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Last semester, I attended the CUNY IT Conference to learn about new innovations in Assistive Technology and Accessibility Information. I was just waiting for some colleagues and looking at my nametag when there was this realization that I’ve done alright (amazing what a simple nametag can do).
The backstory is that I am a high school dropout and I had little direction for a long time, I was truly just wasting my life away (long story). That is until I found my calling working with people diagnosed with various disabilities.
Fast forward, I finally earned my bachelor’s degree in 2011 (the same year I got married), I like to say I took the 20+ year plan. Now, today I’m working on my second master’s degree, and working as the Assistant Director of a Disability Service Office for a major New York City college. I’ve also got great colleagues, great friends, great family and a great wife! I’ve done alright, indeed.
Sometimes in unsettled times, one has to remember how far one has come and just say, “I’ve done alright.”
Now tell me, have you done alright?
Daniel Chan is a belated student who took the 20+ year plan to get his Bachelor’s Degree. He recently received his M.A. in Disability Studies and is working on his M.S. in Disability Services in Higher Education. His proudest academic achievement is still his GED.
Part 5: Perceptible Information, the fourth principle of Universal Design
by Antonia Levy, Christopher Leydon & Chris Kchao
This month we discuss the fourth principle of Universal Design (UD), Perceptible Information, meaning that “the design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.”
Guidelines for adherence to this principle include:
- Use different modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) of presentation for essential information.
- Provide adequate contrast between essential information and its surroundings.
- Maximize “legibility” of essential information.
- Differentiate elements in ways that can be described (i.e., make it easy to give instructions or directions).
- Provide compatibility with a variety of techniques or devices used by people with sensory limitations.
Practical examples for this principle are tactile features on numeric keypads for blind users, which usually include a dot on the 5 key, a tactile circle on the enter/confirm button and a tactile x on the cancel/clear button. Consumer devices such as thermostats or infrastructure such as pedestrian signals now employ a combination of tactile, visual, and audible cues to be accessible to all.
In education, this principle calls for providing essential information in a variety of modes (e.g., written, symbolic, tactile, verbal) thereby ensuring effective communication with all users regardless of their sensory abilities. This includes making all (online) instructional materials accessible to users of screen reading software as demonstrated in this video.
For an expert account of how screen readers, we turned to guest contributor Chris Kchao, who handles assistive technology in the Office of Student Disability Services here at CUNY SPS.
Screen readers, sometimes referred to by the general term screen access programs, allow blind or visually impaired users to gain access to written information on electronic devices. Text is typically either read aloud by a synthetic voice or output to a refreshable Braille display. The function of a screen reader is not simply to render any text available on screen, but to facilitate interaction between the person and the user interface. In practical terms, the screen reader doesn’t just voice the text, but also provides contextual information about the item being read (whether it’s a menu, button, checkbox, link, etc). For instance, here’s the output from the NVDA screen reader when a user presses the Windows start key:
Start menu, Search Box, edit: Search programs and files.
By way of these prompts, a user is informed not only of what the screen says, but also how to proceed. Among other things, we’re told that a menu is present, and that we’re focused on an edit field in which we may begin entering text.
When a screen reader encounters a document embedded on a website or posted in a Blackboard course site and the user opens it, that document also needs to be accessible to the screen reading software in order for a visually impaired person to access the content. PDF documents, for example, are only accessible when text contained in them is searchable. They should include other “hidden” features, called tags that are added for accessibility purposes only and have no visible effect on the PDF. Such tags include descriptive text for images (called Alt Text) or structure tags (called headings) added to titles, subtitles, etc.
Note that most PDFs created using a scanner are considered inaccessible because they are simply images of the page, which means that a screen reader cannot recognize any of the text. For various ways to make PDF documents accessible to all, see our quick guide or video tutorial with detailed instructions.
PDFs may also be created by conversion from another type of file, such as Word or PowerPoint. If you follow accessibility guidelines when creating those source documents, and then “save as” a PDF, the accessibility features such as headings or Alt Text for images will carry over into your PDF document. See our Accessibility Resources Site for additional tutorials explaining how to create accessible Word, Excel, and Powerpoint documents as well adding captions to your YouTube videos.
