Learning Ally Blog: Access and Achievement


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.

Summer Reading Recommendations Part 1: College Success Program Staff
Hands reading braille

June 22, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio

Compiled by: Kristen Witucki, College Success Program Curriculum and Content Editor

The College Success Program has put together a summer reading list so we could encourage our students and each other to gravitate toward good books we've either read or plan to read. I've recently learned about enough great books to start a blog series and below is the first in the series! I have to admit that hearing about the many recommended books leads me to feeling almost frozen by the thought of all the books I might not get to! We hope these book lists will help give you a sense of who we are and our program, and also offer some reading entertainment for everyone! Part 1 of our series offers recommendations from many of the staff members who work the most closely with the College Success Program on a daily basis.

Please note: these books are not necessarily available in the Learning Ally catalog.

Mary Alexander, National Director, Program Initiatives for Students

The Best of Us by Karen Traviss
This is an early prequel on the Galaxy's Edge franchise. My son is a huge GE nut and convinced me to read this book because he knew I'd love it. It opened an entirely new universe for me as there are so many GE books. I've since read a couple of the others and while I'm not a huge fan of reading about various military engagements, there is enough character development that they are very interesting!

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson
I found out about this book from my sister Becky. She is an attorney and shares my love of history, especially Great Britain during the time of WWII. I have not read this book but it's on my summer list!

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Given what has happened in the world I want to read something that makes me a better person. This book sounds like it might do that. I'm starting this very soon.

Katie Ottaggio, CSP Engagement Operations Manager

The Winemaker's Wife by Kristin Harmel
This was recommended to me by my mom and came on the heels of us both recently reading The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris (another great read). I really enjoyed this book as it featured a part of WWII I wasn't familiar with - the French resistance. It's a great historical fiction with a little bit of mystery and romance.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See
If you're a fan of tea, you'll appreciate how this book showcases its origins in China. It also explores a little known hill tribe and takes an interesting look at the differences in the tribe culture compared to the culture throughout the rest of the country, as well as the specific impact of the culture on women. I enjoyed this so much that I've added another title by this author - China Dolls - to my summer reading list.

American Fire: Love, Arson and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hessee
As a fan of true crime, I enjoyed this book as it took a deeper look at the "why" of the crime and takes you on a journey where you find yourself 100% against the perpetrator while still feeling sympathy towards them. For my true crime fan friends, I also recommend I'll Be Gone In The Dark by Michelle McNamara.


Abigail Shaw, Production Coordinator and CSP Mentor Coordinator

Recommended titles I've read in the last six months:
Educated by Tara Westover
Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman

I'm currently reading Queening by Candice Carty-Williams.

Books I'm planning to read this summer:
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla Saad
Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by activist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Saarashinga


Kristen Witucki, CSP Curriculum and Content Editor

I have read:
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
At first a character who dies over and over again did not appeal to me. I literally abandoned the book. I probably only returned to it because the whole stop and restart ethos is very similar to my life as a mother of three children. Anyway, reading about how one decision could have such enormous ramifications was very profound. It can affect which side of a world conflict you end up on or whether you have individual agency in your life or not!

I am currently reading:
Arranged Marriage by Chitra Bannerjee Divakuruni
I decided short stories fit my attention span at the moment, but these characters are also engaging and full of resonance and warmth. One of the stories, "A Perfect Wife," really resonated with the ways my husband and I handled a completely different conflict.

I plan to read:
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
I am very, very, very late to the hype around this book. All of Tayari Jones's novels have been wonderful so far. The book shows the points of view of a married couple who must deal with the repercussions of living in the shadow of a crime the husband did not actually commit. I've dragged my feet on reading it, because I worry about police surveillance in a country in which my husband and sons live as African Americans. I think I've avoided many good books that way, if I've worried they will hit too close to home. But a group of colleagues at work have contributed to a Zoom channel called "A Place to Talk Books," (more about that in Part 3 of this blog series, so stay tuned!), and one of them reminded me why I should read it.


Tom Hetzel, Controller

Recommended books I've read:

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the Moon by Robert Kurson

Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose

Looking for more reading inspiration? Browse the Learning Ally Audiobooks and check back in the coming weeks for Part 2Part 3, and Part 4 of this blog series.

Read More about Summer Reading Recommendations Part 1: College Success Program Staff

"Education is a right, not a privilege", read our statement from Learning Ally CEO
Learning Ally CEO Andrew Friedman

June 19, 2020 by Learning Ally

The events over the past few weeks have given me and the Learning Ally staff pause for reflection. In line with our values, diversity and inclusion are a fundamental premise of everything we do. We have no tolerance for racism or discrimination of any kind.

We believe education plays an important role in stamping out racism and discrimination.. Over the past 70 years Learning Ally has had a consistent purpose, which is for all people to have an equal and equitable opportunity to learn and succeed. We continue to believe education is a RIGHT not a privilege. In today’s environment it is incredibly important we do better for our most vulnerable populations, including students of color, low socio-economic status, English Language Learners and those with physical and learning disabilities.

