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The Challenges of Academic Research: A Conversation Between a Graduate Student and Her Advisor

Editor's Note: In 2009, Chelsea Mohler entered the research-intensive Masters program in Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Western Ontario, where she experienced new challenges and barriers due, in part, to her limited sight. Below, she and her advisor, Lisa Klinger (Lecturer, School of Occupational Therapy), describe the barriers and the strategies they used to overcome them. They provide alternating perspectives.

Chelsea: In the first year of my masters, I, like all other students in my program, was required to take four mandatory courses, two of which covered research methods and were reading-intensive. As advised by the university's disability office, I obtained a detailed list of reading materials early on from course instructors, and gave it to the disability office. Unfortunately, the course materials did not arrive on time, so I could not begin my course readings at the same time as the other students. After discussing the option of completing my courses on a reduced timetable—one course per term for four terms, rather than the suggested four courses in the first two terms—to permit for delays in the delivery of reading materials in an alternate format, it was decided the reduced timetable would be the most effective option.

Lisa: I am primarily a lecturer in a School of Occupational Therapy, but I also accept a few research Masters' level students every year. When I was asked to supervise Chelsea, my approach was the same as it is for any student interested in working with me—we need to be able to get along well together and be comfortable giving and receiving constructive feedback. The values that I learned as an OT very much came to the fore. I accepted Chelsea as a person first; if we were at ease with one another, then I believed we could overcome any problems together. While this is a useful starting point, it did lead to some difficulties, as I often didn't anticipate barriers. I now realize that I might have been more proactive (for example, helping Chelsea obtain accessible readings sooner).

The reduced timetable that Chelsea describes has resulted in requiring, and paying for, an extra term to complete her degree.

Chelsea: As part of the program, all students had to take one course in quantitative research methods; this course involved sophisticated statistical calculations, graphs and charts—all very visual. In order to ensure that I understood course materials, I hired a tutor in consultation with my supervisor and the disability office. This extra assistance had to be paid out-of-pocket, as funding for such services was not available through the university's disability office. The tutor created tactile models of graphs, reviewed and explained (in a non-visual way) course lectures, and translated equations into a format compatible with screen reading software (JAWS). This was time-intensive, so the progress of my research was slightly delayed.

Lisa: I must admit that I didn't anticipate the degree of difficulty Chelsea would have with the material in the quantitative research course, perhaps because I tend to specialize in qualitative research. Thankfully, she is a strong advocate for herself, and she immediately spoke with me and with the course professor as soon as it became clear that she was struggling with the material. The willingness of the course professor to provide accommodations, in combination with the tutoring, enabled Chelsea to do well in this course. Chelsea and I also discussed the additional costs that she was assuming for the tutoring, but the disability office has a policy that tutoring is not an allowable expense. While this policy is designed to prevent students with disabilities from having an unfair advantage over other students, in Chelsea's case, this policy was unhelpful.

Chelsea: During the second year of the program, I began focusing on my research project. In order to do research with human subjects, ethical approval is required from the university's ethical review board. This meant completing a lengthy application outlining the study aims, methods of gathering data and obtaining consent from participants, and strategies for recruiting participants. The ethics application form, however, was not accessible with screen reading software, as all of the formal instructions were only available in a portable document file (PDF); this form of document is a scanned image of a printed page, and cannot be read by adaptive software. While it was possible to request the application form in an alternate format, the time this may have taken could have significantly delayed the research. In addition, there was no process for electronic submission of research proposals, so I obtained a research assistant in order to word process, print, and make the necessary copies of the ethics document in a timely manner. I provided feedback to the review board detailing the current barriers for students with vision impairments, and suggested methods to change current forms, documents and policies to better facilitate this process.
To carry out my research, I conducted semi-structured interviews with seven blind and partially sighted participants. Prior to my first interview, my advisor and I discussed how a researcher with a vision impairment could gather information on interviewees' non-verbal language.

Lisa: By second year, Chelsea was becoming more independent in arranging accommodations. Whereas in first year I had to assist her with completing any documentation in PDF format, by second year she had hired an assistant to handle these sorts of barriers. The qualitative methodology she had elected to use also has specific requirements that include conducting, recording and transcribing interviews with participants at a time and place convenient for the participant; keeping notes of observations made during the interviews, including the participants' facial expressions and body movements; and organizing the voluminous content of the interviews into themes that enhance understanding about the particular question being researched. Because of the visual nature of some of these tasks, Chelsea needed to draw on additional help from her assistant. With the help of a senior administrator and the support of the Dean of the Faculty, we were able to arrange a special internal university grant to cover the expenses of the research assistant. This extra bit of money has been helpful in allowing Chelsea to meet the requirements of the program.

Chelsea: As part of a research Master's degree, I was required to search for and synthesize many different forms of literature. Most of the information was either available online as a PDF file or as a printed book or article. I could not limit my literature search to only those articles that were accessible, as many of the most relevant textbooks detailing constructivist methodology (qualitative social and situational research) were only available in printed format. Through working with the university librarian, strategies were implemented to convert these inaccessible materials into an accessible format. However, with limited resources available, this process was time-consuming and resulted in many delays. The supports provided by the library services also extended to locating books and other resources that could be searched via electronic databases.

Lisa: We are fortunate to have a librarian who has a strong interest in issues of accessibility for students with disabilities. The librarian was instrumental in giving Chelsea reasonably rapid access (within a week or two) to the literature she needed. The work of the librarian supplemented the services of the disability office, which has too few resources at its disposal to rapidly scan and convert textbooks and journal articles, given the needs of the university's growing population of students with disabilities.

Some Final Thoughts

Chelsea: In order to successfully complete a research master's degree, I needed to have a clear understanding of what accommodations I would require throughout the process, and how these accommodations would impact the timelines of the program. For example, receiving texts in alternate formats often takes more time to produce, and thus my courses were completed in a two-term period, rather than in the one term taken by most students. Having a strong sense of the course and degree expectations enabled me to not only manage the timing of my research project, but allowed me to plan how I would acquire the necessary resources (E.G. a research assistant) I would require for completion of my research.

Lisa: In working with Chelsea, I have learned a great deal. In particular, it's clear that in order for a student with a vision impairment to be successful at the graduate level, he or she must be very organized, plan ahead, anticipate barriers, be determined to succeed, and advocate strongly for her/himself. As a supervisor, I have had to be supportive, willing to spend some extra time and energy engaged in advocacy, and open to new ways of doing things. It's been an interesting and satisfying process. The experience of supervising a graduate student with a vision impairment would be much improved, however, if university processes and policies for such students were more specific and based on greater sensitivity to actual barriers; if there was an effective and easily accessible mechanism for students to recover additional expenses incurred as a direct result of the vision impairment; and if accessible versions of books and journal articles were more readily available.

Note: The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians is a strong supporter of self-advocacy, the timely provision of textbooks in alternate formats, and accommodations that level the playing field for students who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted.

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