Updated July 2023; initially published November 2016
When I was in high school, my TVI asked me to create a list of reasons why I preferred to receive classroom materials in accessible digital formats instead of getting physical copies of large print materials. I shared the unedited version of this list on my website many years ago, and while my perspective as a young student with low vision is valuable, I want to give my readers a better understanding of why I preferred to get my schoolwork digitally, and why other students with low vision may have the same preferences. For this new updated post on why I prefer digital assignments, I have divided my explanations of each reason into two different sections, including what I wrote back then and what I would say now if someone asked me the same question.
As someone who has neck, back, and shoulder issues, I’m not interested in having to carry a heavy backpack filled with papers or textbooks. Carrying around several ten-page large print worksheets can add up very quickly, and having to sort through several packets can get frustrating very quickly.
My high school backpack resembled a black hole at times as I did not have very strong organizational skills when it came to keeping track of physical items in early high school. Since a lot of my assignments were printed on heavier paper and often had twice as many pages to accommodate for the larger print size, I could realistically have over a hundred pieces of paper in my backpack at any given time, not counting the increased weight of large print books or other materials. Folders were not a viable option due to the size of the paper, so I often had to spend a lot of time digging through my backpack trying to find my classwork.
Compared to physical items, I found it much easier to organize digital materials into folders by class and could sort assignments by date, file type, or other assignment characteristics, as well as run search queries to locate information. If I found an organization method was not working well for me, I could create a new system in a matter of minutes or add/remove folders.
Before I started getting all my work digitally, I would get my work enlarged on stark white paper that would cause glare on a page. Alternatively, when I got my work enlarged on colored paper, my backpack would look like I was carrying a rainbow and at times the colors of paper that I could see the easiest weren’t available. I can easily change the background of a page to be blue or put a red filter on my screen to reduce glare and eye strain.
My TVI had recommended that I receive physical assignments on off-white or colored paper as it would help me focus my eyes more easily since bright white pages or backgrounds can contribute to eye strain and fatigue. With digital content, I can change the page color or add a screen filter to decrease the white point of the display or use a tool like Night Light or Night Shift to decrease the amount of blue light emitted from my screen’s display without having to track down specialty paper or being restricted to only using one copier to enlarge assignments at school.
Quite simply, you can’t zoom in on a piece of paper. And when magnifying glasses give you a headache, if you can’t read something on paper, you have to get over it and keep reading.
If I didn’t sleep a lot the night before or if I had a lot of reading in previous classes, I would have trouble focusing my eyes to read assignments or information from a textbook. Instead of straining my eyes to read, I could instead increase the font size of whatever I was reading so that it was easier to read and required less strain on my eyes. Being able to change font sizes on my own was especially helpful when I was adjusting my glasses prescription or experiencing a vision decline and needed larger print for a short period of time, and it saved me from having to explain why I had trouble reading an assignment even if it was enlarged according to the specifications listed in my IEP.
One day, I needed to receive an assignment for my science class in 18 point font. To accomplish this, the assignment had to be enlarged so large, I couldn’t work at my desk. I had to work on the floor of the hallway because the paper was so large. With digital tools, a user can simply scroll across the page to read information.
After the incident where I had to work on the floor of the hallway, I started thinking about how much easier this would have been if I had access to a digital copy of the content, which would have fit on a computer display and wouldn’t have required me to leave the classroom or change where I was sitting. I liked using my computer or tablet to enlarge materials because these items consistently fit on my desk, while larger paper sizes often dangled off the edge of my desk or I would have multiple different paper sizes for one assignment.
I had several teachers forget to enlarge my work in middle and high school. By sharing a digital file, I can have assignments at the same time as my fellow students instead of having to wait for an assignment to be enlarged.
One of my teachers had mentioned that it was difficult for them to remember to submit copies of assignments in advance, which would lead to delays in me receiving accessible assignments. Since my teacher was often printing off student assignments from a digital file on their computer, I asked if they could just give me the digital file directly so that I could read it on my computer. While this teacher would give me assignments on a USB drive, the technology specialist at my school would later help me set up shared online folders so I could download assignments on my own.
