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Nate Mickelberg/MEDILL

Loyola University Chicago's Services for Students with Disabilities can order visually impaired students enlarged-font versions of their textbooks.

Chicago universities’ services help print-disabled students thrive

by Nate Mickelberg
Jun 6, 2013

Sure, that PowerPoint presentation your professor’s giving on thermodynamics is boring, but imagine if you couldn’t even see it.

With disabled students comprising about 11 percent of all post-secondary students as of 2008, the most recently available data, more and more college students need special services to help them deal with the academic and logistical realities of life on campus.

And since some students, such as those who are deaf or blind, have disabilities that require they have access to special machinery or software to help them do the most basic things, such as read course textbooks or take notes, not all colleges are properly equipped to deal with students with less common impairments.

That was the case with the University of California, Berkeley, which signed a non-binding agreement last month under which the university will make textbooks and other research materials more accessible to students with visual and other disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires schools to provide accommodations for people with disabilities, but the details are not spelled out.

At a number of Chicago schools those resources are already available.

Loyola’s Services for Students with Disabilities provides students who have a print disability, such as blindness or dyslexia, the ability to have any textbook or other course material converted to an alternative format, such as audio or enlarged font. They also have optical character recognition software that allows the office to turn older or more obscure texts into an electronic version.

And while agreements requiring these kinds of services for disabled students are helpful, said coordinator Lauren Blanchard, whose office currently works with 575 students and 15 using alternative text or print materials, the services should be a given at this point.

“I’d like to think we want to because we should,” Blanchard said. “It should be part of our goal, our mission, rather than someone tells us we have to.”

The University of Chicago’s Student Disability Services provides visually impaired students with braille versions of their course books and can typically perform an alternative format conversion in 4-5 days, depending on the length and quality of the text. That quick turnaround time is an important part of the services the office offers, said director Gregory A. Moorehead.

“That’s what we’re working for,” said Moorehead, whose office works with U of C professors to ensure proper arrangements are made for disabled students before a class starts, “being able to diminish and reduce the turnaround time, because we’re very sensitive to the fact that not only does the turnaround time impact students, but also these students already have a disability.”

Having the proper resources and materials available to disabled students is that much more important once they get to college-level courses, according to Bill Jurek, who serves as director of the Chicagoland Radio Information Service, a radio station that reads news stories on air to disabled listeners, and who is himself blind.

“What I think is it’s necessary,” Jurek said, “especially with the volume of work that you run into on the college and university level. It’s almost something that you need.”

Providing these services to disabled students is also an important part of making them feel like they’re fully integrated into the campus community, said Karen Ward, vice president of public policy at Equip for Equality. The Chicago-based nonprofit that advocates for people with disabilities in Illinois has negotiated deals in the past with Northwestern University and the U of C relating to students with disabilities.

“If you have a theater and there’s no way to get on the stage,” Ward said, “that person could never be in a play, could never sing with the choir if they have a mobility impairment. The failure to consider in advance the effect on people with disabilities, often that arises as a huge barrier.”