A Universal Vision of College

Imagine navigating all of the systems necessary for transition to college life; now imagine doing it without sight.

Photo of John Rose
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One of my responsibilities as a teacher of students with visual impairments (TVI) in the Short-Term Programs department at Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired is to teach a week-long class that helps prepare students with visual impairments what all they will need to know and do to navigate the college application process and to survive (and hopefully thrive) during their first year of college. Not only do I share with these students my story of transition to college, but we have opportunities to navigate college campuses, meet individuals with visual impairments who are currently in college, and discuss with advisors the whole process of transition. So, this is not a story of my transition to college, but instead it is a story of the challenges that students with visual impairments face when making this important transition.

When we consider the goals that typical students have when going to college, what do we think of? Independence, building knowledge, choosing and working toward a career are three that come to mind. Students with visual impairments have the same goals, but they face obstacles that students with vision do not. Students who complete a college application online are able to read the questions and fill in the blanks, but imagine what it would be like to do this using a computer with a screenreader and a braille display. Maybe this would not be so difficult, if a student has these skills, but these are extra skills. Learning to operate a screenreader and braille display are skills that must be learned in addition to the regular academic curriculum. 

There are other skills that are required for students with visual impairments. In our field, we call these Expanded Core Curriculum skills, and they include independent living skills, social skills, compensatory academic skills, recreation and leisure skills, orientation and mobility, career education, sensory efficiency, assistive technology, and self-determination. The majority of these skills are learned incidentally by students with vision, because they can see others doing things like participating in conversations or navigating a busy street corner -- both skills that are critical to success in college! During part of the College Prep class that I teach, we spend time creating an inventory of what skills these Juniors and Seniors are skilled at and which remain challenging. 

Through my observations, I feel like the biggest challenges for students with visual impairments are navigating the systems necessary. Independence is an exciting idea for everyone, but it is challenging to self-advocate and remain independent if a system is difficult to navigate and if there are not easily-identifiable supports in place for students with visual impairments (and other disabilities for that matter). I imagine a day when systems are based so strongly on a universal design principle that we no longer have to bemoan the complexities and can revel in the simplicities.

[Optional] Synthesize a little! In one sentence, describe what you learned from your empathy exercises or analogous research. (Ex: Good advisors make a difference.)

Universal-design systems make navigation easy for everyone.

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Photo of Donna Teuber

Hi John, Thank you so much for sharing your unique insight as a teacher who helps students with visual impairments navigate the college application process. I know a student who had to be an advocate in high school to have access to accessibility tools on her computer so that she could participate in all class activities. If you have time, it would be interesting if you could shadow one of your students for an hour or two and document the challenges. 

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