Disabled College Students: Separate & Unequal

There is something both liberating and heartbreaking about being excited that you have your accessible textbooks on time. Liberating because of the profound freedom which comes from being able to open, read, and navigate a book with the same efficiency as your sighted peers. Heartbreaking because of how rare that is.

Every American university has an office responsible for accommodating disabled students. In theory, the office of Disabled Student Services receives the list of textbooks and either a purchase receipt or a promise to pay from a qualified agency, then submits a request to the books’ publishers to acquire a PDF or Word version of whatever the student needs. The DSS office receives the books, reformats them for optimum screen-reader access, and forwards the accessible files to the student before the first day of class. Worst case scenario, DSS can just scan the books themselves. This is unfortunately something of a fairytale.

The June before my first semester of law school, I began requesting accessible copies of my textbooks. Two months went by with no response to calls or emails. Five days before school started in August, the DSS office finally answered to say they hadn’t pursued the books at all. Weeks went by. When I eventually received the first batch, they were graphically scanned PDF’s. They were completely inaccessible to blindness technology. I didn’t have the necessary equipment to convert the books on my own, and trying to teach the DSS office how to use theirs was met with a mind-boggling defensiveness. The person whose job it was to convert books for blind students literally didn’t understand even the basics of blindness technology, and was offended that someone suggest she should.

After three more weeks and countless attempts at communication, the law school’s IT department decided to reformat the books on their own. The IT department went above and beyond to learn everything they could about what I needed. But they didn’t know what they didn’t know. Each time I thought we were out of the woods, we found a new, inaccessible feature of the text, like Property chapters containing pictures of the deeds or visual diagrams of complex ownership chains. It was November before I had everything I needed. Exams were three weeks later.

I managed mediocre grades in most of my classes. One of my exams called for the reading of detailed font attributes, and I was perplexed when a question near the end of the exam offered only identical answer choices. A sighted proctor came in to check. “Hmm,” he muttered. “I’m sorry to tell you this. Everything it’s describing is wrong.”

I did not do well. The program updated a few days afterward, but it was already too late. I barely scraped by. Data suggests that the unemployment rate for blind people hovers at around 70%. On top of that, the number of under-employed blind people—blind people who work, but still receive government assistance due to low or inconsistent wages—is estimated to be an additional 18%. So roughly 88% of blind people depend upon government assistance to survive. I really don’t need to add low grades to the mix if I want a shot at being part of the 12%.

For my second semester, the college of law didn’t bother with Disabled Student Services at all. They bought a copy of my screen-reader, JAWS, then learned the keyboard commands so that they could compare what they saw to what I would hear. They optimized each of my books, removing graphical elements and adding headings, tables, and transcriptions. The IT department joined together with the law library to print, scan, or convert my books as necessary. The books were almost perfect. All except two. One was a holdover from the previous semester which was workable, but clunky. The second was a mess.

My Contracts book was surreal. It was already optimized for accessibility, but the screen-reader would get lost in the middle of a paragraph and skip thirty pages in the wrong direction. It was hell. Nothing worked—Including printing and scanning the book with the library’s industrial-strength scanner. Something about the book was just… off. But I was trying to stay afloat in school. There are only so many hours in a day. I muddled through, and was fortunate to get another mediocre grade in the class. Still, having to work five times harder than my classmates for sub-par grades was wearing on me. And DSS couldn’t, or wouldn’t help.

We’re almost halfway through 2020. There is absolutely no reason that I should have to spend twelve hours a day trying to access material rather than just understanding it. Similarly, it is baffling to think that a seventy-something librarian and the director of IT need to spend months learning to produce books which should be coming fully accessible from the Office of Disabled Student Services to begin with. It was immeasurably frustrating.

Law school is difficult for everyone. That can hardly be emphasized enough. I could not be more grateful for the extra work my law school has put in. But let’s face it: Separate is not equal. Disabled college Students still have to fight every single semester for accessible materials. Every new book, website, class, or semester is another opportunity for Disabled Student Services to fail spectacularly. And people with disabilities are the ones left holding the bag. DSS doesn’t get low grades. DSS doesn’t have to deal with the consequences if we fail out of school, or if our grades are such that our degrees are effectively useless. We do. It’s as though civil rights for disabled students aren’t really rights at all. Their actions speak volumes. DSS offices think that accessibility is nice when it happens, sure. But it isn’t a civil right. It’s a kindness. And frankly, that kindness is kind of an inconvenience.

Title II of the ADA. The Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. For some people, these are inconveniences. *We* are inconveniences.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Blindness is *not* the problem.

On a positive note, my Summer is already off to a much better start. All of my books this semester come from a single publisher, and I was able to work with them directly to secure digital copies of each of my books. Plus, the government bought me a $1,000 Optical Character Recognition program so I can convert things like inaccessible PDF’s to fully accessible text documents. I was thrilled when the conversion worked… Until the book began skipping around in the same way that Contracts had been. I tried everything I could think of. With just a few days remaining before classes started, I called the company which makes my screen-reader. Maybe it wasn’t only a problem with Word, I thought. Maybe it has something to do with JAWS.

More than an hour and a fascinating remote access session later, we’d figured out that the awful formatting of the otherwise optimized books had nothing to do with the books, themselves. The problem existed at the intersection of JAWS’ scanning methods and Word’s settings in the backend. JAWS was trying to scan the page top to bottom, then left to right, and Word was trying to display the books in something like a left to right, then top to bottom view to maintain the integrity of the visual formatting. The solution was simple. We just had to go into Word’s view menu and click one-page mode, then draft view. It pulled out Word’s left-to-right formatting to make the entire book a standard, vertical text document. And suddenly, I had my life back.

PS—If you hate learning new technology, please don’t become an accommodations specialist for a disability center. Nobody needs that. And to those DSS offices, transcriptionists, interpreters, and parapros who really do care, you are amazing. You are rarer than you know and more appreciated than you could ever imagine.

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