Brightly colored backpack with files sticking out.
Guide

What’s in my college backpack as a low vision student

A successful college student with low vision and chronic pain shares what tools she carries with her to class.

As a college student with low vision, chronic pain, and chronic migraines, the items I bring to class to help me succeed are often vastly different than my classmates. This doesn’t mean I have an unfair advantage, but rather that I use different tools to ensure my success in the classroom. Here are the items that I often have when I go to my classes. For reference, I live on campus, have a file with Disability Services for use of assistive technology, and my university embraces the use of student technology.

The backpack

There are no formal restrictions on what types of backpacks that students can use in college, though many students use backpacks similar to what they used in high school- ones with two straps that can fit underneath a desk. Some students carry tote bags or purses, which I’ve done when I only need to bring my iPad to class or when I don’t need my laptop. I recommend finding a bag that is easy to spot on the floor and that has a unique detail- my current backpack is bright pink and has an equally vibrant luggage tag on it for when I travel.

I had a student ask me what would happen if they had to bring oversized items such as an instrument or assistive technology to class- can these items be stored in the classroom? If I have to bring my bass clarinet case or another oversized item to class, typically I put it right in front of me when I sit in the front row, or ask the professor if I can leave the item behind their desk/against the wall, and they have had no problem with this. On the extremely rare occasions I have brought a carry-on suitcase to class so that I could leave directly for the airport or set up for an event, I left it against the wall in a corner of the classroom.

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Writing

Sharpie pens

Over 90% of my college assignments are digital, but there are times that my professors give me paper assignments in large print or that I have to handwrite something for a project-  I have an accommodation from Disability Services to use Sharpie pens on classwork, quizzes, tests, and standardized tests as pens are not typically permitted on exams. I prefer to use colorful ultrafine tip Sharpies or Sharpie pens because I can easily locate the pens in my backpack, though some teachers have rules about which colors I was allowed to use- notably my colorblind Python professor.

Scented markers

I needed markers that would be easy to hold/draw with for my pre-calculus class, as having larger markers would inspire me to write in larger print so that I could read my work more easily. I have scented markers because I found them to be the easiest for me to hold, and also because they were on discount at the school bookstore.

Cardstock

With the use of pens and markers, I need to have paper that won’t have ink bleed through. I have several sheets of 8.5″ x  11″ cardstock that I use for writing out formulas, taking quick handwritten notes, or for drawing charts/graphs that I scan with Microsoft Office Lens. I can also use it as a line tracker or use it to create an impromptu sign.

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Personal technology

Microsoft Surface

I’ve had two different Microsoft Surface devices in college, the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and the Surface Laptop 3. Both are fantastic for typing or running applications in class such as Microsoft Office or technical applications like SQLite, RStudio, or Python coding environments. While it does not fit in my backpack, I also have an HP Sprout desktop computer that I use for homework and virtual classes that stays in my dorm.

iPad

In my last few semesters of college, my professors would jokingly ask if my iPad was surgically attached to me because I would carry it with me everywhere. In my classes that took place in the computer lab, my iPad would be my notetaking tool of choice because I didn’t have to balance two computers on one desk, and I could use a lot of the same apps that were on my computer and phone. I also would use a few iPad-specific apps to get information, though I would make sure that all of my files and browsing history would sync across devices.

Android phone

Even if my professors had a no-phone policy, I would get an exception to be able to use my phone in class as assistive technology. I have an entire post about how I use my phone in class, but some examples include as a portable magnifier, document scanner, flashlight, and method for quickly looking up information when I couldn’t use other devices, such as when I was troubleshooting something while sitting underneath a table. Admittedly, there were times that I would text in class, but that isn’t related to me being a student with low vision.

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Assistive technology

Video magnifier

Instead of carrying around a magnifying glass, I prefer to use a video magnifier as there are more customization options for magnification, changing the display color, and making items easier to see. I also have a small magnifying glass in my backpack, but I rarely use it.

Blindness cane

My blindness cane helps me navigate my college campus and beyond, and I don’t go many places on campus without it. When I’m in class, I typically fold it and put it inside my backpack, in the water bottle compartment of my backpack, or in my lap. Many of my friends that have canes that don’t collapse put their cane on the floor next to them or prop it up against a wall, but I prefer to use a collapsible cane so that I have more storage options.

CCTV/large video magnifier

This item alone would take up the entirety of my backpack, so I put it in a separate rolling backpack when I need to bring it to class. I have an E-Bot Pro that has been extremely helpful for taking tests and doing assignments in my science and math classes,  and it’s also a great tool for being able to see the board in classes where I can’t sit in the front row.

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Miscellaneous items

Pain relief tools

At the time of publication, my backpack has a handheld massage tool, portable TENS unit, and lidocaine patches that are used to help with managing the chronic pain caused by my neurological condition. If I need to use one of these tools, typically I will briefly get up to go to the bathroom and put the TENS unit/lidocaine patches on, or massage my arm/leg for a few minutes. Some of my friends also keep over-the-counter or prescription medication in their backpack, and professors are typically fine with students discreetly taking medication.

Nonperishable snack

Whenever I go to the dining hall, I like to grab a small snack for later that I can have if I get hungry. This can be something like a piece of fruit, a small dessert, granola bars, nut butter, or popcorn. However, it’s important to remember that said snack is in the backpack, otherwise, it might be a surprise discovery for later – I found something that resembled a Pop-Tart in my backpack that had been there since I was a student at my first high school, and I don’t remember ever eating Pop-Tarts in my life.

Earplugs

College can be a very noisy place! While I don’t like wearing over-ear headphones since they hurt my neck, I definitely wore earplugs or unplugged earbud headphones so that I could muffle environmental noise and focus more easily. This was especially helpful during school assemblies or in particularly noisy classrooms.

School sweatshirt

I wore this in class today because the classroom was very cold, and it’s a helpful item to have for students who get cold easily. I don’t bring this with me all of the time, but I love having my college sweatshirts for staying warm in a cold classroom or dorm building. I also bring a sweatshirt with me if I’m working on a special assignment for my college such as a public video project since some projects require students to have school spiritwear.

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Summary of what’s in my college backpack as a student with low vision

By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes, www.veroniiiica.com

Updated March 2024; original post published July 2017.

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