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3. Virtual Learning with a Visual Impairment

When I was trying to come up with an intro for this episode, I felt like everything I could possibly say about virtual learning or the coronavirus pandemic had already been said by at least 10,000 different people, instead of trying to avoid being cheesy, I thought that I would try to be as cliche as possible by reading to you a memo I composed in size 72 font about the current circumstances. This is based off of the countless Facebook posts and emails I have seen in the past few months. Just know, that I apologize in advance. Due to unforeseen events. No, no, too vague uncertain times. Oh no, no. I got it. Unpreåcedented times. Legally Blonde & Blind production has not changed one bit because Marisa spends her whole day sitting on a couch. We, even though legally blonde and blind are only created by one person, are here to support you during these stressful times. We know that zoom fatigue is real, especially since you're staring in front of a computer screen that you probably can't even see because you have to sit at a normal distance. Instead, you can close your eyes and escape for approximately 25 minutes while listening to this podcast. Or if you aren't a fan of Marisa's voice, you can get a free migraine. My name is Marissa Nissley and welcome to another episode of Legally Blonde & Blind.

*Intro Music*

Welcome back to another episode of Legally Blonde & Blind. I hope you all had a great holiday season and are enjoying your new year so far. I have plenty of Legally Blonde & Blind content planned for 2021. Needless to say, I am very excited. Now, as many of you know, the reason I started this podcast was because my last few months of high school and my first semester of college were entirely online and I wanted to do something besides sitting on my couch all day. However, I was always very reluctant to talk about anything related to the coronavirus on this podcast, because whether through Facebook posts, family and friends, or news articles, I felt like I was constantly hearing about it. And it was very easy to get overwhelmed. However, I realized at the end of my fall semester that it was very important to talk about virtual learning for blind and visually impaired students, because we are an often forgotten group, especially when parents, educators, and students are trying to adjust to this crazy new normal.

In fact, when I was doing research for this episode, I often found that most of the websites and articles about virtual learning for blind and visually impaired students were targeted toward parents and educators, not the students themselves. So I wanted to compile a list of the challenges many of us face and then some tips I have gathered along the way. At least for me, I thought at first that virtual learning would just be a temporary change that would be in place for at most, a few weeks. But as I'm sure we're all realizing now virtual learning is here to stay. Even college students that are on campus right now, usually are taking a few online classes or have some hybrid components in their in-person classes. So whether or not we like it, virtual learning is here to stay and we almost have no choice but to adapt at this point.

Now, before we begin, I just want to note that every person's experiences and challenges are completely different. During this episode, I wanna mainly highlight my own personal experiences, but I also want to acknowledge some struggles people who use different assistive technologies or have worse vision than I do might experience. This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to challenges that blind students, disabled students, or students, in general, are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Alrighty. I think that intro was a little too serious for my taste, but I think it all needed to be said. I'll try to be more positive throughout the rest of this episode. But having been online since March, I really do miss the in-person classroom experience and I'm not gonna lie, accepting this new normal has not been easy for me.

For context. I am a freshman at Georgetown University and for the most part, our campus has been entirely online. In the fall, the only people living on campus had housing exceptions. And in the spring, there are plans to bring back some seniors, but for the most part, it's still mostly online. So anyway, since I am still living at home with my parents in New Jersey and I haven't been to campus since my sophomore year of high school, believe it or not, I haven't really been able to have that college transition experience or that experience of living on my own.