This article is part of an ongoing series introducing the concept of Universal Design (UD) as it applies to the context of higher education and to our work at CUNY SPS. Each installment covers one of the seven principles of UD with practical examples for both faculty and staff, including things you might not immediately associate with accessibility—or inaccessibility. Catch you next time!
There are few professions (or callings) that are as dichotomous (my college education at work) in the American conscious as disability service. Almost all of us who is or has worked in disability service have heard some variation of “you’re such a good person,” or “god will reward you for your work.” We may indeed be good people and divine reward (which is always in some undefined future date) is appreciated, but we disability service providers do live in the here and now.
Here in lies the dichotomy (Professor Hamm would be proud!); the general public seems to feel (or express their) gratitude for the work that we do (sometimes in the most awkward way). After all, we provide services and support for some of the most vulnerable and powerless groups in the United States (perhaps a loved one or someone you know is a member of this group). We have cared for and taught (and learned from) these individuals. We have shared incredible triumphs and sometimes devastating loss both with and because of these folks. Indeed, I recall a “tough as nails” colleague shedding (more than a few) tears at a funeral for a resident of a home I worked at. Working in this field, I’ve also done things I would never have imagined. Indeed, one of my proudest moments (admittedly, I didn’t think so at the time) is when I became a full-fledged member of the PSC guild (NOT Professional Staff Congress but Professional SH*T Cleaner). That experience changes a person and for the better (though it takes a bit of time to recognize that).
Yet despite this, Direct Support Professionals (those who work directly with individuals with an intellectual/developmental disability) only earn about $12 an hour in NYC. This can be confirmed by a causal perusal (I may as well get some use out of my education) of employment websites. Let us use that figure of $12 an hour and say 7 hours a day for 5 days a week. That comes to $420 a week and I’m guessing $330 after taxes (where are the accounting majors?). This in turn comes to about $1320 or so a month for what is (truly) difficult physical and emotional work in one of the most expensive cities in the world. This poor pay forced many of my colleagues to work multiple jobs to keep ends in sight of each other (getting ends to meet usually meant someone was on vacation or sick and you got their hours). This of course not only impacts on job efficiency and job appreciation but it impacts directly upon the health of those we count on to ensure the good health of people with disabilities.
Admittedly, things get better as one climbs the ladder, but one should be under no illusion that wage equality exists. In general a person with an equivalent education, experience, and title will make less in disability service then in other fields. According to the Pay Scale website, an executive director makes about $71,000 a year and mid-level manager around $40,000 a year. For a good cry, contrast with other industries to see the disparity. The question is then why do people who care for people, are praised for the kind of work they do, then get the short end of the stick when it comes to being paid a decent wage?
Having said all this, I still love this field. Along with my wife (Hi babe!) and family, this field gave me direction when I had none. It gave me a purpose or as some would say; a calling. I’ve also been fortunate in that my work was noted by various supervisors (not all, unfortunately) and I’ve been promoted a few times with commiserate raises in wages. The field also largely funded my undergraduate and graduate educations. I’ve managed to stay in the field while changing focus. I recently left non-profit disability service and entered into the world of higher education disability service. The environment and the populations I work for (and with) are different but “the calling” remains the same.
Working in disability services can sometimes be difficult and often challenging (physically and emotionally) but all in all, it is an honorable field that one can be proud to be a part of. What I hope for is that one day; it can also be a field which yields wages where one will not have to work multiple jobs to support themselves or their families.
Daniel Chan is a belated student who took the 20+ year plan to get his Bachelor’s Degree. He recently received his M.A. in Disability Studies and is working on his M.S. in Disability Services in Higher Education. His proudest academic achievement is still his GED.
Each year CUNY SPS asks graduating students to apply to be the Student Speaker at Commencement. As part of their application they are asked to submit their anticipated speech. At the end of the process only one student is selected, however, numerous speeches embody the spirit of the graduating class. We are proud to share some of these speeches here.
Julie Maury is graduating from CUNY SPS on June 6 with a Master’s Degree in Disability Studies and this is her speech:
I want to wish the class of 2016 the very best in their future endeavors. I know a lot of the fellow graduates have experienced endless nights of writing papers and lots of research. But, you’ve made it and have achieved your degree! Take a deep breath and enjoy this day and every day for all they are worth. Keep going forward in the directions of your goals. Don’t just follow your heart, do what resonates deeply with you and work with intention towards your dreams. May you keep or find a job or jobs that you love. Aristotle was quoted as saying: “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” Through those words we can realize that one really can find joy in life through doing what matters to them most.
