to get from point A to point B?” And so, he always asks that question. You know, “What is getting around your campus like? “Is your campus… how big is it? “How close will my classes be to each other? “If I go to a class and I have trouble getting to the next one, who would I call for assistance?” That kind of thing.
CHAPTER 6: Beyond the College Classroom
ALEXANDER: Learning Ally was really fortunate to receive a grant from the Lavelle Foundation in New York City. And they wanted us to look specifically at blind students in college — especially that first year — and how… what are the hard pieces for them, right?
What are the stress levels or stress points? But they wanted us to focus, or, they felt like the focus would probably end up being on instructional materials. How do you get your textbooks? Do you get them in a timely manner? Because, you know, college textbooks, they change every year. And so it’s a hard… it is a hard part of college.
But what we found out — we did an ethnographic study — and this type of research takes… we took 20 kids and we followed them with a video camera. And so it was very unobtrusive. But we followed them, we met with them on campus, we met with them off campus, we watched how they interacted with their peers.
NARRATOR: We see in a photograph a group of students walking across a college campus. A young man with a mobility cane leads the group.
ALEXANDER: And it was really surprising. Instructional materials or how to get your textbook, not even on the map as far as being the toughest thing that these students are going to face. And so, being a parent, you know, just going into that same process. I’m not going to say it was surprising because it really wasn’t that surprising to me, that the topics that came up as being the stressors, but I was surprised that it was as prevalent.
So the very… one of the toughest things for a student who has a vision impairment is probably the social or the peer interaction. I know that my son has never had a really close, like, best friend in school. And I’ve always wanted that for him because my other kids had it. But when you spend most of your time in direct services with adults, it really puts a barrier between you and the kids that would be your peers.
And so that has always been the hardest part as a parent, is him not having that. (voice breaking): And so… when I saw all 20 of these young people had the same issues, but they were wise enough — most of them were wise enough — to realize that in college, you know, some of those barriers are actually gone. Mom and Dad aren’t in the way, you know? We’re not imposing ourselves, or hopefully they’re not. And so, some of the kids bloomed in that, but some of them still struggled.
BRINT: This social piece, the thing that. When I saw that Lavelle study, it tore at my heartstrings also because that social piece keeps coming up and it is the hardest part for kids who are blind or visually impaired. And getting involved in an organization, an activity, a sport, a club, a music group, whatever it is, always makes a big difference.
So, you know, what we’re going to encourage Alan to do, which is what he did in high school, is to try when he gets to college to become involved in something right away. And the kids that… you know, that we’ve talked to who are blind and who are in college who are involved have a much easier time socially. And also, to get a roommate, you know. And it’s tempting to try and use your disability to get a single because you can, because you need the space, you know, you have all this extra equipment.
ALEXANDER: And you don’t want to disrupt anyone with your screen reader, or, yeah.
BRINT: Right, you have all these reasons why you could qualify for a single, but we’re going to encourage him to get a double because having that person there forces you into a social situation. You know, just to have somebody to go to a meal with or maybe to drag you out on a Saturday night, and it’s a good thing. So the socialization, I think, is really, really key.
CHAPTER 7: Takeaways
ALEXANDER: You know, in high school, they’re so sheltered and so protected, and we provide everything for them, make sure things are in braille, and are almost too much involved in what their education requires. But then in college, it’s suddenly on them. And so, if they’re not prepared, it’s going to be a real struggle. And most of our kids in the United States are probably not as prepared as they need to be. And then just managing yourself and your time and knowing what’s the best assistive technology to use.
So, do I use something like my braille notetaker or would it be better just to use my phone and record notes? Or, you know, do I need to make sure I have tactile drawings of, you know, some of the algebra? But I have to just let go because he needs to learn those things on his own.
NARRATOR: Cooper smiles broadly in a photograph taken at his high school graduation. He holds his mobility cane while his sister hugs him from behind.
ALEXANDER: And that’s the hardest thing as a mom. He’ll figure it out. Through this entire thing is letting go and letting them fail, letting them have successes on their own so that they feel proud of it, you know?
BRINT: And things just take longer, and that’s why I think
ALEXANDER: Yes, building in that time.
BRINT: I think that I’ve failed a little bit as not preparing him as well as I should have is that I’m always in such a hurry that it’s easier for me to tie the shoes or, you know, for me to pack the bag because I don’t have enough time to wait to teach him to do it, or… you know, because it takes him a little bit longer.
ALEXANDER: That’s a really good point, the time, is that, even in college, they need to learn to build in time. You know, it’s going to take you this amount of time because you’re not going to have people there doing those things, and so if you do it on your own, how much time is it going to take you? And, you know.
BRINT: Same with college. College is going to take a little longer.
ALEXANDER: Yes. Yeah, don’t expect to get through college in four years. That… it’s not… that doesn’t happen for everybody, even our sighted kids. It will not happen. And so you, you know, you have to be ready and just tell yourself, “I’m in no hurry.” You know, “My career goals are the same regardless of if it’s taken four years or six years.”
BRINT: I mean, it could be four years, and that’s fine, but because things… you know, math takes longer and, you know things… it’s just so cumbersome that what we’re telling Alan is, “Instead of taking, “you know, four or five classes your first semester, “take three, you know, and learn it a little better. “Take that extra time, you know, to give yourself to do the homework and to prepare.”
ALEXANDER: Take the tutoring, you know, use the tutors, use all of the services that are available to you — to all students — and make sure you have the time to do it.
BRINT: So, expectations are the same, but it may just take a little bit longer.