By Megan Dausch, College Success Program Mentor
My freshman year of college was replete with triumphs and challenges, but overall, I ended the year on a high note and ready to go back for the fall semester. I hadn’t needed to advocate much beyond making sure I had accessible documents and textbooks, but all that would change at the start of my sophomore year.
My dad was always tasked with untangling the labyrinth of wires and getting my desktop computer set-up, while my mom, sister and I took care of organizing my things, making up my bed and unpacking everything else.
“It looks like there’s a new email system,” my dad said, reading the informational card the IT department provided.
“Yeah, I remember hearing about that. I hope it will work well with JAWS.”
I’m almost done setting up your computer; you can check it out when I’m done.” My dad said, his voice muffled from underneath my desk.
A little while later, I sat down and opened my web browser. I entered my school's website and found the email link. Logging in was no problem, and I could move easily through my list of messages, but I wasn’t able to actually type in the edit field to reply to a message. Hot Anger tingled up my spine.
I didn’t need this. I had enough worries about starting a new semester, finding my classes, and rekindling friendships.
Frustration and anger wouldn’t get me anywhere, I knew. Besides, if we could nip this problem early enough, maybe it would cause less anxiety for me, and other blind students later.
I took in a lungful of the hot, close air in my dorm room. “I guess I’ll be contacting the IT office first thing tomorrow,” I said grimly.
Early the next day, when most of my dorm mates were still unpacking and reuniting, I called the director of the IT department and my disability services office to make them aware of the situation.
First I alerted the DSO.
“I’m going to reach out to IT to see if I can show them what’s going on,” I said. “Maybe we can come up with a solution together."
“Okay, great. Let us know if there is anything you need.”
“Perhaps, if you wouldn’t mind just reiterating the importance of accessibility to them, and the fact that I need to have access to my email in order to do my work?"
Next, I called the IT department.
“It seems there is an accessibility issue with the new email system,” I explained. “I can’t type in any of the edit fields.”
He ran through the usual questions that nearly all tech support staff ask: have you restarted your computer, have you tried a different browser, are you sure you have the latest version of the browser and screen reader?
“Yes,” I said, hoping the impatience I was starting to feel was not creeping into my voice.
“Well, I’m not sure what we can do."
“Can you come and take a look at it. You’re more than welcome to come here, or I could meet you at the library and we could try it with the copy of JAWS there.”
First, he came to my dorm room and watched me navigate. After he observed the issue, I replicated it for him on the computer in the library.
“I’m not sure how we’ll fix this, honestly,” He said with a sigh.
“I know this can’t be fixed overnight, but what if I use a program like Outlook to access my email?"
“Normally, we don’t allow students to do that.”
“I understand, but I need to be able to access my email.”
“I’ll have to talk to my supervisor and get back to you."
“Okay, do you have a timeline for that?”
“I’ll try to get back to you within a few days.”
“I’ve contacted the disability services office, as well. They’ll be reaching out to see if we can resolve this quickly.”
The next day, I was told that using Outlook was acceptable. While in an ideal world, I would have liked the email system to have been accessible from the ground up, I was glad to have access to email in any form. To me, accessing my email through outlook was a reasonable accommodation.
Through education and advocacy, I was able to come up with a solution that met my needs. I did not expect the DSO to fix the issue for me, but I did expect them to support me in advocating for what I needed. The webmail system eventually became more accessible, and I learned something too. The way to navigate an accessibility barrier for me is by advocating clearly, setting timelines, and working with the tools and knowledge I have to find solutions.
Read part 2 of this 2 part blog series here: Working with your Disabilities Office, Part 2
is one of Learning Ally's College Success Program mentors. The College Success Program is a free program for students who are blind or visually impaired. You are connected with a mentor, audiobooks, and advice. Find out more by visiting LearningAlly.org/CollegeSuccess