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Accessibility advocate Rob Rokey understands the importance of electronic accessibility for all students' success. Working together is the key: not only do students need to speak up for what will make them successful, but learning environments need to be enriched to include accessibility techniques.
Rokey, assistant professor and academic director in the University of Cincinnati's Lindner College of Business, recalls without hesitation what year his family became aware of accessibility.
“2001: my son was in third grade,” he explains. “His teachers noticed he was holding his books rather close to his eyes to read.”
After visiting eye doctors and specialists, his son was eventually diagnosed with Stargardt disease, an inherited disorder of the retina. This disease causes damage to the center of the eye, obscuring straight ahead vision. Eventually, some with this disease become legally blind, including Rokey's son, four years after diagnosis. Six years after pinpointing his son’s challenges, his daughter was diagnosed with the same condition.
“The hard part about accessibility is a lot of times you don’t know the challenge is there; it’s hard to see. And, frequently, those challenges are unseen because the individual wants them to remain unseen,” Rokey says.
Being a parent and a UC faculty member, Rokey realizes what an important role accessibility plays at the university, and the vital role faculty and staff play in creating an equitable and inclusive learning environment at UC. The university’s strategic direction, Next Lives Here, seeks to create a culture in which all individuals receive the support they need to be their authentic selves and feel empowered to achieve academic excellence.
Rokey, who is also a member of UC’s Accessibility Network Executive Steering Committee, sees the solution as a partnership. Students, he says, need to be responsible in letting their professors know if they have any unusual challenges. And if their needs are not being met, they need to be honest and advocate. The faculty, he continued, need to do as much as they can to make the majority of their classroom materials as accessible as possible.
UC’s Accessibility Network offers a multitude of resources including online training, workshops, support tools and techniques to make electronic materials accessible and guidelines to follow when buying and creating accessible software and applications.
Rokey’s son and daughter live with the Stargardt disease very differently. His son, for example, uses his peripheral vision to see, so he does not tend to make direct eye contact. His daughter, on the other hand, does not prefer to reveal she is legally blind. She works harder at trying to interpret a speaker’s expressions because her blind spot is in the middle of an individual’s face.
“My eyes started opening when I experienced things from my children’s point of view,” Rokey says. “For example, did you take the elevator to get here today? When my son [rode that same elevator] he exclaimed, ‘Dad, there are not sounds to let me know what floor we are on.’ That’s when I realized.”
Both Rokey’s son and daughter use iPads extensively to meet their everyday needs. When they came to UC’s Uptown campus as college students, UC’s Accessibility Resources office provided them with additional accessible classroom alternatives, such as large print books, electronic/online books compatible with screen readers and magnifiers, to name a few. But, Rokey says, it required them to step forward and advocate for what they needed.
“The problem is when students arrive on a college campus, unless they had experiences with their disability in their K-12 years — those that are on the fringes of the challenge, for example — they don’t really realize what they need to support their educational goals."
Accessibility is not just about helping the challenged; it’s about creating multimodal education for all students.
Unfortunately, the hardest part is there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. What is good for one individual may not be good for another.
“It bothered my son to study in bright light. My daughter, on the other hand, preferred it. It made for some challenging homework sessions in high school,” Rokey remembers, laughing. “My son would come home and close all the drapes and my daughter would be right behind him to open them back up wide!”
“Students with disabilities really don’t want an advantage,” Rokey says. “They want an equal experience — and they don’t want to start 50 yards behind everyone else.”
In addition to supporting the university’s strategic direction of inclusive excellence, Rokey believes an accessible electronic university environment is absolutely necessary for all students’ success. His philosophy? We are educating students for jobs that don’t exist yet and equipping them to solve problems we can’t even conceive. Accessibility is a skill that everyone in the upcoming digital generation will need in order to communicate effectively online.
In his daily work as an educator, Rokey continues to discuss accessibility with his colleagues, relating it to his children’s experiences. If other faculty mention having students who need accommodations in their classes, Rokey is the first one to advocate that accessibility helps all students.
Accessibility is an important step in supporting all students’ successes.
“Accessibility is not just about helping the challenged; it’s about creating multimodal education for all students,” Rokey says. “Let me ask you this: Who do we want to exclude in education? We shouldn’t exclude anyone! Accessibility is an important step in supporting all students’ successes.”
In the coming months, look for more discussion, ideas, and plans from university leadership and the Accessibility Network surrounding accessibility in electronic learning materials in order to advance inclusive practices for students with disabilities. For more information on what you can do to support students’ success right now through accessibility techniques, visit The Accessibility Network at UC website.