- Nathan Shagen
Nathan: Studying Computer Science with a visual disability
What is it like to study computer science with a visual impairment? In this post I provide a bunch of suggestions that helped me throughout my degree.
Being a visually impaired student, it can be tricky to overcome the hurdles that are much easier for the other students. Fortunately, there are many solutions which make your life easier. The trick is to learn about them in time and try them to see what works for you. I would like to share with you what kind of things I arranged to make it easier for me to study, regardless of my bad eyesight.
Communicating with the university
Making a good start is very important. When I started, I went to the Dean with my parents to discuss my needs and what the university could offer me. First of all, this will give you lots of information about how the university is organized. Since Universities are usually quite big, it is very helpful to know where to ask your questions about exams, regulations or specific courses. Lots of people will be clueless when they start studying, but you will not. Also, a Dean can tell you about extended exam time and other such things you are entitled to when you have a handicap. It is important to let your faculty know about these things ahead of time to ensure you will get what you need. Besides this, there is often a group of people working to assist students with handicaps. If there is, it is very helpful to go and talk to them as well. In general, go out and talk to a number of important people to make sure they know you and your needs and build a good relationship with them.
It is also a good idea to contact an organisation that helps visually impaired and blind students during their studies and careers. They have a lot of experience with different kinds of visual disabilities and they can probably accompany you when you meet the Dean or a supervisor of some kind.
When you start a new course, check the material beforehand to see whether it is accessible for you. Having studied computer science, most of the material is in a digital format, which I can easily enlarge. This can be very different when the professor is handing out exercises on paper or asking you to buy a book. Most books are available electronically these days, but when the professor has handpicked the material, this is probably not the case. When the material is not available in an accessible format, be sure to ask the professor to make a digital version available for you. The earlier you can do this, the better.
When the professor gives you just a few pages, you can scan them with your phone. Good apps exist, which allow you to take a photograph of a page top-down. The app will crop, rotate and enhance the photo. It can even allow you to convert the photo to text. You can scan multiple pages and bundle them into one document. I use an app called "CamScanner" for android, which can do these things. I am not aware of any such apps for iPhone but I am sure they exist. Doing this with an entire book is not very practical so I would not recommend this.
Sometimes, there are more fundamental accessibility problems such as when the professor is making extensive use of the blackboard. In my experience, this will make it a lot more difficult to actively participate. I use a small monocular to look at the blackboard. A monocular is mobile and easy to use. The downside is that it gives you a poor overview over the board and will make you tired very quickly. Besides a monocular, there are special high-contrast types of chalk which you can ask the professor to use. You can also ask the lecturer if you can take a photograph of the blackboard. Phones often have very good camera's these days, so a quick snapshot of the board allows you to study it afterwards. I can really recommend investing in a good phone with a high quality camera.
Things are much simpler, when the professor uses slides and digital materials. I think a tablet is one of the most useful aids you can have when you have an eyesight problem. It allowed me to see the slides and even make notes on them. Also, when you have the slides yourself, you can learn the material at your own pace and focus on the slides you have problems with. This allows you to get the most out of your lecture, while the rest of the class is forced to go at the same pace. You need to ask the professor to send you the slides ahead of time. The nice thing is that a willing professor can still share the slides a few minutes before the lecture starts. I was very lucky to have professors which did not mind sharing the course materials. Sometimes you do need to promise not to share them with others though.
A very simple thing you can do is to sit in the front. This not only allows you to see more, but will make you more engaged during the lecture and makes it easier for you to ask questions. Lecturers typically like this and will be more willing to help you, when they see you are making an effort to understand the material. Ensure you are at the lecture on time, to claim one of the front seats. Being on time also shows the professor that you are a serious student. This is important, because if you establish a good relationship with the people working at the university, it will make it a lot easier to ask for help.
Exams and computers
During exams, I arranged to have 30 minutes of extra time. Also, I use a slanted writing board which I can put at an angle, like in the picture. This allows me to read and write more comfortably, without having to bend over too much. My board is a heavy metal thing, which I store in a locker at the university, all arranged ahead of time. Sometimes, the tables in the room where the exam was taken, were too small to fit my board. In that case, they arranged that I could make the exam in a separate room with a few other special-needs students. This was very nice because it is much more quiet compared to the big room. It was my job though, to ask for all of these things for each exam I wanted to take. I did all my exams on paper.
During your studies, and especially if you study computer science, you will inevitably use computers. It is a good idea to bring your own laptop or tablet with you and configure it according to your needs. In some cases, you need to use computers offered by the university because some courses require special software that is licensed to the university. In that case, it can be a good idea to arrange a larger screen to be installed in the computer room. When I was writing my thesis, I wanted to work at the university every now and then so I asked them to arrange a monitor and a flexible arm (I use the Ergotron LX desk mount). I offered to pay for these myself, but they said this was not necessary. I had everything I needed within a week. I don't really use special software such as a screen reader. I much rather install a large monitor. This is a personal choice and I've seen plenty of visually impaired and blind people use screen readers. So it's best to figure out what works for you.
I was very lucky to be part of a small faculty. This helps, because professors can actually remember the names of their students. This makes asking for help much easier. Many people are not that fortunate and have to compete for attention with hundreds of other students. The culture at large faculties is less personal so people have less time for each other and are less lenient when you forget to ask for help in time. In that case, it is essential that you talk to your Dean or student supervisor every now and then for support and to spot problems before they occur. Unfortunately, there are professors who are not willing to help special-needs students. I've heard stories about people failing exams multiple times because they simply did not get the help and support they needed. This can be extremely frustrating and can cause delays and cost you money. However, if you tell your Dean or supervisor, he or she will be able to talk to the professor to resolve the situation. Remember that it is in the university's best interest to let you graduate.
Finally, it is a very good idea to try and connect with your fellow students. Discuss the material with your peers and ask them for help sometimes. Also, do check out the student union for your faculty. This will make your student life much more fun and rewarding!
To conclude, I think the most important thing is to connect with others and make sure they know who you are and what your needs are. The ability to politely ask for help is the thing that will get you furthest. Also, technology is your friend. Do invest time to get to know your laptop, phone and tablet and the software you use during your studies.
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