As a student with a disability, it is almost inevitable that I would need to contact accessibility services sooner or later. You can understand my hesitance in doing so, given my prior experience with disability services.
First, I had to fill out a form, about my disability, how it impacts my learning, any accommodations I would need.
Then my doctor had to fill out a form to confirm that, in fact, my eyes don’t work.
So I had finally decided on my area of study, and I was ready to take my first course in October. I decided to take a detour before jumping headlong into my certificate program (more on that tomorrow) but my first course was paid for, and I was ready to hit the books on October 1.
Except… my textbook was in hardcopy print.
I bit the bullet and decided to purchase an electronic copy of my textbook. I’d heard terrible things about the etext books – that they weren’t accessible with a screen reader, and they were frustrating, and I would 1000% need to get my books in alternative formats – but I figured I could make a small investment to find out just how bad it was. Thankfully… I had no problems with the etext book. Sure, I got a paper book in the mail, which is acting as a big paperweight on my bookshelf… but I got my textbook on my terms and I had to wait for no one.
Did I mention it took nearly two months to get my letter of accommodation? It was three weeks after my class start date before I had any kind of acknowledgement from accessibility services. Thankfully, I had purchased my etext book, and was able to start my first course with little difficulty.
My second course was…. a bit more challenging. I went to take my first unit quiz, only to find that some portions of some of the questions were not read by my screen reader. After some back and forth, discussions with accessibility services, the faculty of business, and my course coordinator, I came to find out that the portions of any questions that contained fractions were pasted as images into the quiz. The only options available to me were to (1) withdraw from this course, (2) skip the questions with fractions and hope I got high enough grades to keep on going, or (3) get the information another way. Unfortunately, there was no way for course production to make the fractions compute into plain text that a screen reader could read. Accessibility services was not able to provide the quizzes in braille in a timely manner (which would effectively press a further pause on my studies, and is an inefficient use of resources to boot). Thankfully, a solution was found, and I’ve been able to complete these quizzes as time and energy permits.
I know accessibility services in many post-secondary schools is understaffed and overworked. but I can’t help feeling a certain sense of deja vu – that I am supposed to be extra responsible for making sure I can access course materials that aren’t made as accessible as they could be. Would someone in a million years have caught the issues with my quizzes if I had not just sarted taking them? Are students supposed to check with accessible services ahead of time to make sure that each little thing is readable with a screen reader, or that all course videos have captions, or that slide presentations don’t auto-scroll? Is that even possible? And at what point is it the school’s duty to make their materials as user-friendly to the widest student body possible? Athabasca University uses ProctorU, an online invigilator, but you cannot use ProctorU with a screen reader; this means I need to pay at least twice the price, and take time off work, to book an in-person exam. Am I missing something, or does that seem unfair?
I don’t have all the answers, but as my “detour” courses wrap up, and I start my certificate in earnest in May, I can’t help feeling a mix of complicated emotions. Do I request alternate format materials that I may not need, further burdening stretched-thin resources, or do I do the best I can with what I have, hope for the best, and try and advocate in the middle of the trenches? Do I push for equivalent exams in both cost and flexibility, or pick my battles and bite the bullet on this one?
I don’t have those answers… I just hope I don’t have to find them while cramming for my first final exam.