By Dr. Regina A. Root

My name is Dr. Regina Root, and I am a professor of Hispanic Studies at William & Mary. My engagement with accessibility issues comes from first-hand experience as a person with vision impairment. For faculty who are struggling to find accessible texts for their own use—and especially texts in a foreign language—our experiences often parallel those of students with disabilities. This article focuses on three key issues impeding effective teaching and learning for students and faculty with disabilities—accessibility, representation, and cost.

As the American with Disabilities Act turns 30 on July 26, 2020, I want to remind everyone that ableism has often left behind those interested in learning a language. Until the United States ratified the Marakkesh Treaty two years ago, the cross-border exchange of materials in accessible formats for the blind and vision impaired was prohibited. I know of one instance where a university-educated man who is blind told me just three years ago, “I’m Latinx and when I was in college, I wanted to be a Spanish major. I was told I couldn’t because the materials would be inaccessible.” Students should never face learning impediments because of their disabilities, yet this problem continues to exist.

According to Anna Whiston, coordinator of Student Accessibility Services at William & Mary, most textbooks are required in audio format and must be compatible with screen-reading software. Unfortunately, it takes time for publishers to produce these formats. In many cases, students and faculty are well into their 14-week semester before they are able to utilize the materials.

When I began my teaching career, I used an excellent grammar and composition book that featured a cartoon of a blind man with a tin cup and a young boy who kindly placed a coin in his cup. An accompanying assignment asked students to write about the sequence using the past tense, but never questioned or unpacked the implicit bias inherent in the sequence of images. What’s really damaging is that this might be the only instance I can recall in almost 25 years of teaching in which a person with disabilities was included in a world language textbook. It’s this very lack of representation of people with disabilities that needs to change. We need to accelerate what textbooks represent and how they engage all students and faculty—not just as learners of languages, but also as people with lived experiences and identities formed around more than just race, class, gender and sexuality; but also around the status of disability.

State legislatures increasingly encourage professors to choose materials with an eye towards cost. In Virginia, for example, professors are practically obligated to select “affordable” texts (some costing no more than forty dollars). This runs counter to the mandate publishers have to fairly reimburse the artists, authors, songwriters, filmmakers, and other practitioners who earn a living by making this culture possible. Faculty are in an impossible position—we want expose students to the rich variety of cultural artifact, but often are limited by financial constraints. Unfortunately, the adjudication of these two competing imperatives often makes addressing the accessibility needs of students and faculty even harder.  

Thankfully, publishers such as Vista Higher Learning (VHL) are taking a proactive and consistent approach to accessibility. When thinking through an upcoming language course, I was thrilled to learn that VHL has partnered with AIRA, a service that assists students who are blind or have low vision to access their online language learning courses. At every juncture, it is important to facilitate the learning of languages, a gift that keeps unfolding and brings the world together. I am grateful for the personalized attention given to me by my Vista Higher Learning Language Specialist, who is always attentive and willing to troubleshoot with me about the challenges and richness that is a diverse classroom and teaching experience. At a time when the world is also thinking through new ways of delivering content (may we find a vaccine for a global pandemic yesterday), Vista Higher Learning is a true leader in its ongoing approach to accessibility and critical webinars that bring us together to learn from one another and imagine collectively what might work best for students.

Some parting thoughts for publishers and every one out there:

  • Publishers have a key role to fill in expanding accessibility to all learners.
  • Faculty and staff need help with universal designs. Most of us aren’t trained in the multiple pathways of learning and likely will be interested in what you can offer a diverse student body.
  • Don’t just talk to faculty members who adopt textbooks. Reach out to student accessibility coordinators and the students themselves who often are happy to let you know what works and what’s missing.

So, as we remember the thirtieth year of the American with Disabilities Act, let us recognize that our work has only just begun in the continued pursuit for equality.

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