Our goal is apparent, not just in our words but the actions we take. We are committed to helping educators understand how students learn and equip them with the best instructional practices to meet their needs and the needs of their students, especially those who are chronically underserved, to improve literacy and learning outcomes. We are working with leading institutions across the country, including UCSF and MIT to develop state-of-the art student assessments mapped to interventions and accommodations, all supported by robust communities of professional learning.

Our dedication to equitable access to education for ALL students is unwavering. We are committed to doing more and doing better.

Andrew Friedman

President and CEO Learning Ally

Read More about "Education is a right, not a privilege", read our statement from Learning Ally CEO

2020 National Achievement Awards- Congratulations to our winners!
national achievement award banner

June 18, 2020 by Learning Ally

Since 1959, Learning Ally has honored exceptional students with print and learning disabilities with two endowed scholarships. Students are recognized for their academic excellence, leadership, and service to others. Each award winner has a long list of honors and accomplishments, and they have thrived thanks in part to their use of accessible educational content and assistive technology provided by Learning Ally’s Audiobook Solution. We are very proud to announce our 2020 Winners! Watch videos below from our inspiring winners to hear their stories. 

Marion Huber Learning Through Listening Award

Awarded to high school seniors who are Learning Ally members and are learning disabled

Mary P. Oenslager Scholastic Achievement Award Winners

Awarded to college and graduate students who are Learning Ally members and blind or visually impaired

On behalf of the entire Learning Ally community, we would like to congratulate all our 2020 winners! 
The 2021 National Achievement Award Applications are now open! We encourage all eligible Learning Ally Members to submit their applications for these prestigious awards. Please submit applications by November 30th, 2020. Apply here: https://learningally.org/NAA/Application

Read More about 2020 National Achievement Awards- Congratulations to our winners!

Top Takeaways From Our Webinar - Where's the Cafeteria? Orientation & Mobility on Your College Campus (Even if it is Virtual)
Woman standing beside revolving door holding folded white cane and talking on phone

June 16, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio

By Katie Ottaggio, College Success Program Engagement Operations Manager

Once a month, the College Success Program (CSP) will host a webinar on a topic of interest to high school and college students who are blind or who have low vision, their parents, and the professionals who work with them. On June 9, one of our CSP mentors, Stephanie Zundel, moderated a webinar called "Where's the Cafeteria? Orientation & Mobility on Your College Campus (Even if it is Virtual)." Our guest speaker was Chris Tabb, an orientation and mobility instructor who has worked all over the country with people from infants to adults. Chris wrote the majority of our CSP course, "Travel and O&M," which can be found in the CSP curriculum, and he serves on our advisory panel.

In case you missed it, here are the top takeaways from this informative event. You can also view the webinar in its entirety by clicking here.

Choosing a College
When visiting and choosing a college, consider the following:

  • Think about your ability to travel independently and what that means on a small, medium or large campus. To get your food will you have to go to the cafeteria or the local grocery store?
  • Think past your freshman year. How will you get where you need to go in your sophomore, junior and senior years? Will your living accommodations change from a dorm room to an apartment, for example?
  • Tour large, medium and small campuses to get the feel for each type of location.
  • Consider climate and weather conditions. If you're looking at a college in a cold weather climate, how quickly will the sidewalks be shoveled? Is there a shuttle to transport students during bad weather? For colleges in hot locations, will you have to walk long distances in the heat? Are some buildings connected so you don't have to go outside?

Practicing Travel on Campus
The best thing to do to prepare to travel on your college campus is to just try it out. Many campuses in a city follow a grid pattern for their walkways while more rural campuses may have paved pathways that intertwine like a web. Discover the format at your college and practice that.

When practicing travel in the community, pick a place that you find fun to go to like an ice cream or coffee shop. You'll be more likely to follow through on your practicing when you have a reward at the end. Having a destination you enjoy gives purpose to your practice. You can also learn timing. If you go to the ice cream shop, do you have time to bring it home or do you have to eat it there?

Traveling is not one and done. The brain needs time to assimilate, so practice, practice, practice.

Maps are available in many different formats so try them out and see what works best for you. Cognitive maps are mental representations of where you are and where you need to go. Visual and tactile maps give you the ability to see or touch a representation of an area. Sometimes you have to create your own maps. Utilize dry spaghetti noodles, beans, small rocks, anything that can help you create a sense of space.

Safety While Venturing Out
To help ensure your safety while traveling, be sure to be aware. Don't wear your headphones or daydream as this will distract you from noticing your environment. You may not notice subtle changes in terrain or unfamiliar noises.

Be sure to share your schedule with people - your friends, roommate, etc. When people know where you're supposed to be, they'll notice when you aren't there.

