Learning Ally Blog: Access and Achievement

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Now more than ever, people with learning and visual disabilities are flourishing in the classroom, launching productive careers and becoming assets in their communities. This blog spotlights remarkable individuals who demonstrate that having a visual or print disability is no barrier to educational success.


Tips for Successful Remote Online Learning for Blind/Visually Impaired College Students - COVID-19 Edition
Bryan Duarte sitting on bench with service dog beside him

April 30, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio

By: Bryan Duarte, Learning Ally's College Success Program Mentor

When faced with a new online learning environment, these 6 tips can help college students who are blind or visually impaired to set themselves up for success.

1. Prepare early and arrive on time.
There is nothing worse than walking into a class late when everyone is already in their seats and class is about to begin. And, it is equally awkward when you show up to an online class after it has begun and everyone sees your name pop up late. If you prepare early, you will be able to navigate the online platform, join the class, and be ready before or on time.

2. If possible, take time to use the online platform before the class.
Many of us are now using online platforms that may present difficulties, aren't intuitive, or we've just never used before. But, understanding the learning management system designated by your college or university is so important to your success in online learning. It could be Canvas, Blackboard, or maybe Zoom, but whatever the tool, make sure you know how to navigate the systems before the class begins.

3. Do not be afraid to ask questions.
If the class is being instructed in real-time over an online video system, make sure you know the procedure your professor prefers for asking questions. They may want you to utilize the "Raise Your Hand" function or type your question in the chat box. Whatever the method, make sure you are willing and able to get your questions answered.

4. Know your professors' office hours.
Not all courses will be instructed in real-time. Some professors might decide to pre-record the lecture and post it as a link. In this situation, where you cannot ask questions in the moment, it is important that you find out how and when they will be holding office hours should you need help.

5. Continue to engage in class participation.
To remain social while practicing social distancing, it could be helpful to ask your classmates if they would like to meet up virtually to study. In cases where an in-person study group may be helpful, an online virtual meeting can still meet this need. It's also good just to spend some time talking with others!

6. Stick to your schedule.
It is very easy to put off assignments when things are online, especially if you do not have a set class time. That is why it is so important that you remain diligent and stick to your schedule. Even though some lectures might be recorded, listen to the recordings early and take good notes. Be ready to pause and resume the video to make sure you get all the key points.

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Navigating Online Courses for Blind/Visually Impaired College Students - COVID-19 Edition
Kristen Witucki headshot in black and white

April 30, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio

By Kristen Witucki, Learning Ally's College Success Program Curriculum and Content Editor

The world is becoming more virtual, and college courses are no exception. With the advent of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, colleges are all virtually virtual - bad pun intended.

Online courses offer students the benefits of convenience and flexibility. Depending on the course structure, distance learning usually offers students greater time flexibility. For instance, you may have a whole week to participate in a discussion or an entire Sunday to turn in a quiz.

But like everything else, online courses present their own challenges. Accessibility can very greatly, depending on the platform your campus uses and the tools you use. Many online platform vendors are aware of blind students' accessibility needs, but some have addressed them better than others.

Even if a course is accessible, you need to have or to acquire good computer skills to succeed in an online course. Don't worry, though, if you haven't had a lot of specific training. One of the fastest methods for success is just diving in and figuring it out. In a higher pressure situation like the change to an online platform mid-semester, it may feel especially terrifying. However, it is sometimes the only way, and Learning Ally's College Success Program (CSP) is here to help you!

As you navigate your online courses, keep the following tips in mind.

Start early!
In other parts of our website, we've emphasized the importance of interacting with professors and getting your books as early as possible. Apply this tip to online courses. Especially if you feel unfamiliar with or apprehensive about the platform, do not wait until the last minute to submit a discussion message, assignment or quiz.

Take time to "play" and learn.
Log into the course platform as soon as you can, check out and practice the different features to find out how your course is laid out. Starting as early as possible will decrease any anxiety you may have about distance learning, because you'll have time to learn by trying out the different sections of the course. For instance, you can practice using the discussion board on your course by writing a paragraph introducing yourself without pressing the submit button to post it into the forum.

