August brings our last few weeks of summer vacation before school begins. As we anticipate a new school year, we review the information that will help make this school year a terrific one!
- August 1: Unlock the Power of the Syllabus
- August 8: Confirm Availability of Accessible Tools
- August 15: Acquire Books and Information Independently
- August 22: Accessible Music and Tactile Graphics Tools
- August 29: Map Your Upcoming Travels
In this second segment of the series, we delve into “the paperwork” to make certain that all the tools we need will be ready on, or before, the first day of classes!
In the Pixar movie Monsters, Inc., main character Mike Wazowski opines, “Oh, that darn paperwork! Wouldn’t it be easier if it all just blew away?” Yes, sometimes, it does seem like paperwork takes over our lives. But, for blind/low vision students, paperwork can be the key to accessibility.
Most blind/low vision students in high school have an IEP (individualized education program). This legal document sets forth the services, accommodations, and modifications (including assistive technology and related services) that a public school (including public charter schools) must provide to a student who is blind/has low vision.
Some blind/low vision students do not have IEPs, and they may have “504 plans” instead (plans based on Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973). While there are definitely differences between IEPs and 504 plans, our rights to accessible materials do not go away with 504 plans. 504 plans even apply to private schools, so we can assert our right to have accessible materials that enable us to participate in the activities and opportunities offered even if we only have a 504 plan.
College (including training centers, vocational/technical schools, etc.)
After we graduate from high school (on leave because we are 21 years old), we no longer have the right to an IEP. However, our rights under Section 504 and under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) continue after high school.
We must take the initiative to request the accommodations (like the accessible tools mentioned above) from our college or training center, and most schools will develop a plan that sets forth the accommodations we will receive (these documents are called 504 plans, ADA plans, Disability Services plans, etc.).
What to Do with the Paperwork?
This paperwork (IEPs, 504 plans, ADA plans, etc.) contain a great deal of valuable information. In fact, this paperwork sets forth all of the accessible tools we will need throughout the school year.
What kinds of accessible tools?
These accessible tools often include, but are not limited to:
- Access to a computer with accessibility software (with screen reading and/or screen magnification software)
- Refreshable braille display; Brailler; Embosser
- Accessible curricular materials for all classes (braille, tactile graphics, enlarged print, accessible electronic documents), audio-described videos
- Large whiteboard at desk; Markers
- Tactile graphics tools (like the Sensational Blackboard or APH’s Tactile Doodle or Draftsman)
- Accessible measuring tools (large print ruler/protractor, tactile ruler (tactile caliper, click rule, etc.)/protractor, Talking LabQuest, accessible graduated cylinders, measuring cups and spoons, etc.
- Accessible athletic equipment, including balls with sound, accessible pedometers, high-contrast materials, etc.
The key is always this: we need to be able to do whatever our non-disabled peers can and are expected to do, so our accessible tools need to be in place and ready to go in order to allow us to participate in the activities and opportunities that our non-disabled peers are offered.
Again, these accommodations and tools are NOT limited to IEPs and public school. We have the right to request as “reasonable accommodations” items that we need to access activities and opportunities of most schools, regardless of the level of the school. There are some limitations on “reasonable accommodations,” and we welcome you to reach out to the Free Bridges Technical Assistance Center and Helpdesk anytime to get into the details as they apply to individuals.
Make a List
Right now, before school begins, we can review the document and make a list of the accessible tools it promises that we will have available. Sometimes tools are mentioned in different parts of the document, so it’s important to read every page and add to the list as we go. It doesn’t hurt to document the page number of the document on which the accessible tools are mentioned. Our lists can also include where and for which classes each accessible tool is needed.
Share the List with School Officials
Why share the list?
Legally, school officials should have all of the accessibility tools listed in official documents in place and ready to use on the first day of school. In real life, this doesn’t always happen.
We can improve the likelihood of having everything we need where and when we need it by taking the proactive step of reaching out to school officials to remind them what needs to be in place (and where and when it is needed). By taking this step, we not only help them provide us with what we need, we also show the officials how important our accessible tools are to us and how we are willing to take extra steps to help the school meet its accessibility-related obligations to us.
Which school officials?
