Before I started attending college, I had very limited assistive technology education, as most of what I had learned had come from reading articles online. My school had extremely limited funding and resources for assistive technology, so I never got the chance to explore different devices or fully learn my assistive technology preferences until I started at college. As a result, I had to learn how to navigate assistive technology and how to navigate the world of higher education at the same time. Even though I was successful in doing so, there are many students who are not, given that over 50% of students with vision loss stop attending college after their first year. Today, I will be sharing what I wish I learned about assistive technology before starting college, and what skills that students should develop.
Once upon a time, I tried out a screen magnification program that had been installed on one of the school computers. I wasn’t aware that it had a flashing window or that it would bounce all across the computer screen if I didn’t hold my mouse steady. I ended up getting vertigo, nearly threw up, and refused to use screen magnification software for years.
When I told this story to the assistive technology specialist at my college, they asked why I hadn’t tried out other magnification programs that were more stable and didn’t have the flashing effects. They then sat down with me and showed me different programs I could use in class, and I realized that I didn’t actually dislike screen magnification programs, I just disliked the one that made me sick.
During my junior year of high school, I had the opportunity to use a desktop video magnifier that I nicknamed “the dinosaur.” It was a very old device with a flickering display, and it was so heavy that I had to go to the school library in order to use it. As frustrating as it was to use, I became very proficient in using it, and figured I would never have to use any other video magnifier.
Once I got to college, I went to the assistive technology lab and found out that their desktop video magnifiers were totally different. In fact, my college found it very strange that I was used to using the dinosaur to magnify my assignments. This experience taught me that I shouldn’t be too particular about a specific device, and that instead I should be flexible and be able to use any desktop video magnifier, not just the dinosaur.
Imagine having a magnifier that can do all of the following:
Since no assistive technology can do everything a student might need, it’s important to ensure students are familiar with what device or software to use, and when. Here’s a few examples of how I do these tasks with different devices and software:
When I was talking to one of my friends about my frustrations in using text-to-speech for reading items on my computer, they asked if I had known how to change the audio output or how to navigate a website with text-to-speech. Unsurprisingly, I had no idea that I could do so many things, simply because I had assumed I couldn’t change the software to meet my needs.
After my friend showed me all of the ways they customize different assistive technology for their needs, I created several documents that show my preferred settings for the devices and software that I use frequently. I also created documents for things that I use less frequently so that way I don’t have to wonder what font size I need or if the inverted screen option is frustrating to read in certain lighting.
I was having a conversation with a faculty mentor about assistive technology that can benefit students with vision impairments, and they asked why I kept using specific device names and programs to describe how I preferred to access materials. They said that it was important for me to focus on the core features of the assistive technology that I use, such as screen reading capabilities or magnification to a certain percentage, and not to worry about what program will be able to do those things for me. Besides, the technology I use could suddenly become extinct tomorrow if an app is shut down or if my vision drastically changes.
I’m very tech-savvy, but I didn’t know a lot of common assistive technology terms and definitions before I started college, so I couldn’t give a very specific explanation of what I needed. While the assistive technology specialists were willing to work with me, it’s much more helpful to know the names of common tools and device characteristics, and what they do.
Shortly before I started college, I was referred to the vocational rehabilitation program that is connected with the Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired (DBVI). It wasn’t until the end of my freshman year of college when I met with their assistive technology specialist that I realized I could request different devices that could help me to be successful in the classroom. The assistive technology specialist can also recommend different devices for me, and DBVI can purchase those devices at no additional cost to me, as long as the technology can be used to help me achieve my goal of graduating college.
Blindness canes are assistive technology too! Since there were a lot of unknowns about how my vision impairment would impact me as an adult, I never received any orientation and mobility lessons while I was in school. By the time my vision had gotten to the point where I would benefit from using a blindness cane, there was no time for me to receive orientation and mobility lessons. The day I started college is the day I started using a blindness cane full-time, and I frequently wondered if I was using it correctly. If my family and I knew what we know now about my vision loss, I believe we would have looked into orientation and mobility training more.
I don’t blame anyone for not teaching me these things about assistive technology before I started college, as I know that my school district believed they had prepared me to be able to tackle any technology challenge that might come my way. In a way, they were absolutely correct, because I eventually learned all of these skills and have been a successful college student. I hope that this list of assistive technology skills I wish that I learned before starting college is helpful for people looking to fill in knowledge gaps or learn more practical skills prior to starting college.