Most online platforms contain the following elements for you to explore and learn: a discussion board, where instructors or students can lead a discussion about a relevant topic; a module for taking open-book tests and quizzes; a place to submit assignments electronically; and a gradebook. Instructors may also post presentations and handouts from which you can learn each week.

Finally, find out whether your DSO or campus technology center offers a tutorial about your online course platform. The tutorial may or may not be helpful, depending on how visual the presentation is. Alternatively, you can find a support person at the university who might be available to walk through the program with you individually or to help if you get stuck. CSP mentors can also help with these kinds of challenges!

Learn how the platform interacts with your technology.
When accessing online course material, you should always know the following information:

  • The type of computer you'll be using, either Mac or Windows;
  • The operating system;
  • The screen reader or magnification program and its version, if applicable;
  • The type of braille display, if applicable;
  • The online platform your campus uses - common platforms now are Blackboard and Canvas, but of course platforms are always changing.

After you learn this information, search for any instructions which may help you to use that platform effectively. For instance, if you use Jaws for Windows, and your school uses Blackboard to host online courses, search for "Jaws Windows Blackboard" or "blind visually impaired Blackboard" in Google. Blackboard or specific campuses have written guides and tutorials to help you to learn the accessibility functions of the software or program. Then spend some time learning and practicing the basic commands which will help you to navigate the platform more effectively. It may help you to focus on a few commands at a time, learn them well and then add a few more every couple of days. The small nuggets of time you invest in learning the platform will pay off in the long run when you are not frantically trying to figure out how to submit your final exam.

Talk to other blind students.
Unfortunately, not all course platforms earn an A for accessibility. They may seem completely inaccessible to you, just because you aren't familiar with them. Or they may not be set up to operate well with some or all screen readers or web browsers. Reach out to other blind or visually impaired students to learn whether they've used these programs and what made accessibility easier for them.

Learn more than you thought you'd need and spend more time than you wanted to.
This is yet another good reason to start learning your course platform early. While some accessibility problems are easy to solve with a quick question, you may find out that your platform works better in a different browser or with a different screen reader. Changing browsers, using Firefox or Chrome instead of Internet Explorer, for instance, doesn't cost anything except time and some practice. Learning more about your technology will help you to succeed in the course and will give you more technical knowledge in the long run.

Changing computers or screen readers may or may not cost money. If you find out that you need to make a costly change, contact your disabilities office or your state's department of vocational rehabilitation to obtain the technology you need. Then invest time and practice to make it work. Now more than ever, different VR's will be able to offer different levels of support and adaptability.

In a similar vein, don't assume that all presentations and handouts will be accessible, just because you could read the first one! Always allow yourself extra time to read course materials throughout the semester, so that you can convert your file or get additional help if you run into an unexpected accessibility snag.

Find social/emotional ways to connect
While many students eventually find that online courses are accessible for them after some practice, they also find that participating online can sometimes prevent them from having "real" social interactions. Making an effort to become a genuine part of a community will help you to have meaningful connections with people and causes beyond your online course. For more tips about connecting to your community, consult our group resources entitled "Making Connections" within the College Success Program curriculum, and look for help from our blog entries or support from our mentors to apply these tips to a virtual setting.

Conclusion
With time, preparation and practice, you will manage online courses effectively. You may even discover benefits to participating in distance learning opportunities over regular courses. Above all, they will help you to learn material in a meaningful way and to interact more with your technology.

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A Letter from Our CEO: Learning Ally COVID-19 Relief Program
Andrew-Friedman-Picture

April 10, 2020 by Learning Ally

Dear Learning Community,

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, many of us are balancing remote work and virtual schooling, while trying to make our homes a positive environment where our family members can thrive. It's a difficult time, especially for struggling readers, who are even more vulnerable. But your students and children can continue to learn and grow, and Learning Ally is here for them and for you.

I wanted to personally let you know how Learning Ally is responding to this crisis. We are mobilized and well-positioned to serve the needs of struggling readers, their families, and educators on a national scale.  

