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Unseen: Navigating online learning without sight

Fri May 20, 2022 at 02:28 PM

Julie Chapie, Educational Technology Specialist in theEducational Resources Labin theSchool of Education and Human Services, said she first learned about the importance of digital accessibility in 2015. While she thought she was doing enough, one student showed her the basic accommodations are not always enough. Chapie used her skills and acquired new ones to help a counseling student complete his practicum and prepare for his internship. 

Getting started with digital accessibility

Chapie said Oakland University was checking the university website for accessibility in 2015. She said when the reports came out, the ERL page was ranked among the top when it came to accessibility problems.

“I wanted to crawl under the desk at that point. We learned in a Distributed Tech Meeting (DTS) that several universities were facing lawsuits for inaccessible websites, so we needed to take it seriously.,” said Chapie. “I went home and immediately started searching accessibility, ADA requirements, accessibility for websites and so much more. I learned all I could about accessibility.” I also attended accessibility workshops provided by e-LIS Support Services Manager Dan Arnold and CETL’s Virtual Faculty Developer Christina Moore.

Chapie began making modifications not only to the website, but also processes to ensure SEHS was making progress in the area of accessibility. 

“In 2021, we became aware that there was a blind student in our counseling program who was coming up on his semester of practicum. During this portion of the training, the counseling students are supervised in OU’s Counseling Center and they provide counseling services to clients who need it,” said Chapie. 

Chapie said the COVID-19 pandemic complicated the process. The Counseling Center wasn’t open for in-person services and the students were completing their sessions online in a telehealth environment. The process was not easy for a blind student completing the practicum to navigate. That is when blind student Nathan Schneck and Chapie first crossed paths. 

Losing sight

“I was in an auto accident 20 years ago when I was 25 years old,” said Schneck. He said it took months of hospital stays and rehabilitation for him to recover from his injuries, however, he never regained his sight.

Schneck said throughout high school and some of college, he didn’t have a computer and cell phones were just becoming popular. For Schneck, this means he can’t even picture what is on his monitor.

“I can’t visualize what the screens are like,” said Schneck. 

Since then, he has had a lot of experience learning technology and the tools that can help him navigate without sight. He said he has to learn new software for classes and his internship, and it isn’t easy. 

“It’s definitely stressful and wears on me physically and mentally,” said Schneck. 

Schneck said getting through school wasn’t easy. He often had to get his textbooks converted into different formats, he had to explain to different departments what he needed to participate in class and he even paid people to help him with reading and navigating material. 

“I’m lucky to have those that help me out. If I didn’t have these resources, I wouldn’t be able to complete my degree,” said Schneck. 

One of those resources became Chapie. 

Facing new accessibility challenges

While Schneck said there are tools to read his screen, help him navigate websites and dictate for, when it came to conducting HIPAA-compliant telehealth sessions, things were far more complicated, but Chapie was willing to do anything she could to help. 

“This was the first time Julie and I ever met or talked. I wish I would have known more about the Educational Resources Lab and Julie earlier in my time at OU,” said Schneck. 

Chapie took it upon herself to get to know Schneck’s computer, set up necessary VPN access, teach him how to use OU’s dual authentication system and how to connect remotely to the Counseling Center computers to use the HIPAA compliant software. The software allows the students to input notes and chart his client’s progress. 

“Julie spent hours upon hours trying to figure things out for me,” said Schneck. Additionally, Schneck said Chapie realized he needed someone with sight to help navigate the counseling software. The Counseling department coordinated a graduate assistant from the doctoral practicum program, who was able to identify keyboard shortcuts for Schneck. Chapie not only worked to help Schneck learn the software, she also had to do it while navigating patient privacy and HIPAA compliance. 

Chapie said she gave Schenck her personal number and encouraged him to reach out when there was a problem. Schneck said he had to reach out to her, sometimes outside of regular hours, but she was always happy to help.

Now, Schneck is preparing for his internship. Chapie is helping him learn to navigate Google, which his internship site uses for telehealth and charting. 

Staying accessible

“Accessibility issues are something that need to be preached about. Some things may be complicated, but others may be more accommodating with some changes,” said Schneck. He said it isn’t just helpful to the student requiring the accommodation, but also to other students in general. 

Chapie said Oakland University requires a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template to ensure software is accessible before it is purchased, but she said that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges with the software.

Chapie said software needs strong documentation, but also proper instruction in training videos. Referring locations, such as “the middle of the page,” or referring to colors, such as “complete the section designated in red,” should be avoided. 

Going through this experience has helped Chapie shape a plan for the future. She stays in contact with e-LIS, DSS and other technology departments to prepare for others who need this type of assistance in the future. 

“Having our standard training documentation already accessible was key. I was already in the habit of creating accessible documents, accessible PDFs and training documentation. I knew we were in a good place with that, but then this new challenge came with remote telehealth and the unique environment that we had to deal with for our students,” said Chapie. 

Chapie said she wants to empower others to help blind and sight-impaired students. 

“They don’t like feeling like they have a disability. They want you to treat them like anyone else. You have to navigate each situation individually and use best practices when it comes to accessibility,” said Chapie. 

Chapie’s dedication to students is based on one of the pillars of Oakland University: Student success. 

“I would never want a student to say technology came between them and success,” said Chapie. 

Chapie said she hopes for continued growth for making university communication, content and courses accessible. This includes everything from course content to campus-wide emails. For those who need assistance, e-LIS Instructional Designers are able to help in the course design process and regularly team up with the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning for workshops on accessibility. The Support Services team can help with technical issues that come up. To contact e-LIS, call 248-805-1625 or submit anonline help ticket or chat with supportfrom the e-LIS website.