American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Winter 2020 ADVOCACY
by Heidi Scheffer
From the Editor: Decades after the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), one might assume that blind students are receiving the same educational opportunities as their sighted classmates. As Heidi Scheffer discovered, however, blind students are still being excluded in an area that has become essential for success in today's world, training in the effective use of technology. In this article she recounts her struggle to obtain intensive technology training for her daughter and her efforts to ensure that her daughter had access to high-stakes testing.
Heidi Scheffer grew up in Argentina, speaking Spanish and German as her first languages. She and her husband operate a restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina.
My daughter, Jordan, was the first blind student to go through our public school system. When she entered kindergarten she was assigned to a teacher of the visually impaired (TVI). She was the teacher's first student. Jordan received some Braille instruction as a preschooler, and when she entered kindergarten she did very well.
We developed a wonderful relationship with Jordan's TVI, and she became almost a member of the family. From the beginning we made it clear that her involvement should phase out gradually. By the time Jordan was in twelfth grade, we envisioned that she would be able to work almost entirely on her own.
Everything seemed to be going well until Jordan entered middle school. She used a Braille notetaker and did her math on a Perkins Braillewriter, with the TVI translating her work for the classroom teachers. Her grades were excellent, and we believed she was keeping up with her classmates.
One day when I picked Jordan up from school, I asked her, "What did you do in class today?" "My class had a computer assignment," Jordan explained. "I couldn't participate in that, so they gave me something else to do." That was a real wake-up call! I knew something wasn't right!
When I began to ask questions, Jordan's TVI explained that she didn't have much background in assistive technology. She didn't feel qualified to teach Jordan to use a computer, but she would find someone to help. I started to do some research. Considering how far technology had advanced, there had to be a better way for Jordan to do math than a Perkins Braillewriter or even a Braille notetaker. My research led me to Dr. Denise Robinson, a TVI who teaches technology to blind students via Skype. I contacted Dr. Robinson, and she said she would be happy to work with Jordan. She said she even could teach Jordan to do math on the computer! Jordan and her TVI wouldn't have to haul the Perkins Brailler back and forth to classes, and the TVI wouldn't have to translate Jordan's work for the teachers.
The idea of using an iPad came into the discussion, but I couldn't see the iPad having real power to access all of Jordan's work, which Dr. Robinson later confirmed. A computer with the screen reader JAWS cannot be replaced by an iPad.
I asked Dr. Robinson if she had a checklist for the things a sixth-grade student should be able to do on the computer. I was shocked when I looked over the list she sent me. Jordan barely knew how to do any of the things on the list!
In the meantime, our TVI found a teacher in our state capital who could give Jordan some lessons via Skype. They worked together for a bit, and Jordan learned some of the computer basics. However, that teacher did not have Dr. Robinson's knowledge and experience. He really couldn't help Jordan catch up with her classmates.
I asked our school district to hire Dr. Robinson to give Jordan technology training, but the district refused. Essentially the school officials were saying that it was all right for Jordan to receive instruction that was sadly inadequate.
At that point I began to research the law. I looked at state laws and federal legislation. I gathered information about special education law and the laws that cover general education. I have a file of information that must weigh ten pounds!
One of the documents I studied was the mission statement from the North Carolina Division of Public Instruction (DPI). I noted each clause that said every student should learn to use technology. Every student meant my daughter!
I called emergency IEP meetings. I pleaded with the director of services for exceptional children. I said, "This person in Raleigh may be good, but there's only so much he can teach my daughter. I want Jordan to be able to do everything her peers are doing on the computer. I want her to be doing PowerPoint presentations. I want her to be doing math on the computer. I want her to be able to do research online. By the end of high school, she needs to be doing all those things. You have to provide this under the law." But they kept stalling. They would not hire Dr. Robinson. I figured they did not want to pay for the intensive instruction Jordan needed in order to catch up with her classmates.
Finally I requested that Jordan be given a technology assessment. Two technology experts came out from DPI and followed Jordan from class to class for three days. Then the director of technology from the DPI came out to see us. I gave him my whole speech—I literally begged and cried. I told him, "You have to give Jordan a chance in life! She deserves the chance to be on par with her peers so she can fulfill her dreams, whatever they might be. In order to live the life she wants, she needs to have technology skills." I knew how much blind students struggle in college when they don't have the computer skills they need. They end up needing someone to take notes for them in their classes. They need readers to help them do online research. They need special accommodations when they take their exams. I didn't want Jordan to depend on special accommodations any more than was absolutely necessary. I wanted her to be able to access information in the same way everybody else does.
I started our battle to get computer training when Jordan entered seventh grade. Over the next months I exchanged about 250 emails with school officials. At long last, when Jordan was in the middle of seventh grade, our school district approved her instruction with Dr. Robinson. Finally she could start the long journey toward true equality in the classroom.
