Vision-Impaired students discouraged by lack of facilities
Although severely vision-impaired, Jane Britt manages to get around campus using a white cane, but she was so frustrated trying to get readable online and printed materials for her coursework doctorate in psychology that she eventually gave up on university altogether.
Britt, who studied at three universities, two of them Group of Eight institutions, is not alone.
“I’ve heard of others who have withdrawn from university as well, “she says. “I have a lot of friends in this community who are tearing their hair out.”
According to a new report from Vision Australia, blind and vision-impaired students encounter “significant accessibility barriers when using online learning environments”.
Based on a 2017 survey of 35 current and recent university students studying at Australian universities, the Vision Australia report lists a range of barriers for vision-impaired students, including inaccessibility of online learning environments such as discussion boards; a lack of understanding and timely support from disability service staff, and the unwillingness of lecturers to change course delivery formats.
Titled “Online but Offtrack”, the report found 41 per cent of vision-impaired students used adaptive technology for screen enlargement, such as Zoomtext and Windows Magnifier. Other respondents used synthetic speech or braille-based technology. Yet even with the benefits of technology, the majority had difficulty at university.
The report recommends that peak body Universities Australia launch a “comprehensive technical accessibility audit of the online learning environments used by Australian universities “and use the audit for the foundation of a plan to improve services for in vision-impaired students; that UA develop a tool that can provide consistent and comprehensive information to prospective and current vision-impaired students about the accessibility of all online learning components, and that UA develop a national strategy for identifying vision-impaired students who may be at risk of falling behind due to barriers in accessing online learning.
UA chief executive Catriona Jackson said Australian universities would give “careful consideration “to the report and its recommendations. “In particular, this report will be of interest to deputy vice-chancellors responsible for academic and participation policies in universities, as well as IT directors, “she said.
For her part, Jane Britt says the problems she had to deal with were “pretty much universal “in all three universities she studied in. Vision impaired since birth, and deaf in one ear, she says her university experience was not a happy one.
Although she can use braille, she prefers to use screen-reader technology, because it is so much faster to access study materials. Yet even with the technology she had trouble. Coursework materials weren’t uploaded on time, she explains, and they were often not in the correct format, so she couldn’t keep up with her peers on the course. Even getting her textbooks translated into a format she could read using her screen-reader was often a slow and painful process.
When she complained to university disability officers and the tried to relay her concerns to her lecturers, the officers often got “pushback “from lecturers, she says, adding that they said it took up too much of their time to make special provisions for one student.
She didn’t have as much trouble finishing her undergraduate degree, she says, but it wasn’t plain sailing, with many similar systemic problems.
“All the way through, I had issues with getting my lecture materials in the format I needed, as well as getting textbooks and other written material, “she says. “Often I’d get into a classroom and they’d hand out printed material, and I’s have to sit there and not participate because I couldn’t access what they were handing out”.
Technical difficulties plagued her efforts as well, including simply accessing the platforms lecturers used for uploading lecture materials. She says incompatibility with screen readers was a near constant, and because of her vision impairments she needed high contrast materials – black on white or white on black. If a lecturer uploaded material that was a pale blue or darker blue, for instance, she simply couldn’t read it.
Then she would spend a lot of time trying to chase down materials she could read. “PDF,” she says, “was a particular problem, because it often cant be used with screen readers”.
After persisting with her course doctorate for a while, Britt eventually switched universities to see if a different institution would make her study any easier. “But I found the problem was pretty much universal, “she says. “In the end I left.”
Now she has some work, but she is finding it difficult to survive financially.
“I still have this desire to do higher research, which is why I declined to name the universities where I studied, mainly because I do want to go back, but it wont be into the same institutions if I do. I’ll look elsewhere and do a lot more research before I re-engage with higher education, “she says.