A guest post from Lucy Greco, a blind advocate for accessible technology. An Assistive Technology Specialist at UC Berkeley, San
Francisco Bay Area, Greco is the user of various assistive technologies since the early 1980s. She is passionate about the ways technology makes the world more accessible to everyone but especially to individuals with disabilities.
“For students with disabilities in college and universities, where do we draw the line between providing them support services and teaching them to be independent,” asks Lucy Greco.
I graduated from California State University Hayward in 1997. The ADA was only six years old and assistive technologies were nowhere near as extensive and capable as they are today.
Graduating from university seemed to be an extremely elusive target at the time. Every semester I was only able to take three classes. Two or three times I enrolled in a fourth but was never able to complete all four. I was an extraordinarily independent student according to the staff at the disabled students’ programs at the various schools I attended. When I consider the services offered to students today from various universities, I realize that if I had those types of services while in university, I could have finished much faster and possibly even gone on to earn a second or third degree.
Disabled students in postsecondary education in the United States have fantastic opportunities that nobody would have imagined 20 years ago. Their basic rights are protected by law. Almost every private and public school has staffing to support students with disabilities throughout their education. Some schools have additional resources to support students even beyond legally mandated services.
Student with reading disabilities are guaranteed access to their texts in a format tailored to their requirements. Students with mobility impairments are guaranteed access to classrooms and other school facilities that they need to use. Students with cognitive disabilities can receive accommodations that will allow them to complete their education.
I am proud to work at an institution that has always embraced its students with disabilities and helped them achieve what they want. The institution I work for receives additional funding from the Department of Education to provide non-mandated services for our students. I would argue that many of the services provided by this funding should be mandated by law. Although they are currently not, I appreciate our ability to provide these services.
Colleges provide the opportunity for young students to make the transition from childhood to adulthood. Many incoming freshman are shocked and overwhelmed by the level of independence demanded in college. By graduation, most college students have not only adjusted to the independence and freedom but have become independent adults. However, students with disabilities are at a higher risk of not achieving the same independence as their peers.
Students with disabilities can become as dependent upon a disability services
program as they were on their parents and the support network they had through grade school. Disabled students programs help their students negotiate their accommodations, such as accessing course materials or facilities.
My philosophy when working with my students is that students should be served as efficiently as possible, with support that is effective. But the students should be deeply involved in every step of the process. This is known as the interactive accommodation process.
The interactive process fails when students are not given the ability to contribute as much as they can to the process. For example, if a disabled student services office automatically distributes accommodation letters to faculty, students can very easily avoid communicating their needs directly. I’m not saying that students’ instructors should not be automatically informed with an accommodation letter, but that disabled students also have the responsibility to work with their instructors to see that their needs are met. Communicating effectively with faculty will help with communication in other life situations. A student who has never had to explain what accommodations they need may not even know how to clearly describe those needs.
For example, if an accommodation letter states that a student needs a room alone, I believe that the student should be responsible for working out the exact specifics with the instructor. At some point well in advance of the time when the need must be met, the student should sit down with the instructor and explain what “a room alone” means. Can the room alone be in an office? Can it have a ringing phone? Can it have a window?
Students receiving their course materials in a specialized format should also be highly involved in the process. While documentation describes accommodations, the disability service provider needs to directly engage with the student to be sure of how that accommodation is realized.
A student with a learning disability that affects their reading may benefit from one of several assistive technologies. Only by closely working with the student to try a variety of products can the best fit be found. For example, does the student need to hear the text, do pictures distract from the content, how should mathematical formulas be represented, among other questions.
Students should also learn how to create their own alternative media. They should be provided the opportunity to experiment with the alternative media tools to create the material. If someone has always scanned your books for you, then after you graduate, how will you perform this basic task? The most valuable skill I learned as a student was to create my own electronic texts from hard copies. I admit, I prefer using a human reader for most of my work because I find it quicker and better for me. But knowing how to scan something quickly when no one else is around to read it to me is a skill I wouldn’t give up for the world.
Some schools allow students use of assistive technology that the school owns. UC Berkeley helps students find what’s best and then acquire their own. I offer assistance to any student I work with in acquiring their personal assistive technology. Students then have the opportunity to use and learn as much about the technology that they can. They are also able to apply what they used in college to their professional and personal lives.
Sadly many students are not offered these opportunities. And others who are offered these opportunities do not take advantage of them. These are the students who become dependent upon the system to provide them with their accommodations.
By learning how to communicate personally and specifically so that their individual needs may be met, and by mastering the wide range of accommodating technologies, students are better able to work and live independently. This independence creates a more fulfilling life for students and allows them greater confidence and freedom in meeting their own needs and contributing both to their own well-being and that of the entire community.
The content of this post is the opinion of the guest author and does not in any way reflect the opinion of the Bookshare team. Comments from other university DSS staff are welcome!
Here-here! Having served print-impaired students for a decade, I am saddened some students’ major goal is to “score” as many special services as possible. Other students are embarrassed or afraid to use services they need. Take, for example Jane Doe (not her real name) who would not tell the professor she was visually impaired and needed to sit in the front row to be able to see the whiteboard. Take her classmate John Doe, who insisted on a private notetaker for every class, all his books in both PDF and Kurzweil, a magnifier in classs, tests on audiotape and special permission to use his notes during a closed-book exam. John is of course not his real name either, but I wondered, after providing for him every service I offer if he would blame his failing grades on inability to get some service he still imagined he needed!