Accessible educational materials

Timely access to accessible educational materials for students who are blind or visually impaired is a constant concern at every grade level. Arguably, in grade school, where instructors may have more flexibility in class assignments, the lack of accessible class materials can be less of a problem than in High School and College level courses. Because of the variability of vision problems, there is not an easy solution to the problem. How does the lack of accessible learning materials affect students? Let’s talk about it.  

Logistics

When instructors choose books and other content for the new school year (or semester), little if any consideration is usually given to the accessibility of the materials for blind and visually impaired students. This is not the fault of the teachers, and I am sure it is never done with malice toward low vision students, rather these decisions tend to come from a general lack of understanding of the needs of visually impaired students.  This is an inherent issue throughout the education system.

If a visually impaired student has taken a class previously, there is a decent chance that the materials are available in large print or audio format. Depending on when the visually impaired student before you took the class, new students may have to struggle with previous versions of the book if there is no one available to re-record the material. This delay in the student receiving the class materials in a useable format can cause the visually impaired student to fall behind in the class from the onset. Imagine trying to navigate the first couple weeks of a new college class when you can’t read the book or see the assignments.  

Nearly all colleges and lower-level schools have student support services, which coordinate acquiring the needed materials for disabled students. As you might imagine, the beginning of a new year or semester are havoc around these departments, with everyone racing to get students the materials they need as quickly as they can. There are many issues that can cause this delay to be even worse. Some instructors choose older books which are not readily available in digital format, therefore causing the student support staff to break down a book, and scan and OCR (Optical Character Recognition software which converts the pages to useable text.) each page for the student. This is a time-consuming process as it needs to be done page by page.

If teachers do not turn in their list of materials they require for the semester in a timely manner, the student services will not always have time to order them ahead of time so they can be made accessible. There still may be a delay, because some students need audio versions of the content, while others just need a large print version of the material, and there is no guarantee that the student services made both large print and audio versions for a previous visually impaired student taking that course.

General Education Classes (required for a degree) generally tend to amass a decent number of accessible materials, because more students are required to take them. Problems arise when students get to higher level classes. Since these classes tend to be more specific to a degree program, there could be less chance of a visually impaired student previously taking them. In higher level classes, instructors tend to change their materials to ensure that students are getting the most current information as they finish their degree programs.

Lastly, instructors often copy a page out of a book or other source to hand out to the class. Unless the teacher is savvy enough to create a large print version of the document at the same time they are making the ones for the rest of the class, the visually impaired student is stuck not being able to read the materials until an accessible version can be created. In my years in college, I had a total of one instructor who made it a common practice to offer a version of class materials in large print.

Frustration

With all that being said, I can understand the frustration of students Roy Payan and Portia Mason, both blind, they and the National Federation of the Blind filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Community College District, alleging discrimination under federal laws that guarantee equal access to education for those who are disabled. The students say they needed help from their community college: audio recordings of texts, computer screen reading software, and classroom materials in a format they could understand.

Understanding

As a former student, and being visually impaired myself, I am acutely aware of the difficulty these students face when trying to keep up with a college level class when materials needed for the work are unavailable. Change starts at a local level, and their case is being considered for the Supreme Court. College staff struggle with dwindling budgets to support all disabled students, but things have not improved. It is time for legislation to determine solutions for the issues surrounding accessible class materials. Unfortunately, it feels like it is not as easy as installing an accessible ramp, and that is why the system is where it is. Changes are going to be difficult if they come and having to ensure that materials are available in accessible format will inherently change the way some instructors choose the materials they require for a class. They my feel they are bending over backwards for a small portion of the population attending college classes, but blind and visually impaired students have as much right to attend and succeed in classes as anyone else does.

More Information

You can read more about the legal case mentioned here in this article.

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-03-02/disability-rights-case-against-laccd-could-go-to-supreme-court

National Federation for the Blind Home

https://nfb.org/

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