It can certainly feel daunting when your child or teen who is blind or low vision is transitioning to their next season of education (elementary, middle, high school, or college)! Much like the popular children’s book series First Day Jitters, you and your maturing child may have jitters—and more than a few! You may both have concerns about the many skills needed to succeed as a person who is blind or low vision in a new school environment complete with unfamiliar routines and social scenes and advancing academic challenges.
We invite you to peruse the following stories of transition. You’ll hear Emma’s mom share how Emma prepared for the transition to kindergarten. You’ll hear Ally’s mom share how Ally prepared for the transition to middle school. You’ll hear Alejandro share how he prepared for the transition to high school. Lastly, you’ll hear Marie share how she prepared for the transition to college.
As you read how each child or teen overcame obstacles in their transition, we hope you feel a little less alone, and we hope your jitters begin to subside!
Transitioning from Preschool to Kindergarten: Emma
The transition to kindergarten for Emma, who was diagnosed with bilateral retinoblastoma at nine months old, seemed daunting at first. All I could think about was how different it was going to be for Emma—a new building, new teachers, new kids, new routines. Emma is hesitant during change. There’s a fine line I walk between worrying about her and knowing that she’ll conquer anything life throws at her. Thankfully, Emma’s educational team knew what Emma was capable of and what her potential issues might be and could prepare for them. They also knew that Emma is more capable than she sometimes thinks she is, and they push her to do her best. Each obstacle that came up, we worked together to help Emma succeed and she crushed each of them.
When Emma began kindergarten, she had completed one year of preschool the year before and excelled both in the general education curriculum and in learning braille. We knew going into kindergarten that there would be certain challenges for Emma. She was going to a different school in our community, it was a new building to get acquainted with, there would be new kids, new procedures. There was going to be all the things every other student was getting used to, as well as some challenges unique to a visually impaired child.
Overcoming Kindergarten Obstacles with Services and Accommodations
Crowds and Noises
Crowds and loud noises have always been disorienting for Emma. She becomes anxious and uncertain. On the very first day of kindergarten, bathroom breaks with the other students proved troublesome. Between the echoing voices of the students, the blowing hand dryers, and the loud toilet flushes, Emma just couldn’t handle using the bathroom with her peers. For the first few weeks of school, Emma was allowed to use the bathroom in the front office. It was private and quiet, and Emma felt more comfortable there as long as the door was ajar and she knew her one-on-one assistant, Katelyn, was waiting right outside. Over time, they worked on flushing the toilet and using the hand dryer with the door closed. That first time was a huge victory!
After mastering using the single-stall bathroom independently, Emma and Katelyn began visiting the student bathroom. They would go when there was one else present, and give Emma the opportunity to use the bathroom by herself. She was in control of when she’d hear loud noises associated with the bathroom, and I think that helped her gain confidence. Once she was comfortable using the student bathroom, Emma would go on the bathroom breaks with the other students. And she did great! A seemingly mundane task that most people wouldn’t think twice about proved difficult for her, but with patience and encouragement, Emma conquered it. Chocolate rewards helped too.
Before the school year started, we met with Emma’s team of educators to discuss the plan for the year and to address any questions we had. We went out to the playground to see if there were any safety concerns. Emma has virtually no depth perception, making navigating the playground a bit tricky. The first step was to paint the edge where the sidewalk dropped down to the mulch, as well as the steps on the playground equipment. The bright yellow paint helped Emma know that there was an elevation change. Our TVI, Mindy, and Katelyn would stick close to Emma on the playground in the early weeks of school. They showed Emma how to safely use the playground equipment and helped her get comfortable doing so. As the year progressed, Emma didn’t need Katelyn to be by her side, and she was able to stand back and observe while Emma played. In the words of her teacher, “she runs around the playground like she owns the place”.
Mindy and Katelyn knew Emma before kindergarten and were well prepared to transition her into the new school year. But as the year got into full swing, they noticed that Emma needed some additional assistive devices. Something as simple as selecting the correct color crayon from the box was difficult for Emma. She confused dark colors for each other as well as various shades of the same color. Katelyn put a piece of tape on the frequently used colors that her teacher wanted her to use, “regular” blue, red, orange, etc. As more colors were required, Mindy brought in a board with rubber bands to hold the crayons that Emma could pull her crayons from. With the colors laid out individually, she was better able to choose the correct color.
Emma utilizes a variety of other devices and techniques to assist her in the classroom. She uses a slant board to hold her work upright. Mindy and Katelyn noticed that Emma needed additional light while working, so they brought in a lamp to clip to the slant board. They also taught Emma how to use a CCTV (video magnifier) during teaching time. She can turn it on and point the camera where she needs it so that she can better see what her teacher is showing. When highlighting sight words and words to know, Emma uses an orange gel crayon because it is easier for her to see with than a yellow highlighter that the other kids use. She also uses a black, erasable gel pen because it produces a bolder line than a pencil does.
Kindergarten involved other new experiences to Emma beyond the classroom setting. I made lunch for Emma each day and they also had a milk break with snack each afternoon. Emma’s preschool teacher explained how to open certain kinds of snacks and milk cartons, but the occupational therapist continued to work on those skills with her throughout the year. They practiced manipulating Ziploc bags, milk cartons, individual bags of various snacks, and lunch containers from home. They also practiced zipping and unzipping several types of coats and jackets. By the end of the school year, Emma was able to complete these tasks without assistance.