I am sure that many of you choose your path of study, your degree path, because you want to have a greater impact in this world. I grew up as a person with a disability. I was told: “You can’t…” or, “You shouldn’t…” a number of times when it came to following my goals. What I came to realize is that there were many disability advocates and community activists who I could look upon as examples of what is possible to achieve in this life. For example, my mentor, Nadina LaSpina taught me about the power of building a strong community and being an Activist and a Scholar of Disability studies. She, herself, is an Activist, Writer, and former Professor of Disability Studies. It was through Nadina that I learned the ‘door’ of life’s possibilities was open to me. My mind started to wonder about what it would be like to be a Scholar in Disability Studies. I then found out about the CUNY School of Professional Studies Disability Studies Master’s Degree Program and felt ‘at home’ upon my first visit to the building. Nadina allowed me to be aware of what is possible to achieve in life and this school did the same for me. I learned about the Disability Rights Movement with a depth I never thought possible.
I hope that you all will “Lead On!” as Justin Dart “Father of the Disability Rights Movement” famously once said. “Lead On!” in being good examples to others of what is possible to achieve in this life…in academia and beyond. Keep pushing forward and never give up. There are times when life will get difficult but, as in your academic career, things always evolve. Keep evolving throughout life…with life. Do not allow yourselves to be stagnant. Also, do not be afraid of change. You never know what ‘beauty’ can be around the ‘corner’ at any time.
Remember to take time for yourself and do not take life to seriously. Do not allow work to overwhelm you. Find a balance in your life. And, again, keep ‘moving’ forward. Albert Einstein once said: “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep balance, you must keep moving.” I hope that where ever your path takes you it’ll take you far and towards whatever your desires are.
Also, I want to say that if any one of you hit a crisis point in your life, please do not be afraid to reach out and ask for help. Know that you are cared for. There were a number of times, while at CUNY SPS, where I felt very stressed out with the workload and there were many times that, because of the stress, I considered leaving the program. I reached out to Professor Mariette Bates, who runs the program, and she would encourage me to keep going. Never underestimate the power of a kind word. Never underestimate the value of taking time out to talk to someone who really could use an ‘ear’ to talk to. That can have a huge impact for the better. Communication is so important. The words of encouragement, that I have received, throughout my time in this program, particularly, have meant so much.
My fellow students in the program have all been so inquisitive and thought provoking. You have really made me think critically and want to learn with you and from you. I never dreaded going to classes, no matter if they were online or in person. I valued, so much, sharing life stories and different points of view. Learning about other students’ lives was so interesting. Some were from other parts of the world, others from different states. All held such value in their views. Such a depth and passion for learning. I remember, a number of times, staying after classes ended, outside of the building, or late nights online, because I never wanted some conversations to end.
But, as in life, things do come to an end. This is the end of one path for many of you in this room today, but it is the start of a beautiful new path as well. In a way, school never ends, if we keep our minds open—we’ll keep learning for the rest of our lives.
In closing, I want to say that I wish you all the very best in whatever paths you all choose. Just never stop moving in the directions of your dreams, never compromise your character, and most of all keep your minds open to the beautiful opportunities that life has to offer/present to you. You all have great worth in this world. Never let anyone tell you any different. Margret Mead once, famously said: “Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.” I believe she was right. And, I have great faith that you all can do just that. Again, as Justin Dart said: “Lead On!”
Part 4: Simple & Intuitive, the third principle of Universal Design
by Antonia Levy, Christopher Leydon & Julie Maybee
Simple & Intuitive, the third principle of Universal Design (UD), refers to the use of any product being “easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.” Guidelines for this principle include:
- Eliminate unnecessary complexity;
- Be consistent with user expectations and intuition;
- Accommodate a wide range of literacy and language skills;
- Arrange information consistent with its importance; and
- Provide effective prompting and feedback during and after task completion.
General design examples for this principle include the moving sidewalks found in airport terminals and other public spaces, or the kind of lavatory faucets that make their operation readily apparent and relatively easy.
