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LSU poli comm class uncovers limitations for visually impaired students on campus

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Disabilities

Visually impaired students face adversities every day that the average student does not.

Josh Price crashed his motorcycle just three weeks after his 21st birthday when he hit a rock while driving at 150 mph and severely damaged his skull. The near-fatal accident rendered Price completely blind and suffering from memory loss.

“I’m so lucky I’m not dead or severely mentally impaired,” Price said in an interview. “I’m extremely lucky to be here.”

After the accident, Price said his life became a “downward spiral.” Once a rambunctious, fearless kid, Price leaned on alcohol and drugs to cope with his new reality. Eventually, he pulled himself out of this dark place and earned his associate’s degree at Daytona State College.

Now at LSU, Price is studying psychology with dreams of becoming a mental health and substance abuse counselor, so he can help others in situations similar to his. However, achieving this goal at LSU has proven to be a significant challenge with his visual impairment.

“I think I bit off more than I can chew by coming here,” Price said.

Price delivered this testimony along with three other visually impaired students to an advanced seminar for a political communications capstone course at the University last fall, according to project group member Mallory Knudsen.

The team researched the University’s accommodations for visually impaired students, including facility compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, other universities’ accommodations, an interview with the director of the Office of Disability Services and student testimonials.

The research team from the class discovered the University is lacking in its accommodations for visually impaired students, like the lack of visibility strips on staircases and braille lettering on classroom and bathroom signs. Title II of the ADA requires state and local governments to comply with federal regulations, which includes the University.

New buildings and renovations are required to have the proper braille signage and have been built on the University’s campus in said to these standards, according to Director of Campus Planning Greg LaCour. Older buildings on campus may not have the proper signage in accordance with ADA regulations, but the University is required to come up with and implement a plan to bring all properties up to code.

First, the University must conduct a study detailing all areas of campus that need to be brought up to code, LaCour said. The study costs about $500,000. The University has applied for a grant from the state to request the study. Once the study identifies all of the problem areas, the University will begin working on improvements.

The lack of visibility strips on staircases makes moving through buildings difficult for students with limited visibility. Such is the case for accounting junior Jake Sicard. 

Sicard began to lose his vision when he was 11 years old, the cause of which is still unknown, according to his testimony to the class. Sicard was adopted at a young age, so without a family history, doctors told Sicard, “‘You’re just going to have to live with it.’” He is now part of a study in California and his vision is making small improvements.

Sicard, a lifetime LSU football fan, came to the University from New York and was provided an orientation and mobility specialist by the state of New York, according to Sicard. Even with the extra help during orientation, Sicard said the buildings can be difficult to navigate without the proper visibility markings.

Price said he was looking for the bathroom in Coates Hall when he found a mistake in the braille labeling on the bathroom doors. While it is the men’s restroom, the braille indicates it’s the women’s restroom.

The research team also discovered a classroom, room directory and bathrooms without proper signage in Lockett Hall.

The Office of Disability Services currently has about 2,300 registered students. However, only 10 of those students actively seeking accommodations have some form of visual impairment, according to ODS Assistant Director Keiara Beverly. Of those 10 students with visual impairments, Beverly said she only works with four of them regularly due to the severity of their disabilities.

Accommodations for visually impaired students depend on the severity of their impairment, Beverly said. Some specific accommodations offered by ODS include large print text, note-takers, extended time on exams, access to take exams in ODS, readers, scribes, e-text audible software, relocating classes and consideration for tardiness.

Price said he’s struggled with navigating campus, especially as an out-of-state transfer student without prior familiarity with the campus. The University does not currently provide transportation or an orientation and mobility specialist for visually impaired students.

Instead, several visually impaired students rely on the services of Delta Gamma, a sorority on campus whose philanthropy focuses on helping the visually impaired.

“I think it’s absurd that the [University] rests that responsibility on a student body,” Price said.

The LSU DG chapter assists University students and Baton Rouge residents in transportation around campus and the city. The chapter currently assists seven students with 50 sorority members volunteering in biweekly shifts, said Knudsen, who also coordinated the chapter’s program last fall. 

