Ways to Practice Self-Advocacy in the Virtual Classroom

Even though I took over a dozen online classes in high school (and over three dozen in college), I seemed to always find ways to practice self-advocacy in the virtual classroom. While it may have seemed frustrating at the time, my case manager and other members of my support network were always very excited whenever I had the opportunity to practice this important skill, as they told me it would help me as I got older and went to college- and they were definitely right. Here are my tips for ways to practice self-advocacy skills in the virtual classroom and how to self-advocate in remote learning environments.

What does it mean to self-advocate? What does self-advocacy mean?

Self-advocacy is defined in the dictionary as "the action of representing oneself or one's views or interests." For students with disabilities, this is a fairly common IEP goal or Disability Services goal as it allows them to learn how to access resources and be successful when preparing for higher education or entering the workforce. Self-advocacy was my biggest IEP goal in high school, and I am proud to say that I did a great job with achieving it.

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Being able to explain my eye condition and how it affects me

While my eye condition (accommodative esotropia) is fairly common in children, it isn't a condition a lot of people think about when they think of low vision, and it's less common in teenagers and adults as well. I also have a neurological condition called Chiari Malformation that affects my eyes, which makes it even more difficult for someone to look at my diagnosis and predict what I can and cannot see. While I may not tell all of my teachers/professors what my diagnosis is, I do make sure to show them how it impacts how I am able to access assignments. For students who don't want to create images, knowing how to explain why an assignment is inaccessible is often more than enough- I might describe small print as being difficult to read and blury/double or pencil on paper as being like invisible ink due to the poor contrast.

While I was in high school, my Teacher of the Visually Impaired admitted that they hadn't taught a student before that had my eye condition or my (then undiagnosed) brain condition, and they asked me to create images that explained what I could and couldn't see. Knowing how to explain my eye condition and creating these images helped me tremendously in college when I started using a blindness cane, as I had a lot of professors who would ask me if I needed Braille or if I was able to see the board well enough.

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Explaining what accommodations I would need in the class in my own words

The accommodations listed within my IEP and Disability Services file were written with the physical classroom environment in mind, so a lot of the accommodations such as being able to sit towards the front of the class don't apply to online learning environments. However, I still receive accommodations for low vision in virtual classes, which include getting copies of notes, extended time on tests/quizzes as needed, and use of screen magnification software, among others.

For a majority of my virtual classes in high school, my teachers didn't get a copy of my IEP, but I did tell them that I had an IEP for low vision and that I would need to be able to zoom in on assignments and tests. In my college classes, I typically send my professors an email with a copy of my Disability Services file, followed by an explanation of what accommodations I will need specifically for their class- for example, if I will need image descriptions for graphs.

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Learning to make modifications on my own and explaining what works/doesn't work

As I've gotten older, I've often received copies of assignments and schoolwork that was not in my ideal accessible format, and I would have to find ways to make assignments accessible for my needs. This could be as simple as increasing the font size in a Word document, reading PDFs in Microsoft Immersive Reader, or using an on-demand screen reader to have information read out loud. Of course, I've also discovered a lot of modifications that don't work best for me, which include (but aren't limited to) getting vertigo from using a screen magnifier on top of a video, trying to use image recognition apps on my phone to recognize images on a computer screen, and even hitting myself in the face when trying to get a closer view of technology.

In high school and college, I approach accessibility issues by thinking about three potential solutions for each problem, though it's worth noting that not all of the solutions have to necessarily make sense- for example, I might jokingly suggest the best way to make my computer display hurt my eyes less is to turn my computer off and go take a nap, but that might inspire me to then turn on high contrast mode so that my screen is less frustrating to look at, and set a timer to take more frequent breaks. I can also share with my teachers/professors what solutions I have come up with for accessing content and what works best for me, such as enabling high contrast/dark mode whenever I will be working on the computer for long periods of time.

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Finding apps and tools that can help me with completing my schoolwork without help

My Teacher of the Visually Impaired and my case manager in high school both encouraged me to learn everything that I could about accessibility and assistive technology for low vision, which included finding apps and tools that could allow me to complete my schoolwork without their assistance or the assistance of others around me. While they didn't have any recommendations for how to find tools that work best for me, this gave me the opportunity to be creative and check out emerging technology.

