A personal Story by Sabra Ewing
For many students, accessible software is essential to learning. This is especially true for those of us who rely on assistive technology. Unfortunately, despite the wealth of publicly available information about accessibility, and a host of free resources, student and educator ignorance about accessibility requirements in education continues to create unnecessary barriers for students with disabilities. Here’s a personal account that I hope will illustrate the need for increased professional development in accessible learning.
I didn't think I would enjoy my required computer science course when I arrived there on the first day of my freshmen year of high school. We were supposed to start using a program called JCreater, which the technology personnel in my school district were unable to make usable by a screen reader. Believing this to be a great stroke of luck, I didn't mind when my vision teacher told me that the principal would waive the requirement for me and that I would take a gym class instead. Had I just done a bit of research, I might have learned about a free accessible alternative to JCreater that would have allowed me to easily work alongside my peers, but I didn't know enough about computer science to know what to look for. In any case, according to Newsweek and World Report, I was either attending the number 1 or number 2 public high schools in the nation depending on the year. I assumed that, if the knowledge of the teachers there, coupled with that of my blindness-specific instructors couldn't devise a way for me to fulfill the requirement, then nothing could. I lived in ignorance for the remainder of my freshman year, thinking that, without a doubt, I had gotten the better end of the Computer Science deal than my classmates.
During my sophomore year, I began to feel slightly apprehensive about the whole affair. I learned that, in addition to the first required class, I was being denied access to three subsequent optional courses. One was an advanced placement course, another was dual credit. In all, this equated to four classes that could have gotten me more ranking points. But I pushed these thoughts out of my mind. Ranking points didn't matter to me, I told myself. Neither did the fact that our school had a computer science team and a robotics team. It was true that both teams had many of the same members, and that I had taken to eating lunch near them each day, but that was only because they weren't too loud, not because I had any interest in what they were doing.
By junior year, I broke down and openly admitted that my interest in Computer Science was increasing. But there would be no point in pursuing it. The fact remained…I had not touched a computer during the two weeks I had been in the computer science class. I had never tried programming for myself. How could I really be sure whether or not I could do it as a blind person?
By the time I became a senior in high school, not knowing had become too much to bear. So near the beginning of the year, when we had a three day weekend, I began doing some research into the matter. By this time, I had picked up on the fact that there are lots of programming languages and that my peers had been studying a language called Java, so I decided to see if I could do the same. That night, I spend twelve hours installing software and learning to use command line as well as the basics of the Java programming language. Ever since I compiled my first application depicting a diagonal line, I knew that computer science was for me. I never considered asking to join the computer science or robotics team because I, along with the other students in my small school, was fully aware that I lacked the necessary skill to do so. However, I did ask the Computer Science teacher why I couldn't have taken the series of courses by using different software to debug and compile my programs. The terse response was that other software packages didn't effectively color code various information and that in order to be successful in the class, I would surely need one-on-one assistance the school couldn't provide. After recovering from my shock that this intellectually developed person couldn't understand that color coding has no bearing on the experience of a totally blind programmer, I began to feel angry and hurt. This difficult situation and others like it could have been avoided through education and increased social awareness for me and the others at my school.
This is an example of how despite the existence of accessible software, I still didn't have access to all of the same educational opportunities as my peers. Accessible materials are great, and they definitely constitute a big step forward, but those materials are essentially useless in the hands of un-knowledgeable students and educators. In this case, my teacher's lack of knowledge meant that I missed out on a series of courses and several extracurricular activities I could have really enjoyed. Had I not wanted to find out the truth for myself, I might not today be majoring in computer information systems and thinking of switching my major to computer science. Worse, my ignorance of the software available to me meant that I inadvertently sent the message to my peers that blind people can never be their full academic counterparts. Today, schools don't find it acceptable to deny access based on race, gender, and religion. Let's make sure schools also display knowledge and sensitivity toward students protected under The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.