Consider adding the phone number of your school's public safety office to your phone contacts so you can easily get a hold of them if you need to. Also, utilize the "share my location" feature on your phone, which allows you to share your whereabouts with others in the unfortunate event that you may get lost.

Traveling with a Human Guide During COVID-19
COVID-19 presents unique challenges to the travel experiences of people who are blind or have low vision. How can you maintain social distance while still using guide techniques? Here are some suggestions for dealing with this scenario:

  • Carry and use gloves, a mask and hand sanitizer and keep them with you at all times.
  • Utilize your elbow or foot to do things such as open a door or push an elevator button.
  • When using sighted guide, you can hold one end of a PVC pipe, relay baton or cord and your guide can hold the other, keeping some space between the two of you while still following their guidance.
  • Instead of holding on to someone's elbow, which many people use to sneeze or cough into, put your hand on their back or shoulder for guidance. However, it is important to minimize contact as much as possible.

Practicing Travel While Social Distancing
COVID-19 has greatly limited the travel options available. To keep up with your O&M skills:

  • Use virtual meetings with someone such as an O&M instructor or a person at your school's disabilities office to talk about transportation or travel planning.
  • Spend time thinking through what information you need to travel. Go through the practice of planning your trip. Lay it all out in your mind or type it up so you're prepared to do it quickly when you're ready.
  • Utilize available travel apps to plan out your trips. These include mainstream apps, such as Apple and Google Maps; travel apps, such as Uber and Lyft, and blindness -specific apps, such as BlindSquare, Seeing Eye GPS, Nearby Explorer and Soundscape among others.

Communicating with College Staff
Preparing for the fall on college campuses is full of uncertainty. It is even more important that usual to keep communication channels with college staff open and touch base with them frequently. They need to know that it is imperative for you to know where things are on campus and that you need the opportunity to practice travel routes in a way that is safe for everyone.

Read More about Top Takeaways From Our Webinar - Where's the Cafeteria? Orientation & Mobility on Your College Campus (Even if it is Virtual)

Top Takeaways From Our Webinar - A Crystal Ball for Blind/Visually Impaired Students: A Glimpse Into Your First Semester At College
Student with braille note-taker and open laptop

June 12, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio

By: Mary Alexander, College Success Program Director and National Director, Student Initiatives

Once a month, the College Success Program will host a webinar on a topic of interest to high school and college students who are bling or who have low vision, their parents, and the professionals who work with them. On May 6, 2020, our mentors hosted a webinar called "A Crystal Ball for Blind/Visually Impaired Students: A Glimpse Into Your First Semester of College." Mentor Bryan Duarte moderated a panel in which four of our other mentors, Maureen Hayden, Rashad Jones, Miso Kwak and Sam van der Swaagh, offered insight into the college experience as recent college graduates.

In case you missed it, here are the top seven takeaways from this impactful event. You can also view this webinar in its entirety by clicking here.

1. Students must be proactive!
Once in college, you'll be in charge of lots of details that other people took care of for you in high school. Know what they are before you get there. Professors and offices for students with disabilities are there to help, but in order to get the help, students need to be clear and specific about their needs and ready to work with people who might be new to blindness or low vision.

2. Reach out!
Develop relationships with professors, offices for students with disabilities, and others as they could have a lifelong impact. You never know whether a contact you think is a passing acquaintance could lead to a deep friendship, a useful work experience, or even a recommendation for graduate school or a job. Even if the relationships does not have a lifelong impact, these connections can help people become willing to work with you.

3. Position yourself for success.
When classes return to campus, define your physical space. Stand out by sitting in the front of the class, asking good questions, and arriving early to get set up. Even if classes remain online, arrive to meetings early, pay attention and ask good and thoughtful questions when it is appropriate to do so.

4. It's ok not to have all the answers.
Every freshman asks questions, and there is no reason you should not.

5. Ask for help; do it responsibly.
Sometimes, the most efficient way to accomplish something is to request sighted assistance. That doesn't make you less independent, just smart. However, knowing when to ask and when to be independent can be crucial. If you find yourself asking for help with the same process over and over again, think about whether you should be doing it yourself, and if you should, work on getting the skills you need.

6. Scholarship advice: apply, apply, apply!
Don't be afraid to look far and wide for scholarship opportunities!

7. Find your social niche; find balance.
It may take time, but don't give up, it's worth it. Use your interests and hobbies to inform your decisions (i.e., band, choir, student government, faith-based groups) to help you make social connections. However, if you have academic work, it's ok to say "no" to balance your work/play life. Learn to balance your school, work, and social needs.

Learning Ally's College Success Program will be conducting webinars monthly. To be informed of upcoming webinars, send an email to csp@learningally.org requesting to be added to our mailing list.

Read More about Top Takeaways From Our Webinar - A Crystal Ball for Blind/Visually Impaired Students: A Glimpse Into Your First Semester At College

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