In high school, I would frequently browse the app stores for my iPad and Android phone to find new apps, as well as check out different websites for new Android and iOS apps to see if I could use them as assistive technology. Now that I am in college and run my own website about low vision and assistive technology, I find out about new apps and tools through social media, conferences, and other websites/blogs that weren't around when I was in high school.

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Sharing what works best for me with my teacher and others

Whenever I find an app, tool, or modification that helped me to be successful in the classroom or when completing an assignment, I make sure to tell my teacher/professor about what I figured out so that they can use it to help other students, or at least get a better understanding of what works well for me. This can be as simple as configuring accessibility settings on the computer so that I can better use a program, or how I formatted my final project so that it would be accessible for assistive technology users.

In high school, I would attach a note to my assignments or projects explaining any modifications I made so that the teacher wouldn't wonder why I submitted assignments in a different format. I would also meet with my Teacher of the Visually Impaired and case manager and tell them about what I was doing to make classroom assignments easier to access. They were very excited to learn about what I was doing and encouraged me to write down information for other students, and I even created a few videos for a school technology class about accessibility settings, which inspired me to create Veronica With Four Eyes.

Now that I am in college and have my own blog, I write posts regularly about different apps, tools, and modifications that I use inside and outside the classroom, and send them to my professors as needed so that I can show them how I use specific technology for their class. I have met several other high school and college students who share my posts with their teachers/professors as well to explain how they use technology as well, which is super awesome!

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Asking for assignment modifications as needed

Even though I can make a lot of things accessible or modify them as needed, there are times when I have to ask for assignment modifications so that I am able to complete them without any barriers. This can include asking for graphics with high-contrast color schemes, using different software or alternative testing environments for exams so that I can use assistive technology, or getting a copy of an assignment in another format.

In high school and college, I would approach this issue by sending my teacher/professor a message saying why I would need a modification, and then giving a fair suggestion on what I think would work best. For example, when I couldn't see a white shape on a gray background on a homework assignment, I messaged my professor and told them that I was unable to see the shape they were referring to in the homework question because it blended into the background for me, and asked if they could send me a new version of the image where the shape was bright red and the background was bright yellow. They were fine with this modification and gave me an extra day to submit my assignment after they sent me the new graphics.

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Knowing when I need to ask for help

Even though I feel like I have very solid self-advocacy skills, there have been many times when I have had to take a step back, assess a situation, and realize I need outside help from my support network so that we can work together to solve a problem. While I have learned to solve more and more problems on my own over the years, part of the reason is that I can recognize what problems I'm unable to solve on my own, and then I take the opportunity to learn from others about how I can handle the same issue in the future. Some examples of asking for outside help in the context of self-advocacy in my online classes include issues with taking exams, being unable to access entire categories of assignments, and not being able to get accessible copies of course content from my professors directly.

In high school, my support network consisted of the special education staff at my school, my family, close friends, and other trusted adults in the school who would help me deal with chaotic situations that I could get into trouble for if I tried to handle them myself. In college, I know I can go to Disability Services, the Assistive Technology Office, my faculty advisor, and other faculty/staff members I have met over the years for help on situations that I'm not sure of how to handle by myself.

One of my favorite stories to share about the importance of knowing when to ask for help is the time when I was erroneously dropped from all of my college classes during the first week of the semester, and I had to figure out how to re-register for all of them in less than a week. While it was definitely a very stressful time, it showed that I can handle any situation that may come up and allowed me to really strengthen my self-advocacy skills.

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Practicing skills that will help me to be successful after graduation

As more and more colleges offer online and hybrid courses, it's important that students know how to self-advocate in their online classes and feel confident with accessing digital materials, as well as knowing how to write to professors about their disability or chronic illness. While I can't say that taking online classes is a great solution for all students to learn self-advocacy, students can still find opportunities to practice these skills and achieve their IEP goals or other milestones.

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Final thoughts

Self-advocacy in virtual classes may seem difficult at first, but the truth is that this can be a fantastic opportunity for students to take control of their learning and see what goes into creating accessible materials and helping them to be successful in the physical and digital classroom. I hope that my tips for how I learned self-advocacy in virtual classes are helpful for others as well!