I have dysgraphia, and typing is much easier than attempting to read whatever I wrote down. Since I can’t read my handwriting, so typing is much more efficient. I still have accommodations for print materials in my IEP though.
While my handwriting legibility has improved since I started practicing with the help of my HP Sprout computer, I still find it somewhat difficult to read my own handwriting or the handwriting of someone else, and it’s impossible for me to read pencil. With digital assignments, I have several options for writing my answers on a page, including:
Even though I had an accommodation to receive digital copies of assignments and content in my IEP, I still had accommodations listed for print materials and was approved to use pens and other items to help with the effects of dysgraphia.
It isn’t uncommon to see me using a screen reader one minute and a magnifier the next. My vision fluctuates regularly throughout the day, sometimes changing multiple times throughout a class period. This is one of my main reasons for getting digital assignments. There’s no way to predict how my eyesight will be on a given day.
One of the primary reasons why I prefer digital materials whenever possible is because if I am having trouble reading the original document, I have access to a “toolbox” of accessibility settings and assistive technology tools to be able to access the original content without having to ask for additional assistance. As an example, one of my assignments had very blurry text that was difficult for me to enlarge. Instead of giving up and telling my teacher “I can’t see this”, I decided to try using text-to-speech and have content read out loud instead, which worked out very well and meant that I didn’t have to miss out on class time to go track down another copy of the assignment. Having multiple ways to access assignments independently is awesome!
Students and teachers give me very funny looks for having to use large print. Some are downright rude about it. Some even say my large print is unfair to the other students. Nowadays, it isn’t weird to be typing on an iPad or using other technologies. Chances are, the students and teachers use them too.
When I was in middle and high school, I was in denial that my vision was getting worse and often felt uncomfortable about the fact I needed large print and other accessibility supports, because I often heard people complain about how difficult it was to make things accessible for me, or I would receive comments from others about receiving materials that looked different from everyone else’s. While at school, I preferred to use accessibility features built into mainstream technologies such as an iPad, computer, or cell phone, because these were technologies that students and teachers were more familiar with and therefore didn’t “stick out” as much as specialty tools like a video magnifier, large print book, or similar items.
It’s worth noting that people shouldn’t be embarrassed of using specialty tools or assistive technology to access information, as they often provide much more robust options for customizing displays and other features. However, as a teenager who didn’t want to appear “different”, I found that using mainstream technology helped me to feel more confident and less self-conscious about receiving accessible materials, especially when I experienced a then-unexplained sudden decline in usable vision.
Having to carry twenty sheets of paper around a science lab as opposed to an iPad was much more unpleasant and difficult to organize. Plus, I accidentally set my paper on fire once in a lab- as you can imagine, the teacher was not very happy.
I have a confession to make- everything I own has been dropped on the floor at least once. Sometimes it’s knocked off a table, sometimes I trip while holding onto things, or I go to put something down and it ends up in a place I was not expecting. Also, for every one page of an assignment that was printed in standard print, the accessible copy often displayed the same content over two or three pages, which meant I had double or triple the number of pages compared to other students. This can get difficult to balance, as seen by the fact I mentioned that I set one of my assignments on fire!
As I mentioned before, it’s much easier for me to organize my assignments digitally, not to mention that it is more natural for me to carry an iPad or smaller device to document information when away from my desk. This also helped when working on group projects in another part of the school- I didn’t have to worry about being in a space where I couldn’t fit all of the papers I needed. By having a large percentage of my assignments in a digital format, it was also easier to carry my backpack from class to class, as well as locate items.
By having access to technology in high school, I am prepared to adapt to any situation when it comes to requesting materials I can view. Anything can be found digitally now, and by knowing how to access it, I can adapt the world to my needs, instead of demanding the world adapt to my needs.
It is very rare that I encounter something outside of the classroom that I can read without having to change something about it. Thankfully, I had many opportunities to practice making items accessible on my own in the classroom, so it feels natural for me to do tasks such as scan in a document, change the font size, use a screen magnifier or simplified reading display, or have content read out loud. This was an especially beneficial skill to develop when preparing for college and learning to be proactive about receiving accessible materials.
By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes, www.veroniiiica.com
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