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 has 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“I’ve heard of others who have withdrawn from university as well,” she says.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 en-counter “significant accessibility barriers when using online learning environments”.
Based on a 2017 survey of 35 current and recent university students studying at 24 Australian universities, the Vision Australia report lists a range of barriers for vision-impaired students, including the inaccessibility of online learn-ing environments such as discussion boards; a lack of under-standing and timely support from disability services 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.
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 pale blue on darker blue, for instance, she simply couldn’t read it.
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 can’t be used with screen readers”.
After persisting with her coursework 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 the 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 won’t 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.
SIAN POWELL, HIGHER EDUCATION & SCIENCE WRITER THE AUSTRALIAN