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Textbook Woes Hamper Students With Low Vision

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Toronto Star, January 19, 2002 courtesy of Torstar Syndication Services. Image: Large open text book

How would you feel if you enrolled in university, paid your fees, picked all your courses, then found out the textbooks you needed wouldn't be available until three or four months after classes started?

It happens regularly to students who need course material on audiotapes or computer discs because they have low vision or process data differently from what society decrees to be the norm. In fact, they differ from other students only because they cannot work from print. Yet no matter how bright or enthusiastic they are, they face a tangled web of excuses and platitudes when they try to get timely access to texts in other formats. At best, this lengthens the time it takes to get a degree. At worst, it causes them to abandon their dreams and drop out. Think of that next time you hear anyone grousing about the money spent on services for people with special needs. It is the money not spent that prevents them from achieving their full potential, contributing their talents to society, getting good jobs and paying taxes.

"You start out so strong and they wear you down." Last year Terri Hulett was enrolled at York University as a graduate student in women's studies. She was paying $1,700 a term, working on a major research paper about university accessibility for grad students.

Her grades were excellent, she had her eye on a Ph.D., wanted a job where she could help kids like herself. Yet by the end of the year, she was about ready to throw in the towel.

In her eight years at York, Hulett, who has low vision, has had to wage a constant battle to get books transcribed to tape. It has stretched out her time in school, strained her patience and heightened her stress level.

"I believed them when they told me things would change," she says. "You want so badly to believe they understand. You start out so strong and they wear you down. It affects your sense of self."

"I got so stressed out, I just stopped for a while. I've met so many people with disabilities who don't go on to further education because of the attitude. I see some students thinking they're not smart enough when really their needs are just not accommodated properly."

York is by no means alone in its problems supplying course material in alternative formats. Across the board, transcription services are a source of frustration. Issues in Ontario include:

Requests for books to be transcribed are sent to W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind, which gets government funding to transcribe texts. But demand far outstrips capacity, even when the school contracts out some jobs. Bottom line: It can take up to eight weeks to get tapes of books already transcribed, and three to four months to fulfil a request for a brand new transcription.

Many reading lists are not released until just before the start of term. In some cases, professors may procrastinate, but cash-strapped universities are also hiring more professors on short-term notice and short-term contracts. In addition, they wait until they know enough students are interested in certain courses before assigning someone to teach them. For a new transcription to be ready in time for September, reading lists have to be released in May.

In October, 2000, a task force on access to information for print-disabled Canadians recommended, among other things, that Ottawa set up and fund a clearing house for electronic text, to which Canadian publishers must make their works available. It also said that federal and provincial subsidies should be available only to publishers who do so. And it recommended that Ottawa allot at least $7.5 million a year to help fund the production of multiple formats.

The National Education Association of Disabled Students, which participated in the task force, continues to work on the issue and is a partner with Montreal's Dawson College in Adaptech, a research project to open access to technology. But students such as Hulett still find their options narrow and campus services for students with disabilities so overloaded, they are of little help.

"There's no question we have to do more," says Paul Delaney, physicist, astronomer and chair of Access York. "We've known there's a problem for three or four years and we've been working hard on it for the last year."

Delaney plans to ask York's senate committee to address the question of releasing course book lists in time for transcription. He points out that the university offers bursaries and some supplemental help with things such as scanning books into electronic formats.

But York cannot afford to pay for emergency transcription when the system fails, he says. "It's really a miserable situation and in many ways we feel powerless; it all comes down to money and resources."

"It's a mess," says Ali Lennox, a social work student who sits on the Able York student board. "It's a deeply complex issue, but it shouldn't be the responsibility of individual students with disabilities to fix the problems they encounter. The university has to be up front and accept responsibility."

Hulett is not at York this semester. She is still working on her research paper and has applied to re-enrol as a part-time student next semester. But she has given up on a Ph.D.

If things are this bad now, what will it be like next year in Ontario, when a shortened high school time frame will produce a double cohort of Grade 12 and 13 graduates, all vying for scarce resources from universities and colleges?

Clearly, it's time for action. I'd be happy to hear from anyone who has ideas.

For more information on the National Education Association of Disabled Students, visit http://www.neads.ca

You can write to Helen Henderson, c/o Life Section, Toronto Star, One Yonge St., Toronto, ON M5E 1E6. Please include your telephone number. Or send e-mail to hhenderson@thestar.ca