In high school, while the Special Education Department may be primarily responsible for implementing IEPs, the entire school district is legally responsible for doing so. For this reason, it can be helpful to include several non-special ed. personnel in our communications about accessible tools, including:
- TVI/teacher of students who are blind/have low vision
- Case manager, if a different person (should be listed on the IEP)
- Regular education teachers (yes, all of them, including teachers for electives and extracurricular activities)
- Guidance counselor
- School principal
- Any support staff with whom you interact (transcriptionist, paraprofessional, etc.)
- Special Education Director (or Assistant Director)
Like high schools, colleges, vocational/technical schools, training centers, and other entities that offer post-secondary (after high school) education and training, have many individuals who may be responsible for different parts of our accommodation requests. In our emails, we can consider including:
- Disability Services Office staff
- Professors of each of our classes
- Student Services Office staff
- Technology Services Office
- Perhaps also Department Chairs – to provide guidance and support to professors
What should our emails say?
For most of us, writing a polite, but firm, email takes time and thought. We want to alert everyone to the importance of having our accommodations in place and on time, especially if we have had problems with this in the past. On the other hand, we have to work with these individuals, and we don’t want them to view us as whiny, needy, or demanding.
Some keys to a good email include:
- Good subject line: Clear and succinct, e.g. Touching base regarding my accessible tools for the 2023-2024 school year
- An introductory sentence that conveys our enthusiasm for the coming school year
- A paragraph that invites them to read the list (attached to the email) and notes how these tools allow us to fully participate in classes and activities
- Closing sentence/paragraph that (1) requests a response (to all) about the readiness of the accessible tools and (2) shares our willingness to provide any help needed.
As always, please reach out to us at the Free Bridges Technical Assistance Center and Helpdesk to help draft or review this email.
Waiting for responses
Hopefully, we’ll get a quick response to the email and get assurances that everything is in place. We might even get an invitation to pick up our accessible tools before school begins.
Or we might not get any response. This can happen for a number of reasons, and these last few weeks before school begins are often quite hectic for school staff members. Thus, after we send the email, it’s a great idea to make sure we get a timely response to it.
A great (and easy) way to keep track is to add an item to our personal calendars to remind us to follow up if we get no response in two or three days. If this happens, we can get hit “Reply All,” re-attach the list, and write a quick note like, “Circling back on this topic. Looking forward to hearing from you and working with you this year!”
Determine if changes are needed
No matter how good a job we do making the list, we’ll almost always need to change it over time. These changes can occur because new technology is available, because we are involved in new activities and opportunities, or because we encounter new obstacles in previously-accessible activities.
For example, a Biology class might require students to draw images they see in a microscope. If we have never had such a requirement in a class, we wouldn’t have known to request an accommodation of this requirement – such as accessing the images via tactile graphics and independently identifying the important features of the tactile graphic, such as in a Zoom video recording.
If we determine that we may need additional tools that are not listed, we can call a meeting to discuss and, ideally, add these to the IEP, 504 plan, or other document. Remember, the document can be amended whenever we discover an activity/opportunity for which we need an additional accessible tool.
Reach out for support
Regardless of how hard we try – or how proactive and communicative we are – we’ll still encounter inaccessibility. It can be so frustrating to work so hard to get access to activities and opportunities that are readily accessible to individuals without disabilities.
Sometimes, it helps to talk with friends and others who are dealing with (or who have dealt with) these same kinds of accessibility concerns. Just knowing that others truly understand the issues can give us the motivation we need to keep moving forward.
Please Reach Out ANYTIME!
We at the Bridges Helpdesk and Technical Assistance Center have decades of experience, and we are eager to hear from you and to help with anything you need – finding a syllabus, advocating with instructors and Disability Services Offices, and anything else. Please never hesitate to contact us!
Follow the Bridges Helpdesk Facebook page for more transition tips, and please contact the Bridge’s Technical Assistance Center’s Free Helpdesk for Maryland Blind/Low Vision Transition Students, Families, and Educators anytime using:
- Our Accessible web form
- Email: Helpdesk@IMAGEmd.org
- Text or Leave a Voice mail message: (410) 357-1546
- Bridges Helpdesk Facebook page or Facebook Messenger
This unique project is being coordinated through The IMAGE Center of Maryland, a center for independent living in Towson, and it is funded by a grant from the Maryland Department of Education Division of Special Education/Early Intervention Services.