So before we get into my list of virtual learning challenges, I do have one honorable mention, and it's an honorable mention because it doesn't directly relate to virtual learning, but just the coronavirus in general, anyways, due to the plexiglass barriers and the social distancing stickers, I feel like every experience I have in a public area is like being in a TSA line. I know no one really has a good experience with the TSA, but if you are blind or visually impaired, it's basically a living nightmare. And here's why these people have zero patience. Right? And for whatever reason, they really enjoy using eye contact or hand signals or other visual forms of communication, rather than just saying, “Hey, it's your turn.” I forget what airport I was at. But one time I got yelled at by a TSA agent because I was over the line. And mind you, the carpet we were standing on was dark green and the line was black. So I couldn't see it at all. Anyways, the moral of the story is that if you're at a, if you're at a shop, right, and you see somebody stepping over the six feet marker lines, there's a good chance that they're just being a jerk and not considerate of keeping their distance, but there's also a chance that they're blind and just can't see it. Enough of me ranting about my bad experiences at airports and stores. Let's get into the actual list I made if you're blind and you are thinking to yourself, “Ugh, tell me about it.” I'm sorry, but I wanted to make a comprehensive list because I know not all of my listeners have a visual impairment. And even if you do, there might be something I bring up that you haven't personally encountered.

The first issue is website accessibility. Now I don't use a screen reader, so I'll only briefly talk about this, but essentially screen readers convert text on websites or documents into synthesized speech or refreshable braille, so that blind people can navigate on a computer. Now, when developers are creating websites, they need to include alternative texts for images, buttons, and links on their sites so that their software can actually tell blind people where they're going. People trying to navigate inaccessible websites can receive messages such as “unlabeled image” or “unlabeled button.” And I think of it as the online equivalent of when you ask someone where something is and they tell you, “oh, it's over there.” It's entirely meaningless. This of course has always been an issue for the blind community, but since we're relying on computers to communicate with our professors, complete assignments, receive grades and attend classes, website accessibility is more important than ever.

A study conducted in February 2020 by an organization called Web AIM Web accessibility in Mind found that 98.1% of the websites that they evaluated and, they evaluated over a million, contained some form of an accessibility error. This could be low-contrast text. It could be missing alternative text or missing links on these websites. And keep in mind that this was just an automatic scanning. Even for people that don't use screen readers, website accessibility still can be a problem. There can be hard-to-read fonts. There can be low-contrast texts. There can be blurry images or scans, all of which make completing homework assignments, conducting research, and communicating with our professors significantly more difficult than it would be for a sighted person. For example, in my women's history class, we had to read primary sources that were from the 19th century. And as I'm sure you know that cursive is nearly impossible for a sighted person to read, let alone one who basically just sees nothing but a blurry blob of words. So I had to rely on digitized versions of these documents, which fortunately my university's archives had, but if they didn't, I would've definitely been in a tricky situation.

The next problem is taking exams virtually. I want you to take all of the accessibility issues that I had just described and place them in the context of a timed exam. As Kaleigh and I discussed in the last episode of the podcast, taking exams virtually can be extremely stressful and difficult for blind students, especially when they involve graphs, maps, or other visuals. We also talked about how, if a student relies on a screen reader or another program to see the test, any kind of malfunction can be extremely stressful. Even if our professors are understanding and give us extended time, we're still taking away from what we should really be focusing on during the test is…the test. Like I was saying, I don't use screen readers. I just use the basic zoom features that are already on my iPad and Mac computer to see what's on my test because my nearsighted vision is relatively speaking, pretty good. It's still a stressful experience for me because I don't have the comfort of just being able to walk up to a proctor and ask them a question if something's unclear Before, if something was blurry on a math test, I could just go up to my teacher and they could rewrite the problem for me in Sharpie. It was that simple. Obviously, I can still ask questions in a virtual environment, but it's usually much more time-consuming. Another more comical problem that I encountered taking tests online was that, so I used the software called a lockdown browser. And basically what that does is it'll prevent you from visiting any other websites or messaging people while you're taking exams. It also watches your video camera and can log suspicious activity. And it flagged me because I was looking too closely at the screen. Now, of course, this wasn't that much of a problem because my professor had seen me in class before and knew that I just had to look back close to things to see, but it still can lead to some awkward conversations, especially if your professor isn't aware that you have to look two inches away from your screen to see things.

