Completing a degree is a tough job, but for students with disabilities, the job comes with extra challenges.
Jessamyn Landby is legally blind, but that didn’t stop her from working toward an Associate in Technical Arts Degree specializing in Accounting Technology at Olympic College. Although it wasn’t always easy for Jessamyn to complete her work — with help from her son, instructors and OC’s Access Services department, she was able to accomplish her goal — and help set a course to make the college more accessible to other students with disabilities.
Jessamyn first attended OC in 2002 with the intention of becoming a kindergarten teacher, but she quickly decided that wasn’t her calling. Following the birth of her son, Jessamyn left OC to devote her attention to working and raising her newborn.
She later got involved with the Peninsula Council of the Blind, an affiliate of the Washington Council of the Blind, and served as the organization’s treasurer.
“I discovered that I liked it and that I was good at it,” Jessamyn says. “So I decided to go back to school, get more training, and look for a job in the accounting field.”
With that new goal in mind, Jessamyn enrolled in OC for a second time in 2015 and began working toward an accounting degree. But it wasn’t easy. Much of the educational software used in her classes wasn’t completely accessible to people who are legally blind. Trying to work around those issues sometimes set her back so much that she had to retake classes.
Like many people who are legally blind, Jessamyn uses a screen reader — specialized software that reads computer text aloud and helps users navigate computer applications. But if materials aren’t set up to be screen-reader friendly, the software does little to help. Unfortunately, Jessamyn found that many of the course materials that publishers had claimed were accessible, in reality were not compatible with her screen reader.
Ultimately, it’s the college’s responsibility to ensure materials are accessible, not the publisher’s, according to Karen Fusco, director of Access Services, a department at OC that helps coordinate accommodations for students with disabilities. Federal and state laws and policies require colleges to provide accessible materials to students, she says.
Part of the effort to make the college more accessible involves communicating with faculty about the importance of selecting accessible course materials and letting publishers know there’s a demand for them, she says. If course materials aren’t accessible, the college must find a way to make them accessible if a student with a disability enrolls in the course.
With the help of Access Services and her professors, Jessamyn pursued solutions to a seemingly constant stream of barriers. If an instructor was having a tough time accommodating Jessamyn’s particular needs, Access Services worked with the instructors to find a solution, she says.
One instructor was particularly inspired by having Jessamyn in her class. “She really liked my feedback on how to help me and she said she was going to change how she put things in Canvas – OC’s Learning Management System – to make them more accessible for students with disabilities,” she says. “It was nice to know she wanted to find a way to change things to make them more accessible for future students.”
Another big help for Jessamyn came from outside the college: her 14-year-old son, Brian.
“A lot of times if I can’t read something, or if the screen reader tries to read something that’s not really there, he’ll come read it to me,” she says.
Last year, in one of her accounting classes, the publisher had provided some of the course materials as a PowerPoint file which was not compatible with her screen reader. She had a hunch that transferring the information into Microsoft Excel would work, but she needed Brian’s help to do it.
“He was able to do that for me, so that the files didn’t have to be completely recreated for me,” she says. “I could use them for the test and I was able to save them in case I needed them again. I was amazed at how well it worked out.”
Jessamyn is hopeful the college’s recent hiring of Instructional Designer Christie Fierro will lead to even more accessibility improvements at OC. “With her coming in, I think the college will be better prepared to help students with accessibility needs,” she says.
For students with disabilities who are on the fence about attending college because of the potential difficulties they may face, Jessamyn offers two words of encouragement: “Jump in.” Once they get started, Access Services is available to help them complete their education. “They’ve really helped me along the way when I’ve gotten stuck or just frustrated,” she says.
Jessamyn, who graduated in June 2019, is now pursing jobs in the accounting field. It wasn’t always an easy journey to obtain a college education with a disability, but Jessamyn says it was something she had to do. “It’s taken me awhile to accept that I don’t see well, and then I had to acknowledge that to get where I want in my life, I just have to do it,” she says. “If I don’t do anything, nothing’s going to happen. I think other students who may have disabilities just need to get out there and live life.”
Karen Fusco, director of Access Services, encourages students to contact Access Services no matter what kind of accommodations they may need. People can fill out an online application for the department’s services on OC’s website; filling out the application only takes about five minutes, she says. People can also contact the department at AccessServices@olympic.edu or 360-475-7540.