Being a visually impaired student in the age of COVID-19

Remote learning and pandemic life for disabled students

Courtesy of Jill Sloane.

By Gurpreet Kambo, Peak Associate

This article is part of an ongoing series about how disabled students have transitioned to remote learning and pandemic living.

“I’ve done a video editing course, I’ve done graphic design being fully blind,” said SFU Communication student Jill Sloane. “We found ways to make that work, which is pretty crazy if you think about it.”

Sloane has been blind in both eyes since the age of 15. As such, there are certain barriers to Sloane receiving the education that she wants, as life at SFU is designed for sighted students first. This necessitates that she receive accommodations from SFU so as to be able to overcome these barriers to education.

“It’s kind of fun to break the mold of what people think students with disabilities can do. Because like when you think of a blind person doing video editing or graphic design, it kind of shocks people,” she said, with a mischievous chuckle. 

Sloane does her visual design work with the assistance of an access aid, a person who is hired through SFU’s Centre for Accessible Learning (CAL) to assist disabled students. The aid describes the visual material to Sloane, who then directs the aid as to the changes she wishes to make onscreen. 

“She’ll start describing an image or something without me having to ask her now [ . . . ] So she’s just been a huge, huge help [with] all these different kind of courses I’ve taken,” said Sloane. 

Alongside the access aid, Sloane has a whole team of people who work to make SFU more accessible for her. This includes a caseworker, note-takers who take notes in class, transcribers who put reading materials in an accessible format for her. “They’re all willing to help me find a way to make whatever course work,” she said.

To make reading material accessible for Sloane, CAL scans her textbooks and converts them to a digital format for her, from which she uses text-to-speech software to study it. Images from readings must be noted and described manually by the transcribers however. Because of this labour-intensive process, Sloane tends to receive books chapter-by-chapter rather than all at once. 

“Sometimes it’s not soon enough. It takes me probably twice as long to read each chapter than sighted students,” she said. “So I don’t always get it done in time. So that was the main issue before the pandemic, the urgency of getting my course materials on time.”

On the topic of reading in Braille, rather than voice-to-text software, Sloane says “ I didn’t learn Braille until later on in my life, so I’m not very competent at reading with it. So I only really have the one option of electronic formats.”

On Campus Vs Online Student Life

Sloane had a bit of a difficult time adjusting to remote learning in the Spring and Summer semesters. “I don’t tend to really work from home very well,” she said, adding that she loved the experience of going to campus, and the social interaction of classes and campus.

This is despite the fact that Sloane frequently had trouble navigating campus, and finding classrooms. “What level [d]o I have to be on? [Are] there stairs or elevators? [ . . . ] Like there’s so many different things to consider, how to even get from one side of campus to the other [ . . . ] and there’s so many people,” she said. 

She added that frequent construction was also a barrier, “[e]specially when they don’t tell me it’s there. So then I walk into the middle of a construction site without even knowing [ . . . ] I [normally] use different landmarks, whether it’s like a different texture on the ground, or a different sound or something to kind of keep myself oriented to know where I am. So when they do construction, and take those away, I get really lost.” 

According to Sloane,  that part of student life has become much easier with remote learning. Despite all that, she prefers the on-campus experience. “I’m a very social person, so it’s weird for me to be at home so much, basically.”

Remote Learning Software

The online learning platforms that SFU uses has been a significant difficulty for Sloane. In particular, it is a challenge to take websites and software specifically designed for sighted persons, and find ways to make it accessible for a non-sighted person through other software.  

“Navigating around [Canvas] with all the keyboard commands, it’s so tedious and so frustrating. And it’s always been that way from, from my experience,” she said. 

With BBCollaborate, she found that the link sent out to the class to join a video session sometimes expired, and then she had a difficult time looking around the website for how to join it. “So then I have to ask a friend or the Centre [for Accessible Learning] or my access aid.”

Once one has joined the session, as BBCollaborate is an audiovisual platform, this poses its own set of accessibility issues. 

“Video is annoying because I can’t aim the camera very well. Sometimes I don’t know what the camera is pointing at. So then [professors] are always like, ‘why aren’t you on video?’” she said. “I can’t aim the camera so you’re gonna deal.” 

She adds that the chatroom that is available during video sessions, where students can ask questions, she is unable to access at all. Zoom, however, is much more accessible and less glitchy when her professors opt to use that for video sessions.

“There’s always some kind of accessibility barrier [to remote learning], which drives me insane. So even more so online now, because everything’s online,” she said “Lectures and discussion boards and posting assignments and like all the readings [ . . . ] Almost every part of the online aspect, there’s something that’s inaccessible.”

Pandemic Life

On overall feelings about how being a person with a visual impairment has changed in the age of COVID-19, Sloane has found it a challenging adjustment.

“I’m not comfortable taking transit on my own [ . . . ] because I can’t social distance from people, because I can’t see where they are, and I don’t trust people to social distance from me,” she said. “If I bump into [someone] or tap them with a cane, and they freak out because I’m not socially distancing, that is a big issue right now.” 

“People aren’t willing to guide me as much [ . . . ] like for example I went to a restaurant with a friend the other day. I usually go get the waitress to get me to the table, so I would grab onto their elbow and they would guide me through the tables. But she was uncomfortable with that so [what happened was] I’d grab one end of the menu, she’d grab the other end,” she said.

“So I almost like [being] more isolated at home because my independence is gone [ . . . ] People are a lot more hesitant to help you when they don’t want you to grab on to their elbow to guide you. It’s hard when you’re in a new place. It’s kind of hard for you to get around when you don’t know where you are,” she said. “Then you’re like, ‘what I do now?’” 

“It’s really taken my independen[ce] [a]way, and being someone with a visual impairment, independence is something that you strive for like basically your entire life.”