The third problem I have kind of relates to my last point and it's being on camera. Now, this might shock you, but I hate being on camera, which is why I started a podcast instead of a YouTube channel. I like to pretend I'm sophisticated when in reality I'm recording on an iPad, sitting on the floor with a hoodie and greasy hair. A zoom classroom is pretty much like 30 plus people staring directly at your face at once in person. You have people to your side behind you in front of you in class but on zoom, everyone's looking you straight in the eye when you have more difficulty than a sighted person seeing if there's something in your teeth or if your hair is sticking up, or if there's an undesirable item in the background, like a pile of clothing. Preparing for class can feel more like a photo shoot. And it's a pretty superficial point, but it still takes away from what you should really be focusing on, which is your class. Of course, I've also noticed that it's a lot harder to have those informal conversations about why you're looking closer at your screen or why you need to use a monocular online than it is in person, because frankly when you're in a zoom class, you're just staring at each other until the professor comes.

My fourth issue is a lack of access to services such as orientation and mobility training. I mentioned in the first episode of Legally Blonde & Blind that I was going to seek cane training because sometimes at night, my depth perception is really bad. And I would like to have that option just in case I'm alone at night and I can't see anything. Well, I reached out to my state's commission for the blind, and I found that I wouldn't be able to receive cane training, even if we took the precautions of staying outside, masking, and abiding by social distancing guidelines. Some things can be taught over zoom, but others cannot, especially when you're trying to learn how to navigate streets with a cane, because I hate to be morbid, but the point of having the mobility instructor with you there in person is that if you're about to go into a street and there's a car coming at you, they can pull you away. Whereas I guess on zoom, they would just have to..scream at you. Anyways, this was just something that I was exploring and it wasn't really urgent that I received the training because I will still be home for the next semester. And also, because this was never something I was planning to use all that often anyway, but it still highlights a problem.

My last two grievances with virtual learning pretty much go hand in hand. And fortunately, they haven't been that much of a problem for me, but I know they have been for many other blind and visually impaired students. Focusing in class and avoiding the dreaded eye strain and fatigue. As I was saying, I think virtual classrooms are a lot less stimulating for us because we're just staring at a bunch of blurry faces on a computer screen. I don't know if there was some non-visual aspect of an in-person classroom, perhaps it was the smell of 28 teenagers being shoved in one small classroom together that told me, “Hey, it's time to focus,” but either way. Much more tempting when you're at home to glance at your phone or go on Facebook or check your emails during class, which is very unfortunate. And after staring at your computer screen for several hours a day, you're likely to develop eye strain. Even if you don't have some sort of visual impairment. I experience a lot of light sensitivity. And even though natural lights bother me more than the lights produced on a screen, they still can get to me after a while. I think the hardest part too, is that most of our extracurricular and social activities are also all online now. I mean, before you could kind of take a break from doing your homework or reading or studying to go hang out with your friends or play a sport or go to a club. But now that's pretty much all on your computer screen, too. And if a visually impaired person is actively struggling to read something or squinting at it, they're going to get tired much faster than a sighted person would.

Okay. I've talked more than enough about all of the problems virtual learning can cause. Let's get into some tips. I think advice regarding virtual learning has become extremely cliche, like finding a workplace or taking time for yourself, but what do those things actually mean? And what exactly do those things mean for blind students in particular? I'm gonna start by talking about getting accommodations in a virtual environment.

The first tip I have is to get in your materials and request accommodations as early as possible. For example, when I was applying for accommodations at Georgetown, I had to provide several documents, including previous IEPs, a functional vision assessment, a letter from my doctor, et cetera. And since some offices are either partially or entirely online, getting these documents together can take more time. Not to mention getting your request in early can take a lot of stress off of you, especially as you're preparing for the beginning of your semester.

