The pursuit of post-secondary or higher education represents one of life’s most critical decisions after high school. This includes apprenticeships, college, professional certification programs, and similar. Attending these programs demonstrate’s an individual’s desire to enhance personal marketability to employers or create a startup.
In the 2014 PEW article, “The Rising Cost of Not Going to College,” those with college degrees earned 62% more than high school graduates. As a United Nation’s 2011 panel report illustrates, a disabled individual living in the United States earns on average 70% less than an equally qualified non-disabled person. Couple these disparities with the 47% unemployment rate for disabled individuals with a bachelors degree or higher as reported by Cornell University’s disability statistics, and one notices how important higher education is for disabled individuals.
Ascertaining such educational credentials imposes numerous barriers. As reported by the National Council of Disabilities, numerous administrative and accessibility hurdles exist. Laws and policies like the Rehabilitation Act, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (ACT) possess limited reach to ensure equal access. This stems from the lack of uniformity between institutions of higher education.
While most U.S. institutions of higher education operate a disability accommodations offices, the range of services differs based on funding and assessed personal needs. For someone with blindness, obtaining accessible version of text books and handouts might be resolved through accommodations. Solutions ranges from scanning the book and converting it into an accessible format or referral to non-profits like BookShare. Unfortunately, this process sometimes requires several weeks of advance planning, creating additional stress or falling behind with assignments. Now imagine if a student must drop a class and enroll in a new one within the first weeks of a semester.
Despite these laws and services, higher education is a daunting yet necessary task. In this next section, examples from my own experiences will attempt to highlight barriers to advanced degrees. I am not a traditional undergraduate degree seeking student, but a mid thirties blinded graduate student; however, accessibility obstacles do not discriminate. Some of the examples arose from my own faults, while others stem from administrative processes.
Registering for Classes
Two months prior to the start of class, a cold shower woke me up to the harsh realities of being blind on campus. During this period, I struggled to search and register for classes. The hangup originates from the People Soft campus solutions that forms the backbone of the entire enrollment, academic planning, financial aid, and other university services. The three main issues creating this extra stress includes witnessing the screen reader repeatedly freeze, highly confusing layout for blind users, and multiple unlabeled buttons and images. After mentioning this to my advisors, they stated that as normally sighted users, they struggle to figure out how to efficiently engage with the system.
Funniest part of this arose after talking with the IT department numerous times. The IT folks mentioned that an option exists that enhances accessibility for screen readers in the account settings. However, this option only appears to those who contact the IT desk and specifically request this option be made available on their profile. At no point did this information appear in any of the FAQ or guides.
Blackboard creates similar problems. The web interface breaks each screen into different frames. This dramatically differs from websites like this one or even Facebook, where headers, footers, and sidebars all exist in an easily navigable fashion. Screen Readers take a different approach by recognizing each frame as a separate element. This creates some difficulties transitioning between frames. As a blind user, the Blackboard iOS app offers the best solution to navigate Blackboard. Within mere minutes, I am able to download PDFs, interact with discussion boards, and review assignments.
There is a hitch, though. The University of Kansas and the University of Kansas Medical Center operates two different Blackboard services. As I take classes at both, i must sign into and out of each’ site to access materials. A single sign-on does not exist. To accomplish this task, one must schedule a few extra minutes in their day. This seems rather small, but imagine doing this multiple times each day for the entire semester.
As mentioned earlier, accessible documents represents the most significant barrier. Whether its due to inaccessible text books or reading assignments, I face this every week. To resolve this issue, either a Saturday or Sunday evening is blocked off just for this purpose. During this time, I am downloading PDF files from Blackboard and using either Prismo or DocuScan Plus to extract the text.
Post 9/11 G.I. Bill
Anyone familiar with the Department of Veterans Affairs’ website and tools understands the complexity inherent in the system. Every Veteran interested in paying for school through their G.I. Bill may do so by sending in a completed form or filling out a VONAPP application. Section 508 requires these online tools to provide equal ease of use for both disabled and non-disabled Veterans. When I read that the process should take 15 minutes to complete, I figured it would take me 20-30 minutes. Three hours later and two calls to the help desk, I completed the form. The cause for delay involves unlabeled fields, difficulties interpreting field requirements, and numerous incidences whereby the screen reader crashed or froze. Luckily, one only performs this task once, but given guidance under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, this hurdle should not exist. I have provided this information in greater detail to the Section508@VA.Gov team.
Even with the rigmarole above, obtaining higher education as a disabled individual empowers us to strive for greatness. The path to success starts before one even applies. Its the time one examines their life’s ambitions, analyze how different settings meets their needs, and most importantly discussing everything with support systems. In my example, the process unfold over a two year span, so try not to rush the process.
Once you identify and enroll in an institution, immediately develop rapport with the disabilities accommodations staff. Even if you intend on shouldering all of the burdens alone, its worth the time to understand the full range of services and assistance this office supplies. If anything, they will be able to inform you if their is an on-campus disabilities organization for peer support.
As for pending legislative actions, research the Technology, Education, and Accessibility in College and Education Act (TEACH). This bill aims to erect technical guidelines for accessibility in classroom environments. Numerous disability organizations marked this as a key priority.
Finally, do not be afraid to ask. Questions or request assistance. These actions demonstrate strength of character, and not weakness.