The story of Rose, a former student who is blind. Rose shares the roadblocks she encountered with digital textbooks, education software and websites, during college.
For blind and low vision students, digital inequality in higher education is a significant roadblock to learning. In such cases, we are required to be more than just be students. We are also expected to solve the digital accessibility issues we experience in learning software and on websites. Our friends, teachers and professors also find themselves carrying an additional load to help us learn.
Becoming digital experts in order to take courses
It took a great deal of trial and error for me to learn the education software I needed to use in order to function in college. An Assistive Technology Specialist helped me learn the layout of the system until I became proficient with the software. I memorized most the functions and stuck to these steps each time I logged in.
Of course, there were hiccups, such as updates to the system which left necessary features hidden to my screen reader. There were also new tools utilized by certain professors which were very complex for me.
Like any student, I wanted to be on the go, so I attempted to use the mobile version of the software on my iPhone with Voiceover, with limited success. This meant that mobile resources were far less available to me, than they were to my fellow students.
Double time for me, my friends and my professors
When I couldn’t troubleshoot the accessibility issues with the software on my own, I had to enlist the help of my roommates and friends. I also had to ask for additional time with my professors to work through accessibility roadblocks.
For example, when I couldn’t access the course’s e-texbook, my stats professor arranged special office hours so that I could work on practice problems with him. My communications professor helped me to research accessible WordPress plugins so I could create blogs alongside my classmates. These work arounds required more time from my teachers, and also meant that I had to spend twice the time to complete tasks than my fellow students who were sighted.
After major updates were introduced to my university’s website, it too became inaccessible to me. This meant that I had to take time from my studies to work with the school’s webmasters and they worked to fix this.
What digital inequality in higher education taught me
The biggest lesson I learned in college was not to procrastinate when online tools and software were involved. Thinking well in advance of assignment due dates kept me on top of the constant accessibility struggles.
For examples: when I was conducting research for a project or paper, many of the online journals were inaccessible PDF images, which meant that they read as blank with my screen reader. Websites required lots of scrolling and search boxes and next buttons were often not labeled. This was very frustrating and put additional demands upon my time and energy that other students did not have to deal with. I always found an alternative, but should this really be the case?
Whenever I decide to return to school for an advanced degree, I hope that these issues are not as prevalent in higher education.
Students with limited vision or blindness, their friends and their professors, should not have to take on the responsibility of making higher education accessible in order to receive the same equal access to information sighted students are afforded.