Remember instruction manuals that either use overtly technical terminology or visual instructions that are impossible to follow? Instructional materials would be readily accessible to more people if they take into account the principle of simple and intuitive design, for instance by combining plain language and drawings alongside the text. Avoiding unnecessary complexity and jargon applies to any instructions—including those created by university offices for use by staff, faculty, and students.
The design of our campus facilities should facilitate immediate understanding about the purpose and utilization of each design feature. Moreover, its means of use should be intuitively obvious so that it operates as anticipated by the user who can, therefore, use it spontaneously.
For a faculty perspective this month, we invited Julie E. Maybee, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Lehman College and Adjunct Associate Professor of Disability Studies here at CUNY SPS, who suggests a number of ways to apply this principle to the design of online and hybrid courses in Blackboard (Bb).
To make course navigation more simple, I aim to minimize the number of clicks required for students to figure out what work they need to do each week. I create a folder for each week in a content area on Bb called “Weekly Modules” or “Weekly Folders.” The folder description includes the date range for each week, as well as special due dates (such as for essays, or drafts of the final paper)—hence, the “Weekly Folders” section almost serves as a course calendar as well.
Each of the folders contains all the work the students have to do for that week. Moreover, in the interest of simplicity, each folder has the same structure:
- An item introduces the week’s topic and study questions or learning outcomes;
- A list of assignments students have to complete during that week—i.e., what to read, what work to submit, etc.;
- A list of the week’s readings; and
- Links, with assignment instructions, to the specific Bb tools students will use to submit their work, e.g. a link to the relevant discussion board (or blog) or to submit an assignment.
Each folder is thus a completely self-contained place where students can go to complete all their work for the week.
There are also a few ways to make the course design more simple and intuitive. For one, providing multiple access points to the same items can help your students to navigate the course site more easily. For example, aside from the links in the Weekly Folders, I provide shortcuts to the discussion board or blog on the course menu for faster access. In addition, I create a link to the “Help with Writing the Final Paper” folder both within the “Assignment Information” section (for students looking for information about the assignment) as well as the “HELP!” section of the course (for students who think in terms of needing help with the paper). In other words, whichever way they might think, students will find a link to the information they are looking for in either place.
Also, limiting the variety of tools you assign is an easy way to simplify the design of your course—for both the instructor and the students. Each feature in Blackboard works a little differently; e.g., replying to a discussion forum is different than commenting on a blog or editing a wiki, and using the assignment tool is different from taking a test. So, instead of trying to use them all, I give similar assignments from week to week, or at least in multiple weeks. For instance, in some of my courses, students do the exact same discussion assignment for weekly readings: students must post four posts to the discussion board, some of which must answer study questions I provide on each of the readings, and some of which must respond to my or other student’s posts.
Making your assignments repetitive also helps to convey your course expectations to students. When an assignment is the same every week, students will find it easier to learn what they are expected to do, and they also have multiple opportunities to learn (and respond to) your expectations for that kind of assignment. If you then grade the discussion every week—preferably by using rubrics, which Blackboard makes fairly easy to do—you will also be providing consistent feedback to students that helps them to understand what these expectations are.
Last but not least, assigning different levels of writing assignments helps to accommodate students with a wider range of literacy and language skills. Since I do not typically grade discussion posts for grammar and style, I use the discussion board as a place where students can write more informally. Short blog/paper assignments can be helpful as a scaffold for the final paper by giving students lower-stakes opportunities to practice skills they will need when completing the more significant assignment later. In my own discussion posts and in grading feedback, I encourage students to provide citations to back their claims, to interpret quotations in their own words, to offer scholarly evidence from the readings for their views, and so on.
These are just a few ideas about some of the ways our courses can be more simple and intuitive—and hence more accessible—for students.
This article is part of an ongoing series introducing the concept of Universal Design (UD) as it applies to the context of higher education and to our work at CUNY SPS. Each month we cover one of the seven principles of UD with practical examples for both faculty and staff, including things you might not immediately associate with accessibility—or inaccessibility. Catch you next month! Questions or feedback? Email Antonia Levy or Christopher Leydon.
“She has been convicted. Bail revoked.”
Those are the words I received in an email from a former professor of mine. Anna Stubblefield was convicted of two accounts of rape. The verdict reached my email on Friday at 11:59am.
I know, some people are happy. They think, “A rapist has been put in jail and now Dman and his family can begin to heal.” That statement is the furthest from the truth.
