Many of you have doubtless noticed that I haven’t been doing much blogging for quite sometime. Recent entries have primarily comprised redistribution of existing content with little or no additional commentary. There are numerous excuses and explanations for this absence. Some of you know the story, while many do not. In either case, I will spare all of you, my loyal readers, the pity party, doing my best to get back to the business at hand. Though I will quite likely not be blogging at the same rate as I have in the past, I will, at a minimum, endeavor to catch up with some critical topics in the accessibility arena, assistive technology and the online blind community. I most certainly do have some things to say about recent events, such as the Freedom Scientific versus GW Micro lawsuit and the NFB Target web site accessibility settlement. While you wait for my thoughts on these meatier topics, I would like to tell all of you about one of the obstacles that has been keeping me from blogging: my return to college.
In February of this year, I applied to Benetech as a candidate for the Bookshare.org Volunteer Coordinator position. A long selection process ensued, culminating in a visit to Benetech’s headquarters on April 16. As both a Bookshare subscriber and volunteer, I was excited about the possibility of being able to work with a group of people who shared my passion for accessibility. Alas, it just was not to be… On may 2, I learned that I was not selected. I was incredibly disappointed! In addition to my 13 years of direct experience working with technology, I decided I needed to complete a Bachelor’s degree, primarily for the purpose of increasing my likelihood of being selected for the positions I really wanted to pursue. Entry level technical support positions were just no longer enough.
After consulting many in my innercircle of family and close friends, I applied to the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, where I was accepted in June. Though I knew I would be dealing with considerable challenges holding a full time job as a technical writer while attending ASU on a part time basis, I knew this was the right thing for me to do. It was time to start giving serious consideration to my long-term future, knowing that my current job could not last forever. Unfortunately, I didn’t know just how numbered my days of continued gainful employment really were. On June 12, I learned that SonicWALL, the company for which I had been employed to deliver technical support services on an outsourcing basis for the past five years, would be bringing all their support operations in-house. We would all have to reapply for our jobs with the new company. In early July, I discovered that I would not be getting an offer, and was ultimately laid off on July 18. I believe SonicWALL discriminated against me based on my blindness, owing to the company’s unwillingness to spend approximately one hour of a developer’s time to make its Siebel customer relationship management (CRM) system accessible to me in a “standard interactivity” mode. It is my hope that this matter will eventually be ajudicated in a court of law or settled in a favorable manner. This experience certainly finished off my desire to continue a career directly in the technology industry. It was a final sign of the long past time for me to complete my education to move on!
As a student with a significant disability, it was even more critical that I complete certain preparation steps prior to my first day of class on August 26. The most important of these steps included:
- Enrolling in classes – I chose to start with one history and two journalism courses. Since one of those was a one credit class on English grammar for media writers, the total was only seven credit hours.
- Registration with the Disability Resource Center – I knew I would need some additional assistance and reasonable accommodations from the university, so completing this step was among my first acts immediately after registering for courses. Regardless of one’s attitude with respect to accommodations, it is always better safe than sorry. Register for DRC, even if you think you may not need their help.
- Acquiring alternative format textbooks – I acquired a list of all required books and requested assistance from DRC in receiving them in an accessible format. Rightly, it was necessary for me to provide receipts indicating I had purchased the print copies before the alternative format copies were delivered to me via e-mail. Alas, “accessible” does not always mean usable, and I’ll be covering this topic in greater detail later.
- Paid my tuition and fees – This is rather self-explanatory. Almost $4,000 later, after purchasing books, paying tuition and fees, I was finally all set to begin!
When “Accessible” Does Not Always Mean Usable
It is unfortunate that, when it comes to proactivity, I did not score an A Plus with respect to ensuring the accessibility of my textbooks. When each file arrived, I performed a cursory review and saved it in an appropriate course related folder for later reading at the appropriate time during the semester. I trusted that “accessibility” and “usability” would be equivalent, despite the fact I knew better! How many times have we all run computer programs or visited web sites that were reasonably “accessible” but were so challenging as to be impractical to use on a regular basis without serious additional screen reader customization? Books are no different! Two of my journalism books have serious readability challenges! One contains characters substituted with strange Unicode values, missing text and run-together headings, while the other contains diagrammed sentence examples that are unusable to me in the “accessible” copy! While I am sure I will ultimately find ways to succeed despite these barriers, they do represent examples of the difference between “accessibility” and real usability. As always, any suggestions on how best to improve my situation with these books would be quite welcome and appreciated. The two books in question are as follows:
- Dynamics of Mass Communication: Media in the Digital Age by Joseph R. Dominick
- When Words Collide by Lauren Kessler
My Big Week!
As I already stated, I am taking three courses this semester. My history course (HST 109) is online, meeting one of the few outstanding general studies requirements I have yet to complete. The other two courses are specific to my major. The history and principles of journalism (JMC 110) is held at noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays. English grammar for journalists (JMC 194) is held on Friday mornings. These courses are located in the downtown Phoenix campus, where the Cronkite School’s building is located. All my journalism courses will be held in this building. While the Tempe campus of Arizona State University is less than half a mile from my apartment, the downtown Phoenix campus is approximately 10 miles away. Fortunately, there are free intercampus shuttles available to make the trip. I ride three buses each way in order to transport myself to and from the downtown campus. Avoiding excessive listening to headphones or use of my cell phone during these trips, I have been able to socialize effectively with my peers on the shuttles and at the Cronkite building before and after classes. One of my new acquaintances has become a note taker in both my journalism courses. All in all, though a few challenges loom, I see my return to the university classroom after a nine year absence as an unqualified success.