Price said he’s also encountered issues with acquiring audible textbooks. When the University did not provide an audible option for him, he sought outside assistance through Learn Out Loud, a company that provides audio and visual learning materials. But Price said he thinks the University should be working with companies like this already, so students don’t have to fend for themselves.

“I love LSU,” Price said. “I’ve been an LSU football fan my whole life. I was absolutely enthralled with the idea of going to LSU, but with all of these difficulties, I’m at the point where I want to say, ‘Forget LSU.’”

Sicard also said he’s had issues with note-takers for some of his classes. In some cases, Sicard said his designated note-takers wouldn’t respond to his emails once they had been registered with ODS.

Beverly said she’s only recently encountered visually impaired students with persistent difficulty navigating campus, as students with more severe impairments and who are unfamiliar with the campus have enrolled in the University.

ODS does not assist students with orientation, mobility or provide transportation. However, some previous ODS employees did have specialized orientation and mobility training to help students navigate campus, but most students with visual impairments learn to navigate campus independently or with outside assistance, Beverly said.

“Just like our office isn’t necessarily set up to provide transportation for a student with a mobility disability, we aren’t set up to provide O&M training,” Beverly said. “We do as best as we can with the resources that we have.”

The University’s Tiger Trails bus system also poses challenges for visually impaired students, as the buses don’t include vocal indication of stops or bus routes. The University has nine full-service and four night-service bus routes and introduced new buses in 2016, but none of these included vocal indication.

“I’m scared out of my mind to use the bus system,” Sicard said in his testimony. “I don’t want to end up downtown or something.”

Students with disabilities must register with the ODS to receive accommodations. The application for accommodations asks students to submit a diagnosis, functional limitations, medications and a doctor’s and the student’s recommendation for accommodations, Beverly said.

Students then schedule a meeting with advisers to sign additional forms, learn how to print letters and discuss communication with their instructors about additional needs. While ODS reaches out to students to let them know they need to schedule a meeting, it’s up to the student to meet with ODS advisers and   communicate with instructors.

“Our office specifically is a resource for students,” Beverly said. “By no means are we a solve-all or one-stop-shop, but we do try to point our students in the right direction. We all will do whatever we can to support the student in whatever way is practical.”

As a former student with a visual impairment and an ODS adviser, Beverly said the most pressing issue for University students with visual impairments is web accessibility. Several courses include requirements for online assignment submission, quizzes or homework. The screen reader software used by visually impaired students are not compatible with programs required for their classes.

“We’re so technology-based these days that our students are running into a lot of issues with that when their screen reader is not compatible with whatever program it is that they’re using for their classes,” Beverly said. “Of course, that’s going to cause a student a lot of frustration when they don’t have the same opportunities to complete the work that other students are doing.”

Price said he’s encountered issues navigating LSU’s website, especially when scheduling exams and registering for classes. The testing center and disability services require students to schedule exams online. However, neither the testing center’s website or disability service’s website is compatible with Price’s screen reading software.

The Office for Civil Rights notified the University that its online presence was not in compliance with federal law regarding accessibility and issued a deadline of August 2019 for the University to comply with existing standards. This includes improving existing content and course materials, new content and third-party content or resources.

The University created the Online Accessibility Working Group to determine and implement improvements to the site, according to the team’s research.

ODS advisers have also started reaching out to instructors before the start of the semester to gauge which courses will include components that may be inaccessible to students with visual impairments and resolve those issues prior to the start of the semester, Beverly said. Price said he’s had issues with instructors relying on PowerPoints with visuals, which his screen reader can’t properly interpret.

Knudsen said she hopes her research will inspire improvements for visually impaired student on campus.

“It became a part of my daily life, interacting with these students,” Knudsen said. “I get to see the real impact DG and the mass communication program has on these students and can have on this campus. It’s impacted my career goals. Now, I want to go to law school and help these people.”

One of these improvements includes installing audible and tactile crosswalks on busy streets like Highland Road and Nicholson Drive.

Sicard said he hoped to live in the Nicholson Gateway Apartment Complex when it first opened, but he didn’t think it was possible due to the lack of audible and tactile crosswalks on Nicholson Drive.

Editor’s Note: Sheridan Wall is a member of Pi Beta Phi Sorority at LSU.

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