The disability community is in so much emotional pain right now. For myself and so many of the members of the disability community this is history on repeat. Over and over again we are denied rights, are silenced and locked away. All because society has placed us in a figurative box, we can’t be sexual, we’re not worthy of love and we’re not people. Having impairments dehumanizes us according to society. If we can’t speak the way society demands we do, then we’re truly invisible.
Twelve people—a mixture of women and men of many different racial backgrounds, all of them appearing able-bodied, ruined two lives, those of Anna Stubblefield and Dman Johnson. Did they know what they were doing? Yes. They had a different viewpoint though. Those people thought as they sat in the jury room that they had the power to “save the disabled boy,” “make things right” and “serve justice” because, “She should’ve known better than to be sexual with someone physically helpless and mentally defective.”
Let’s take a glimpse at who they really imprisoned. Literally speaking, Stubblefield is sitting behind bars. She’s not serving a life sentence so eventually she’ll be free. Or will she? Stubblefield can never get a job working in any kind of teaching position EVER again. Once she is free, finding a place to live might be difficult, as her name will be added to the sex offender’s list. She’s lost her place in the world. Her name will forever be tainted.
With the guilty verdict also came a second imprisonment: Dman’s. No, he’s not literally behind bars. Instead he’s serving a “life sentence” of being denied independence, his voice and a life of his own. His voice forever silenced by the State of New Jersey. Not once was he allowed to speak during a trial that revolved around him. Instead the prosecution made assumptions. They ASSUMED he was “mentally defective” and “physically helpless.” He will remain forever imprisoned in society’s perception of disability.
As a member of the disability community, I can’t help but feel angry, upset and guilty about the entire situation. I’m angry because it’s 2015 and the state of New Jersey still views disability through a eugenics mindset. To the state, Dman and Stubblefield could never have loved one another. How could they? Stubblefield is able-bodied and Dman is disabled. They still frame love as an emotion that is exclusively open and entitled to able-bodied people. In contrast, people with disabilities are believed to be non sexual—“She can’t have sex, she’s in a wheelchair,” or “He’s too mentally defective to consent to sex or know what is going on.” People with disabilities shouldn’t be sexual or romantically involved with each other or able-bodied people because they’re inferior, simply because society can’t or doesn’t want to process the concept of us having sexual desires or romantic relationships. The moment people realized Dman could be and was sexual was when the relationship between Stubblefield and him was torn apart. This is eugenics era thinking, an outdated way of perceiving disabilities and the people who have them.
I’m also upset because after all that we, as people with disabilities have experienced—sterilization, institutionalization, the fight for civil rights leading to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990—all of these milestones are meaningless if society still views people who use different methods of communication or have “severe physical disabilities” as “mentally defective” and “physically helpless.” The outcome of the Stubblefield case demonstrates that we still have a long way to go as a society in terms of the acceptance and inclusion of people with disabilities. After the verdict, I’m wondering when and if our society will ever get to that point.
Lastly, I feel guilty. As irony would have it, I received the news of the verdict as I was on my way to a CUNY Coalition for Students with Disabilities (CCSD) meeting. We were electing a new E-board and discussing various ways in which we can create change and make the overall CUNY experience better for students with disabilities. How could I think of creating change with and for my fellow disabled CUNY students when Dman was locked in the narrow box of society’s perceptions of disability and the one person who had the chance at helping him gain independence was sitting behind bars? All because they loved and wanted to be with each other? It just didn’t feel right. It still doesn’t. I get to spend time with each person I love and care about while the legal system denies Dman and Stubblefield that same opportunity.
My thoughts and support go out to Dman, Stubblefield, everyone that knows them and the disability community during this very sad and difficult time. If I’ve learned anything from this case, it’s that I need and will continue to advocate for and alongside the disability community, especially for the members of the community who use different forms of communication and are silenced by society. None of them will go unheard.
Danielle Lucchese is a second year graduate student in CUNY SPS’s MA in Disability Studies program. Born and raised in Staten Island, she moved to Manhattan last year at the start of her CUNY SPS experience. When Danielle’s not hitting the books or writing papers, she enjoys exploring New York City, photography, writing poetry, playing volleyball, reading fantasy novels, listening to music and spending time with family and friends.