How a Blind Student Who Felt Locked Out of STEM Classes Challenged—and...

Digital Learning

How a Blind Student Who Felt Locked Out of STEM Classes Challenged—and Changed—Her University

By Jeffrey R. Young     Dec 8, 2017

How a Blind Student Who Felt Locked Out of STEM Classes Challenged—and Changed—Her University

Students who are blind rarely major in math or science, and Emily Schlenker understands why, from personal experience.

A pre-med major at Wichita State University, Schlenker was born without sight. But that hasn’t slowed down her fascination with organic chemistry. What has repeatedly snagged her ability to study it, however, has been when homework assignments include charts and graphs that her screen-reading software can’t process.

“If I went around to every single wheelchair ramp on campus and broke part of it, there would be an absolute riot,” she says. “The equivalent for me is going to a class and not being able to study the textbook. No sighted person would ever do organic chemistry with no homework—they wouldn’t stand for it—but I was supposed to do that, apparently.”

When Schlenker felt she wasn’t getting timely access to course materials in a form she could use, she filed a discrimination complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights against Wichita State, with help from the National Federation of the Blind. And last summer she won a settlement with university.

As a result, Wichita State is making changes across campus to improve accessibility, including developing a plan to deliver accessible course materials to students who are blind at the same time as all students. The agreement also calls for the university to perform an accessibility audit of its technology, hire or designate an official to coordinate access issues, and create a grievance process for “vision-related disability issues” for times when students feel an accommodation is not effective.

“The university was failing populations of students in a number of ways, and she was the student who stood up,” says Carolyn Speer, manager of instructional design and access at the university. “This needs to happen, and this is going to happen.”

Wichita State now has until 2020 to complete all of its pledged reforms, and officials are working to share their process with other colleges so those institutions can help their students before lawyers have to get involved.

Some changes have been relatively straightforward to implement. When officials realized that students who are blind had no way to get the information displayed on monitors around campus, for instance, they started a podcast that relays the same updates about campus news and events.

Other facets are harder, and require a cultural shift of sorts. For instance, educating professors on the need to make materials accessible and dealing with materials from a range of textbook publishers, who aren’t under the same legal obligations around accessibility.

In the past few years, hundreds of colleges around the country have faced legal challenges or civil-rights complaints over accessibility, says Kelly Hermann, vice president of accessibility and disability strategy at the University of Phoenix, who also co-chairs the special-interest group for online and distance education at the Association on Higher Education and Disability. Among those are institutions large and small, including Miami University in Ohio, Penn State University, University of Phoenix, Portland State University, and the University of California at Berkeley.

Accessibility v. Academic Freedom?

Schlenker says some of her professors have been her best allies. But others have resisted efforts to switch to course materials that work for all students.

At a recent faculty meeting at Wichita State turned, tensions rose as administrators announced their plans to improve the accessibility of course materials on the campus. A popular professor spoke out against the effort—and what he saw as a lack of faculty input in the process. And he wasn’t alone in raising concerns. The faculty member, George Dehner, a professor in history, said that he was happy to help students in his classes who are blind or have other disabilities, but felt the administrators were violating academic freedom by telling instructors what they could and couldn’t assign in their courses.

Frustrated, John Jones, director of the media resources center, remembers responding: “You’re right, you have the right to make that choice, and we have the right to decide who teaches here.” Jones later said it wasn’t his finest diplomatic moment, and has since “walked that back.”

He invited Dehner to join a committee on how to make textbooks and other course materials more accessible, and the professor accepted. But that doesn’t mean the issue of academic freedom versus accessibility is settled.

“Faculty make the decisions of what they use in the classroom based on what the faculty think is the best way to do that teaching, as opposed to an outside source telling them that material related to their course work is inaccessible for use,” says Dehner. He says some of the issue was how the plan was initially communicated, and the he feels that faculty input is improving the implementation. “I’m pretty satisfied now because the university administration and attorneys have changed course to recognize the concerns of the faculty.”

Jones argues that accessibility and academic freedom don’t have to be at-odds. He and his colleagues are organizing a series of trainings on campus to raise professors’ awareness of the issue—and to show them ways to make their materials more accessible.

Hermann, of the University of Phoenix, says that one problem on many campuses is that disability experts start conversations with professors by talking about legal requirements rather than culture change. “We lead with the law, and faculty feel like they don’t have a choice,” she says. “We haven’t talked enough about the student and faculty experience, and how we’re a part of that.”

Schlenker, the student who filed the complaint at Wichita State, says that “there have been improvements” since officials started their accessibility push. But she doesn’t believe the efforts have changed the broader culture on campus. “I still have people who assume me incapable unless I prove otherwise,” she says. “It’s just one of those things—you can compel certain changes, but you can’t compel a cultural change.”

Reaching Publishers

One challenge for campus accessibility leaders is that some of the most important players involved in producing course materials are off-campus—textbook publishers and courseware producers.

For Schlenker, one of the courses that gave her trouble—and led her to file her complaint—required her to use math courseware called ALEKS. Her typical way to interact with her computer is to use software that reads aloud whatever is on her screen, but she couldn’t get her screen-reader to understand the pictures in the ALEKS software.

She says she has had the same problem with some science textbooks, even when they are online. “I can read the text, but it’s full of graphics that illustrates what’s going on,” she say. “It might talk about a reaction or a synthesis, and the sighted people can look over at figure 25 and say, ‘Oh I really understand this.’ But I can’t do that.”

Tim Ferebee, acting assistive technology coordinator at Northern Virginia Community College, says that he sees the same problem on his campus with math and science courseware. Because the materials are produced by a company, he says, many professors assume that that means they must be accessible. But that’s not necessarily the case.

Accessibility rules are stricter for colleges than for publishers because colleges accept federal funds, which makes them subject to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The law requires campus activities and services to be accessible to those with disabilities, says Hermann, of University of Phoenix.

Hermann says major publishers have come a long way in increasing the accessibility of their materials in recent years, partly because of pressure from colleges. But some STEM textbooks are produced by smaller and more niche publishers who may not have the same awareness of the issue, she adds.

Tyler Reed, a spokesman for McGraw-Hill, which makes ALEKS, says the company is committed to improving accessibility, and that all of its new content follows the latest accessibility guidelines (known as WCAG 2.0 AA). It’s possible, in other words, that the course

“We’re also making a lot of progress in updating existing software and content,” he says. “ALEKS, for example, offers a number of screen reader-compatible higher ed math courses with a continually growing library of topics.”

Ferebee says that new technologies are emerging that may help with those tricky charts and graphs. He points to a new Braille device he tried recently that he says creates a picture that blind users can run their hands over (Ferebee himself is blind, so he has extra motivation to be up on the latest technology). “We were able to print out a picture of the elephant and you could feel the dots that make the shape of the elephant,” he says.

The fast-changing tech environment, both for online materials and for the tools that try to decipher them for students with disabilities, means that colleges must continually work to adjust to changing realities.

“This is an Alice in Wonderland hole that does not have a bottom,” said Speer, of Wichita State. “You can always make something more accessible.”

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