by Kim Charlson
For decades, the expectation was that a high-school graduate who is blind would be going to college. However, what most of us don’t realize is that only 40% of college students who are blind graduate from college. Why is that, and what factors are contributing to this unfortunate situation?
The Perkins School for the Blind (where I work as the director of the Braille & Talking Book Library) decided to conduct some research and see what the obstacles to completing college for blind students might be.
Perkins College Success Research, conducted in 2016, was an interview-based project, including interviews with 11 current college students, with a range of experiences in college, 4 parents, and 11 college professionals, including admission directors and disability services personnel from around the country. The research findings indicated 13 takeaways.
The top issues included the following:
- Accommodations and access issues compromise learning;
- Self-advocacy and resilience skills are not well developed and the transition to college was not well planned out;
- Timelines for producing accessible materials sometimes led to not having appropriate materials on time to be successful in class and many students just couldn’t catch up;
- Disability support services vary widely from one institution to another;
- Assistive technology challenges often put students behind from the start;
- Orientation and mobility is a huge concern, and there is a gap in who provides it beyond just getting to a classroom, and general safety in busy campus settings;
- Social engagement is quite challenging, leading to isolation and loneliness, as well as missed opportunities for connection and growth
Generally, students who are blind graduate from high school believing that they are better prepared than they actually are. Combined with extreme variability of the quality of support from assistive technology to O&M training, and you have students for whom many little issues build up into insurmountable obstacles, resulting in up to 60% of blind and visually impaired students dropping out of college.
In response to the findings on graduation rates for students who are blind, Perkins decided to launch a program to address the numerous contributing factors and has called it College Success! This is an innovative, nine-month program for blind and visually impaired high-school graduates who are college-bound, as well as students who have attended college and are looking to hone their skills and return to college prepared for success.
It is a residential program at Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass., which will prepare students for success in college, career and life. The program centers on the Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC) as well as the specific set of skills that all students need to be successful in college. To this end, College Success at Perkins provides all five of the Pre-Employment Transition Services — job exploration counseling, work-based learning experiences, counseling on experiences for enrollment in comprehensive transition or post-secondary educational programs and institutions of higher education, workplace readiness training, and instruction in self-advocacy.
All students in College Success at Perkins will reside on campus at Perkins in a newly renovated dormitory, Tompkins Hall, that was designed to mirror a typical college dorm. Their learning will take place through individual and small-group activities on campus at Perkins as well as at local colleges in the greater Boston area. Students will have the opportunity to take undergraduate college classes for credit at Harvard Extension. As a result, students will develop their skills through real-world experiences rather than simulations of what college might be like. They will gain independence through guided and supported instruction from trained staff and learn to manage the demands of independent living and problem-solving through the typical expectations of college courses. The program will be individualized to meet the needs of each participant. Students will have the opportunity to take up to 3 college classes, for credit, mainstreamed with other students.
All students will participate in a series of seminars offered by certified instructors at Perkins. Seminars will include The College Experience, Health and Wellness, The Pre-Employment Program, and Know Your Rights. These lessons will be delivered classroom-style with opportunities for experiential learning integrated throughout the courses. Additionally, all students will be matched with job shadow opportunities during the second semester, based on interests, job aspirations, and general inventories of individual skills. Mentors who are blind will also be a part of the program.
For more information on the program for the next academic year, contact Perkins College Success at (617) 972-7728 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.