Leveling the Playing Field for Students with Disabilities

Aaron Page
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Accessibility according to the student

Accessible technologies are the key to truly leveling the playing field between students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers. While pursuing my undergraduate degree I had the opportunity to experience a wide array of courses – courses that leveraged the power of accessible technologies, courses that used inaccessible technologies, and courses that used no technology at all. My experience in class and the resulting final grades clearly proved that courses using accessible technologies provide a level playing field and the opportunity to learn and participate in the same experience as other students.

Let me start by providing some background information. I am a blind assistive technology user, I use a long white cane, a laptop with screen reading software, and an iPhone with an assortment of useful apps for the blind including optical character recognition and accessible electronic texts. The courses that leveraged accessible technologies allowed me to use these tools – my particular set – to access course content freely.

One of the earliest courses I attended as a student was a government course. This class used no technology, consisting of a textbook, occasional hand-outs, and in-class lectures. The simplistic text format of the textbook was easily converted to electronic format, which could be accessed via both the screen reader on my phone and my laptop. The in-class discussions were accessible to me – as it was simply lecture – and the hand-outs could be accessed via optical character recognition.

While this Government course did not leverage the power of accessible technologies, the content did not create new barriers in and of itself. Using the tools that I was familiar and comfortable with, I could still access the materials and participate in the course, which allowed me to earn a grade of B+ in one of my first college courses.

Accessible technologies are the key to truly leveling the playing field between students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers.

Several semesters later, I took Intro to Statistics – a required course for my major – which epitomized an inaccessible course. All of the material in the course, including the textbook, calculator, clickers, course notes, whiteboards, exams, and online homework were inaccessible. The only solution available was to work with a sighted tutor/reader/scribe – for 15+ hours a week – in order to get through the course.

Intro to Statistics was an example of using inaccessible technology and its impact on students. The inaccessible technology created more barriers than no technology at all. Tools such as clickers and the online statistics platform provided great value to my peers, but created impossible barriers for me, including uncomfortable group assignments and labs. While the instructors were very kind, there wasn’t much that they could do to make the content more accessible. At the end of one of the most strenuous semesters of my college career, I barely managed to earn a passing grade of B-.

Two years later, one of the last courses I attended before graduating was a Consulting course. This class was one of the first classes I attended that fully utilize the power of accessible technologies. The instructor used Moodlerooms to share all of the course materials and to administer exams in an electronic format. Multimedia content within the course was available on YouTube, which could be accessed on all my devices. The platform Advanced Forums, which is accessible to screen readers, was used to facilitate class discussions, and all homework was submitted electronically through the platform.

This Consulting course demonstrated how using accessible technology can put all students on a truly equal footing. By providing content electronically on an accessible platform, everyone in the course had access to materials at the same time. The accessible electronic exams administered via Moodlerooms quizzes were the first exams I performed at the college level without requesting any accommodations from Disability Services for Students.

 Thanks to the use of accessible technologies throughout the course, I had the opportunity to earn the grade of A.

The use of accessible technology improved the experience for students without disabilities as well as they were able to access course materials from their mobile devices, had electronic access to their grades, and did not have to manage paper documents.

As new accessible technologies are developed and existing technologies proliferate, the experience for all students will benefit. One example of this are new developments in support for mathML, which allows blind/low-vision users to access math content via magnification, speech, and Braille – rather than being forced to work with sighted readers or paying $10,000+ for Braille math texts. Developments in MathML provide benefits for non-disabled users as well, by providing additional functionality and the ability to view math on mobile devices.

By leveraging the power of accessible technologies, institutions can save the time and cost of ineffectual accommodations, instructors can improve the educational experience and better reach all students, and students with disabilities can finally have the same inclusive experience as their peers.


*Photo by: AFP Tommy Martino

About the Author

Aaron Page
Aaron Page is an Accessibility Specialist at UMOnline and IT’s Accessible Technology Services at the University of Montana, Missoula, Montana. Aaron recently graduated from the University of Montana with a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration, Management Information Systems major.
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