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University must be more accessible to disabled students, technology can help | Chloe Tear

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The Big Hack
"The more my sight decreased, the harder my university work became."

Technology can play an important role in removing barriers to higher education for disabled students. Webinars, live-streamed classes and online lectures have made learning easier. But only if everyone has equal access to the course content.

We spoke to Chloe Tear who started her blog ‘Life as a Cerebral Palsy Student’ when she was 15 and studying for GCSEs. For the last seven years, Chloe has shared her experiences as a student with cerebral palsy and visual cortex disorder. In recent years, Chloe has appeared on the Times Higher Education panel to talk about access within higher education with the former CEO of UCAS.

Chloe Tear in graduation robes at her graduation acceptance speech at Leeds Trinity university.

While technology has been a constant throughout her education, it’s not always been used effectively. She addressed these issues in a recent blog post, asking the question: Are the needs of disabled students being fully met?

We asked her how digital technology has both helped and hindered her education at times.

The technology I used in school

My vision was fine when I was at school, I didn’t need a screenreader. But my cerebral palsy causes my hands to be painful and at times become very stiff, so I chose to dictate my work whenever I had the chance. Having access to a computer meant I could type up my notes from class, which was easier to do than writing by hand.

At secondary school, I’d take pictures of the whiteboard using an app which translated the writing to text. I could then copy this text straight into my notes.

For me, technology has been a lifeline to continue doing what I enjoy. Due to my vision, I now access most technology through audio output. This means I rely on screenreaders and in-built systems like VoiceOver.

Today, I also use a range of accessibility settings like enlarged text or magnification.

Attending university

I felt supported as a disabled student when I was invited to attend an open-day weekend. But when I turned up, no one knew the accessible routes around the university. I was almost left to figure it out for myself.

And the staff member of disability services at the time talked about providing lots of support, yet this didn’t happen like I was promised.

Issues trying to access course content

I studied psychology, so I essentially lived in the library. I had a different textbook for each module. I also relied heavily on journal articles.

As my vision deteriorated, I really struggled to access the information I needed. This was not due to the teaching staff, who went above and beyond to make things as accessible as possible. It’s just a lack of facilities.

Initially, staff would scan and enlarge the pages I needed from textbooks. But when I could no longer see those, large print or audio versions were unavailable.

Inaccessible PDFs and old journals

Perhaps the most frustrating format was online journal articles. I had to read so many psychology studies and reports, especially when writing assignments. But when I switched to a screenreader, it often couldn’t pick up 95% of the content.

Because many of the research studies were decades old, most were originally uploaded as inaccessible PDFs. Some were just images of the original report. Even the times that my screenreader could pick up text, it was disjointed and would be read out in the wrong order.

As a result, the more my sight decreased, the harder university work became. I was often reliant on staff or my personal assistants to read things out to me. I felt very out of control when it came to the progress of assignments.

It always took me longer to process information and to complete work beforehand. But this now meant that it was taking considerably more time. It’s not ideal when you have less energy to begin with!

The technology and software that helped me with my studies

I used my laptop for everything. It allowed me to be more efficient and gave me the best chance of being on a level playing field with my peers.

Reasonable adjustments like the lecturer sending me the presentation beforehand helped too. It meant I could sit in a lecture with the PowerPoint and my notes side by side (but zoomed in a lot).

I used Microsoft OneNote for all my notes, which enabled me to type and record lectures at the same time. When I reviewed them, it would display the notes I’d written in real-time. The audio really helped to fill in the gaps when I was revising for exams. Magnification functionality massively helped too.

Dragon dictation was essential for my dissertation. For me, this involved conducting interviews and then transcribing them. Because Dragon can also transcribe, as well as being used as dictation software, it meant I could upload the audio file of the interview and it would change it to text. While it wasn’t always perfect, it helped significantly when I had five hours of audio to transcribe!

Chloe Tear gives a talk in front of a screen

I used my phone and apps like Seeing AI which could quickly read out book numbers or small sections of text. This was really useful when I was looking for books in the library or even just making sure I was putting the right books in my bag.

Students with access needs not “on a level playing field”

I absolutely loved university. I had an incredible three years there. But this was due to the individual members of staff who tried their utmost to make sure I was included. And that my education was accessible. However, ‘accessible’ was not the norm. I wish it was guaranteed, rather than relying on a few individuals to make it possible.

Despite all the positives and my success in achieving a degree, it was not without its struggles. I don’t believe I was on a level playing field and I think my disability, at times, put me at a major disadvantage to my peers. It was down to my extra effort, time and dedication that meant I achieved the grades I did.

Disabled students feel they are “not worthy of consideration”

Education should be available to everyone and being disabled shouldn’t put you at a disadvantage.

Disabled students have to work harder than others for the same experience, yet we still have added barriers in our way. Reasonable adjustments should be the norm rather than something we have to fight for. It reinforces the message that disabled people are not worthy of consideration.

By empowering disabled students into higher education, you instil an attitude within society that hopefully translates into the employment world.

Chloe continues to challenge assumptions about disability as a Scope online community officer. Head to Chloe’s award-winning blog to read more of her work.

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