And with that in mind, it's also important to notify your professors of your accommodations as early as possible. My school required us to send a letter stating our accommodations to our professors. But even if yours doesn't, I think it's still very important to have that conversation as early as possible so you're both on the same page and you're not scrambling to figure things out before a test comes up. Another important thing to keep in mind is that since you're generally going to be communicating less with your professor online than you would be in person, how you explain your accommodations is crucial. I think that there is a sweet spot between being too passive and being too aggressive. If you have a letter from your university's disability office that explains the accommodations you need, you are not asking your professor to follow them. You're telling your professor what you need. It's not a question. It's something that you need and you have every right to receive them. However, being overly antagonistic or confrontational is not gonna help anyone, and emphasizing that you're willing to work with your professor throughout the semester and answer any questions you have will help you to build a stronger relationship as you work together. In my experience, any hesitance from teachers or professors has not been because they don't want to help me out, but because they are deathly afraid of technology. So if you're willing to explain to them how things work or point them in the direction of resources, it'll make them a lot more comfortable.

Finally, what accommodations you need will probably change over time, especially since the structure of online courses varies greatly. For example, I realized after starting the semester that I would need to turn off my camera when the teachers were playing a video or a presentation so that I could look closely at the screen without giving everyone a view of my nose. I emailed all of my professors and they were very understanding. But the point is, I didn't realize I would need to do this until after my first day of school. A quick note too is that if you're having any difficulty getting accommodations from your school check to see if your university has a Disability Alliance or a club. I found that in comparison to high school, students in college are a lot more willing to talk about their disabilities and share how they got accommodations from the school. It can be very helpful to have a student's perspective on these things.

My next major piece of advice is to manage your time. And while this is a good skill for anyone to have, it's especially important for blind students because we often need more breaks or we can run into technical issues with our assignments, both of which are easier to handle if you start your project two weeks before it's due, rather than the night before it's due. Time management is one of those things where people say you should do it, but they don't explain how to. So I tried to come up with some more concrete tips for me. Procrastination has never been that much of a problem. The best way to explain it is I get so worried about not completing assignments, that my anxiety almost prevents me from procrastinating. Most of the time, it's a double-edged sword without a doubt. But for my procrastinating listeners, my first tip is to pick one night of the week for me, it's Friday nights, because I'm very lame, where you basically plan out your entire week. And what I mean by that is you write down all of your homework assignments, any major tests, or projects. You write down your classes and your extracurricular activities. You also write down any personal obligations. Like if you have a family event that you're going to, and the idea of this is you want to get a holistic picture of what you have going on that week. If you think of it just day by day, it's very easy to push something off without realizing all of the things you have to do at the end of your week. So it helps you get a bigger picture of your schedule.

My next tip is to find your best hours. And I know it sounds cheesy, but try to think about when you get the most work done. Is it in the morning? Is it in the afternoon? Is it at two in the morning? It doesn't matter. Just find that time where it's really easy for you to focus and utilize that time. I also enjoy using virtual planners like Google calendar or to-do list apps, because I think it's a more constant reminder than if it's just a calendar on your wall, especially if you're visually impaired and you probably won't even be able to see what's on that calendar unless you're like two inches away from it.

It reminds you to implement some of that delayed gratification. If you haven't already, I highly recommend watching the Inside the Mind of a Procrastinator Ted talk. It is super funny. 10 outta 10 would recommend it. They will give you better advice than I could. My final tip though, for procrastination and time management is that if you find yourself wanting to put off a project, spend some time thinking about why you want to do that. Is there something about the project that's making you feel nervous? Is there something you're unsure about? And then think about how you can address these problems before it's too late. Could you meet with your professor during office hours? Could you contact someone else in your class? Could you utilize your university's writing center or other tutoring services? The truth is procrastination usually arises from stress and anxiety rather than just pure laziness. So if you can find the root of the problem, it'll make the process of completing the assignment a lot less stressful for you.

If you're having trouble focusing while you're in class or trying to complete your homework, I highly recommend putting your phone in another room and turning off all notifications for texts, emails, and social media posts on the device you're using to complete your assignments. A possible benefit to online learning is that it's never really been for me, but if you're a fan of those fidget toys, I'm sure it's a lot easier to use them while you're in class without distracting other people.

