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Accessibility requires action

Faculty have a critical role to play in making sure the U is accessible to all students

By Kate Sophia

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It can take an average of one to two weeks to convert a textbook to a format a screen reader can recognize to accommodate a student's particular needs.

December 6, 2011

The first day of class is the University Bookstore's busiest day. Students line up, arms loaded with texts, optimistic and excited about the semester. They've received syllabi spelling out the lectures and assignments of the semester—and they're prepared to succeed. For students like Tobin, however, buying books and getting syllabi on the first day of class means starting the semester two weeks behind. That's why it's critical for instructors to submit course materials to the U's Disability Services weeks in advance of the start of classes.

Tobin, a senior in the College of Liberal Arts who requested that his real name not be used, has "low-vision"—a disability that requires printed text, such as textbooks and other course materials, to be converted to another format. Print disabilities can be a visual impairment, a physical limitation, a learning disability, or anything else that prevents someone from reading print. With technology advancements in scanning and screen readers, making printed materials accessible has never been easier or faster, but it still takes time. Time that is crucial for students.

Getting started

There are many reasons why instructors don’t upload a syllabus to the Course Guide prior to the start of the semester, but the biggest one is lack of awareness of its existence and importance, particularly for students like Tobin.

Getting started is easy. It takes only a few minutes to enter a course description, upload a recent syllabus, or link to an existing website. Instructors can access information and support about entering course information at Course Guide.

A team of specialists
The University's Disability Services has a team dedicated to handling document conversion, but it takes, on average, one to two weeks to convert a text—math and science texts can take much longer to convert as a staff member must manually edit the text so a screen reader can recognize it. The vast majority of texts are converted to one of two electronic formats: Rich Text Format (RTF) and Kurzweil, which allow them to be read aloud by computer software known as a screen reader, or otherwise manipulated to accommodate a student's particular needs. Other programs, for example, can convert these formats to audio mp3 files, which allow the student to listen to the text on a portable player.

The multi-step process of document conversion starts once the team receives the textbook from the bookstore. Then the Disability Services conversion team must prioritize their work.

The first priority goes to texts (and sometimes chapters of complex texts) that are listed in the syllabus as being the first required readings and assignments; if a class syllabus is not available, they simply convert the first two chapters of each text. While this is the best guess the team has, it's not uncommon for instructors to start elsewhere in the text, leaving the student at a disadvantage.

What all this means is that in order to be on the same footing as those students lining up in the bookstore on the first day of class, Tobin needs to buy his textbooks and have syllabi from his instructors at least two weeks before then, and even earlier for math and science classes.

One student's story

Tobin elected to come to the University of Minnesota in part because he was impressed with the U's disability services and the systems in place to make accommodations for students with print disabilities. However, he finds that almost all of his instructors are unfamiliar with the process and need an explanation regarding document conversion for course materials.

Passionate about both his studies and spreading awareness about document conversion for students with print disabilities, Tobin takes it upon himself to seek out his instructors two to three months before the semester starts to introduce himself, explain his situation, and ask for the items he needs to come to class prepared on the first day. Tobin provided one example of a successful exchange with a history professor:

"The professor was very, very helpful. He got me the syllabus ahead of time and let me know what I needed in terms of the book and what we would be covering. I was able to meet with him in person and say, 'Here's the situation: they are going to turn my book into an electronic format. Are there any supplementary materials?' He said, 'Yes, here's what we'll be covering and I'll send this over to Disability Services right away.'"

The result of this meeting was that Tobin was only one to two days behind in the reading instead of one to two weeks. "I was able to catch up on the reading I missed and keep up with what was going on in the course. It makes for a much more positive, less stressful experience if you're not worried about missing out on the readings when you have the exam. It's being able to access the material that you need to study to do well and be successful," he said.

Most students do not go to the lengths Tobin does to get their course information. Many do not want to disclose their disability at all, and most don't have the time or energy to track down instructors months in advance and crack the whip. And they shouldn't have to.

A ready solution

There are many ways that instructors can make a syllabus available to students before the first day of class, but only one is an established, centralized, and public resource that is accessible to both students and those supporting them: the Course Guide.

The Course Guide is an online publication created to give students the information they need to make informed registration decisions. It is a flexible tool that can meet the needs of different instructors, courses, and scenarios to provide details about a course, such as course content, evaluation criteria, and instruction style. It also allows faculty to upload attachments such as syllabi, videos, and the instructor's bio and photo to NetFiles, which serves as a permanent repository for these individual documents and allows them to be linked to from other websites. Once the complete information for a particular course is entered, the system will carry it forward automatically to the next term if the same instructor teaches the course.

Information entered in the Course Guide is available on the web for advisers, current and prospective students, parents, and the public. And unlike course sites on Moodle, files stored on NetFiles, or documents uploaded to public websites, the centralized and open access of the Course Guide means that the staff of Disability Services are able to retrieve the uploaded syllabi and use them to prioritize their work, ensuring that students have converted course materials when they need them.

When used effectively, the Course Guide helps students arrive truly prepared, which can prevent them from dropping the course or earning a poor grade. The guide also supports student retention and four-year graduation by helping students choose the appropriate courses the first time, reducing withdrawals and repeats.

Both Disability Services and students like Tobin look forward to the day when it becomes routine to find syllabi on the Course Guide when they need it. It may be a different experience to standing in line at the bookstore, but when all students have the same tools to be poised for success, it will be just as exciting.