A concern of mine was that the other kids in Emma’s class would treat her differently or that they wouldn’t engage with her. In reality, my concerns were completely unfounded. The other students took to Emma right away. They noticed her white cane and that she had some other tools to assist her in class, but it didn’t bother them at all. They were curious and had some questions. So, with my permission, Mindy sat down with the kids and had an open conversation about why Emma needed her cane and other accommodations. She explained that Emma was just a kid like them and that she could do everything they could just maybe a little differently. There was never an issue playing or making friends.
Of course, I’m not surprised when they tell me how well she’s doing with one thing or another. I know my girl is strong and smart, and she continues to amaze me.
Transitioning from Elementary to Middle School: Ally
Change can be scary, trusting your child can be scary, and advocating for your child is tiring. I can’t let any of my feelings hinder or impact my daughter, Ally’s, excitement to transition into middle school. We have worked the last years to prepare Ally, who has oculocutaneous albinism with nystagmus, for the level of independence and advocacy to manage middle school’s challenges.
Overcoming Middle School Obstacles with Services and Accommodations
Orienting to a New Campus
This past year we have added orientation and mobility (O&M) as a service. Ally’s mapping skills and ability to follow routes will help her be successful as she navigates a much larger school and switches classes.
Prior to the school year starting, I reached out to the counselor to allow for additional time in the school to work on her mapping skills as well as changing the lock on the locker to be more accessible. Additionally, we have built in time with her O&M specialist to support Ally’s need for navigating the school in a timely manner.
Ally is continuing to learn technology tricks and shortcuts, as we know how much technology is utilized in middle school.
Through modeling and practicing, Ally is becoming more comfortable in advocating for her needs. We continue to support her in being aware of her IEP accommodations and how she can ask for specific needs at home.
My daughter is very excited about entering middle school and looking forward to the new independence and social experiences. She faces every challenge with grace and as an opportunity to educate others about her specific needs. She feels her experience and advocacy skills have prepared her to be successful in middle school and her next chapter.
Transitioning from Middle School to High School: Alejandro
Transitioning to high school was initially a difficult experience considering the new classes, teachers, and systems, but I found it evened out over time with accommodations and services from my teacher for students with visual impairments (TVI) and orientation and mobility (O&M) specialist.
Overcoming High School Obstacles with Services and Accommodations
I was told high school would be hard academically; I didn’t find that to be the case. Instead, I found it was initially difficult socially due to distance learning during the pandemic and reacclimating to in-person school post-pandemic. Additionally, there are so many more people in high school than in middle school, and high school is more group-oriented with cliques.
In middle school, I preferred staying in my classroom with a select group of students and my favorite teacher rather than socializing in the crowded lunch area. My teacher encouraged us to go outside with the rest of the lunch crowd to meet new people, explaining it would be good preparation for making new friends in high school. Looking back, he was right. Making new friends was the most difficult adjustment to high school, but in time I found good friends, and it’s no longer an issue.
In order to access instruction, I brought my BrailleNote and a laptop with JAWS, a screen reader, to the new campus. I also learned to use the iPad with VoiceOver. Additionally, I choose to use e-mail instead of Canvas, as Canvas isn’t user-friendly with a screen reader.
Orienting to an Unfamiliar Campus
And while you may think orienting to the new campus would be a difficult transition, I received O&M training the week before the school year started and am now comfortable getting to my classes. In fact, as a leadership student, I now give campus tours to new students!
Transitioning from High School to College: Marie
I have Leber congenital aumorosis (LCA), a degenerative eye condition, which left me partially blind until age 14/ 15, at which time I lost the remainder of my vision. In the years leading up to my high school graduation, my family members, teacher of students with visual impairments (TVI), orientation and mobility instructors, and mentors stressed the importance of advocacy to me and encouraged me to be my best advocate. After all, no one would advocate for me better than I would.
Overcoming High School Obstacles with Services and Accommodations
Choosing a College
When choosing a college, I began by examining each school’s disability services office and speaking with different offices in order to find which school offered the best services, while also meeting my academic and social needs and desires. When I found one that met my needs, I spoke further with their office and explained my disability to them and showed them the tools and technology I used. They let me know what housing, academic, and other accommodations I qualified for and I did my part to communicate my accommodations to my professors when the time came.
Obtaining College Accommodations
To obtain accommodations, I began by sending my professors an email introducing myself and briefly discussing my disability and the technology I utilize. I then asked them if we could meet in person to further discuss everything. I did this so that they would have the opportunity to ask questions and ensure that their course was accessible. This gave me the chance to make sure that they were appropriately communicating with disability services to resolve any situations that would be accessible. This method normally worked for me. Professors were able to learn about how I learned, ask any questions they had before the start of the semester, and get to know me as a person. This form of advocating for myself was easy. It was rewarding and led me to have positive relationships with my professors. They learned how to teach someone who was blind and through our conversations, they often learned about what came with blindness in general. They became comfortable asking questions and they became interested in learning more about what barriers individuals in the blind community may face and how they could assist.
I had my fair share of professors who were unwilling to follow through with my accommodations. During those difficult situations, I always remembered what I was taught in past years. I needed to continue to advocate, speak up, and fight for my education and when I did that, professors eventually complied. There were times I involved disability services and that added support was helpful. It was a reminder to those professors that they did not have a choice in whether or not they should follow my accommodations. It was law and they needed to abide by the law.
One skill-based challenge in my transition to college was mobility. I think everyone has this issue—traveling around campus when you don’t know the campus! But when you are visually impaired or blind, it can be an added challenge to orient to and navigate the campus. I found it just takes practice.
I received a little orientation and mobility training right before college began, and I became the handler of my dog guide, Raisin, at that time too, but the way I learned was just by repeatedly traveling and getting lost! I learned street names, built a mental map, and repeatedly rehearsed the routes. I also learned how to ask for help when I needed it.