In terms of accessibility and navigating devices. It was very hard for me to come up with any universal tips, because most of the time, it just boils down to personal preference and opinion. For example, I could tell you that window zoom on your iPhone and iPad is better than full-screen zoom, but I know that a certain audience member who knows who they are, would strongly disagree with me. To reduce eye strain. I like using inverted screens in night mode or blue light glasses to tone down those harsh lights, but you may hate it and that's perfectly fine. The best advice I can give you is to experiment with different apps or technologies and be open to the fact that the accommodations you need may change over time. Also, remember that you are the most qualified person, determine what you need and what works best for you.

One of the best examples of this I can think of is that people often say that writing something down by hand will help you remember it more than typing something on a laptop. But for me, it's a lot easier to see and get notes down quickly if I'm typing as opposed to writing. So that just works better for me. That doesn't mean that laptops are universally better than handwritten notes. It's just what works for me. Another example is concerns over extensive screen time. I actually recently participated in an online study for my psychology course, where I had to record my screen time each day and it was several hours and it made me feel very guilty at first, but I remembered that “Hey, it's a lot easier for me to free read an ebook than it is for me to read a printed book.” If that means I have another hour or two of screen time, than I otherwise would, that's perfectly fine.

Lastly, this is definitely advice I need to apply more in my own life, but self-care is a necessary part of your routine. I want to make a whole episode about this eventually. So I'll only touch on it briefly, but self-care is not a luxury. It's not you being lazy. It's a necessity. One of my favorite ways to practice self-care during the pandemic is I like having phone conversations. I think online social gatherings can be very extravagant as a means of compensation, like a karaoke night or a murder mystery night, or a trivia night. But sometimes what I'm really desiring is just a simple and natural conversation. I think listeners who know me more closely are once again going to be like, “Marisa, why don't you internalize this advice more?” But I think everyone needs to hear it from another person at some point. We are living through a global pandemic. It's very easy to forget that because it feels so normal now, but these times are as everyone and their mother says extremely stressful.

I think that there is a lot of toxic hyper-productivity surrounding stay-at-home students because it's perceived as easier to take online classes than to take in-person classes. I personally put a lot of pressure on myself to do those. Oh God, what were they called? The Chloe Ting month-long workouts. And then I also felt a lot of pressure to go to as many club meetings as humanly possible because I was “just at home.” Anyways, I felt like any time that I was reading, watching TV, or spending time with my friends was a waste of time. When in reality it was the rest and relaxation that I needed to thrive as a student, especially mind you during a global pandemic.

One of the best pieces of advice that I've ever received is that if you're feeling less energetic or passionate or motivated because of the pandemic, accept that, getting mad at yourself or feeling guilty about it is not going to help you find a potential solution. Most people aren't operating at a hundred percent right now, but that isn't saying that you shouldn't try your best. It's just acknowledging the reality that we're currently in. Right. If you don't wanna go to a zoom bonding event, if you wanna take one less class than you normally would, or if you wanna turn off the news for a day and not pay attention to it, all of those things are completely valid. At a time when I've felt more drained, lonely, and disconnected than I probably ever have before, taking time for myself and doing things that I love has been crucial for me.

As I said before, this podcast has been one of the ways I've practiced self-care. The last few months, it's a way for me to get across a message that I really care about while also having fun, writing, recording, editing, and coming up with plenty of blind jokes for you all. Thank you for tuning into another episode of Legally Blonde & Blind. I hope you could take something away from this episode. If you'd like to stay up to date, you can follow Legally Blonde & Blind’s Facebook page or my Instagram @legallybb_. You also can follow the Twitter account, which I just created that has the same username @legallybb_. If you, by chance, got a migraine from this. Fear not for my thoughts will be condensed into 280 characters in this Twitter account. Once again. Thank you for listening and I hope to see you soon!


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