Jordan worked intensively with Dr. Robinson for six or seven hours a week. At first computer instruction was very, very challenging. She was accustomed to using her Perkins Braillewriter and her Braille notetaker at school, and it was extremely hard for her to leave them behind and use the computer instead. As time passed, however, using the computer became second nature. Eventually she caught up with her classmates. She was able to do all of her schoolwork on the computer.
Unfortunately, our problems weren't over. The school provided Jordan with a laptop, but it kept crashing and causing her to lose her work. It turned out that there were all sorts of conflicts between JAWS and the firewalls on the school's computer system. It took about four months for us to figure out how to get everything to work properly. Finally, between the team of technology experts from the school district and Dr. Robinson's expertise with JAWS, we figured out how to solve the problems we were having.
Eventually we got Jordan a laptop of her own. This would bypass the roadblocks of firewalls on a school-owned computer. The school system's protection, with its periodic changes, interfered and caused many problems with JAWS.
Just as we had hoped when Jordan started kindergarten, she and her teachers now could send work back and forth without the intervention of the TVI. It was wonderful! Jordan's world opened up in ways that were beyond my wildest imagination!
I thought our struggles were over until it came time for Jordan to take Advanced Placement (AP) classes. To her dismay she discovered that many of the websites the classes used were not accessible with JAWS. We also had to fight with the state of North Carolina because the exams required by the state were not accessible. I had fought so hard for computer training that I figured I would just keep going and fight for access.
I believed that Jordan should be able to take her state tests online, just as her classmates did. Even after I requested a digital format accessible with screen reading technology, the people in charge of North Carolina testing did not approve. They wanted Jordan to use hardcopy Braille tests with a live reader to fill in her answer sheet. I said, "That's not how she does her work. She uses the computer like the other students."
I went online and gathered the email addresses for everyone I could find. When I wrote to DPI once more, I copied everyone I knew in the DPI that had any stake in the issue. I copied classroom teachers and TVIs. I copied our local director of special education. In my email to the testing bureau I said, "How dare you deny my child the chance to do her North Carolina testing on the computer," and I cited the ADA. Twenty minutes later I got an email back. It said, "We're so sorry! There was a misunderstanding. Of course your daughter's tests will be accessible electronically."
A few days later I received an email from a TVI I had never met. She wrote, "We've been requesting accessible tests for our students for years, and we've been denied over and over. You just changed the outcome for everybody! Sometimes one parent can do more than a group of teachers can." It was truly heartwarming to discover that I could make a change that would benefit others as well as my own daughter.
In 2017 it was time for Jordan to take the SAT, and we ran into problems with the College Board. The College Board also denied our request that she have an accessible online exam. They said she could take some parts of the test online, but they didn't approve others. I contacted Valerie Yingling, a paralegal at the headquarters of the National Federation of the Blind. She gave me the name of someone at the College Board, but that person said they couldn't do anything for us this year. Maybe next year…
Once again I sent emails and made requests, citing the ADA. I contacted people in the US Department of Education about accessibility in testing. I also located a nonprofit disability law firm in North Carolina, but they said they couldn't take my case. "May I copy you on my emails?" I asked. "That's all I need." As I suspected, things moved much faster when people saw the name of a law firm on my emails! The College Board said yes, they would make sure that Jordan could take her SAT online.
On the morning the SAT was given, the College Board flew a staffer down to Asheville. The staffer handed Jordan a USB thumb drive containing the exam for the first day of testing. He stayed in town overnight, and the next morning he handed her the drive with the tests for the second day. The College Board also provided hardcopy tactile graphics for all of the questions where graphics were involved.
Jordan also took the ACT. On the website it didn't look as though the ACT was accessible electronically. The page about accommodations listed several options, including hardcopy Braille and human readers, but electronic access was not on the list. It turned out that we had to check a box called "Other." When we checked the "Other" box, we were able to work out electronic access after all.
After she graduated from high school, Jordan went to the College Success Program run by the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston. None of the other students in the program had Jordan's computer skills. She didn't need to take any of the computer classes, and she used her computer skills to assist her peers.
Students in the Perkins program had the option to take some classes at Harvard University. Several of the Perkins students enrolled, but Jordan was one of only two who completed the Harvard courses and received credit. Jordan's computer skills made all the difference.
Jordan is now a freshman at the University of North Carolina/Asheville. She has a Mac, an iPad, and an iPhone, but her go-to technology is still her laptop with JAWS. She hardly ever uses the disability services on campus because she doesn't need anything from them. She uses her laptop to access her textbooks, send her work to her professors, and take her exams.
I urge parents to make sure their blind children start to learn technology at the same time the sighted students are learning to use it. Our blind students fall behind unless they learn to use JAWS early on. Sadly, very few TVIs have a deep knowledge of the JAWS program, which contains more than three thousand built-in commands. We desperately need more TVIs like Denise Robinson who can equip our children with the tools they need for success in the classroom and beyond. There really are no limits for our blind children when they have the technology skills they need.