  • Between now and August 1st, we are offering schools across the country FREE access to the Learning Ally Audiobook Solution for educational institutions, as well as a professional learning suite with online resources and webinars for educators to assist with managing virtual classrooms and monitoring student progress remotely. If you are an educator and want to learn more about this offer, please contact us.

  • If you are in a household that is not served by a school district using Learning Ally, not to worry. We are discounting access to our platform for all families right now, which includes a robust set of parent resources to help parents guide their children at home. If you have financial concerns and cannot pay, we will not turn you away. You can apply for our fee waiver and get the Learning Ally Audiobook Solution for FREE. To get the Learning Ally Audiobook Solution join here and we’ll get you up and running as soon as possible.  

  • We have also increased our fundraising efforts to help us offer this critical support for struggling readers in need. Please be part of our community and donate here to help us reach and support an additional 500,000 students during this difficult time.

In this time of social distancing and sheltering at home, the Learning Ally Audiobook solution is a valuable resource. Since our founding over 70 years ago, for millions of people, Learning Ally has represented the critical difference between isolation and integration, between frustration and pride, and between struggle and success in the classroom and in life.

Please lean on us. We are here for you at Learning Ally to help make this time as productive, enriching, and educational as possible for the educators, students, and parents we serve.  

Sincerely,

Andrew Friedman
CEO and President

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Audiobooks as an antidote for stressful times
Child Ear Reading With Parent

March 17, 2020 by Aarthi Ramadorai

We know these are challenging times, and we want you to know that Learning Ally is here to help. With the recent crisis and school closings, your children are home. Please consider how Learning Ally can help alleviate stress for your kids and family, providing enriching entertainment, and also be an easy means of continuing learning and education. As we navigate through this time together, Learning Ally is here to provide support. Hopefully these tips can assist you.

Help your child get lost in a great read

Our human read audiobooks, with engaging voices, can transform books into movies in your child's mind. At times when it is hard to focus, Learning Ally's vast array of books can help engage your children and provide a healthy distraction from the challenging situation we are facing today. Through literature your child can be transported to another time in history, a different place enjoying cultures from around the world or even outer space. If you need a recommendation, check out our most popular reads for your kid’s age group. Who knows...you may encourage a binge “read”. 

Create an environment that’s conducive to reading

For younger children, you can make reading a special time. Use pillows and comfortable furniture to set up a cozy reading area in or outside your home. Discuss the books that your child is reading with them. Ask questions such as: What was your favorite part? Who were your favorite and least favorite characters? Do they remind you of anyone in your life? Can you think of another ending?

Keep up when school is virtual

For older children who are trying to complete school assignments, remember that Learning Ally has all the books that your children need to read for school, including new literature, classics and textbooks. This is especially helpful for middle and high school students. Learning Ally is already designed for remote learning.

Remember we are here to help

Finally, if you know anyone with children with reading based learning differences, who are also challenged by financial hardship, please encourage them to fill out our Hardship Waiver form or contact Learning Ally Customer Care (800-221-4792) to get set up with a need-based scholarship. At Learning Ally we are committed to serving our community.

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Most Popular Audiobook Reads This Season!
Dog Man: A Tale of Two Kitties Audiobook

February 28, 2020 by Aarthi Ramadorai

National Reading Month is upon us! A whole month dedicated to celebrating and encouraging people of all ages to read!

Hold on...

Why only celebrate reading for 1 month? Here at Learning Ally we celebrate reading all year round! Whether it’s ear-reading in the car, on the bus to school, or on vacation at the beach- audiobooks are a great way to engage struggling readers and help them thrive in school and beyond. Let’s join together as a community to continue to encourage, motivate and celebrate our young readers! Here are some current highly popular audiobooks for each grade band to add to your child’s bookshelf today to keep up the reading year round!

Elementary School Reads     

Don't Eat That! Audiobook I Am Not A Chair! Audiobook

Don't Eat That!

(K-3) 

I Am Not A Chair
(K-3) 
Dog Man A Tale of Two Kitties Audiobook Escaping Peril

A Tale of Two Kitties

(3-5)

Escaping Peril

(3-5)
       
       

Middle School Reads

High School Reads

 
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