Three ways Coventry University is accessible to blind students, and three more things it needs to do

A year ago, I wrote a very critical post about Coventry University and how they had failed me as a blind student. I still stand by my criticism of them, as there are many areas of student life I cannot access. However there are some things they are doing well and I want to speak about these in the hope it will show people how much of a difference accessibility makes.

Accessibility is not a privilege. When things are adapted so that I can access them, I am not receiving special treatment. I am not being given an unfair advantage, or asking for more than I deserve. I am literally getting what every non-disabled person has without even having to think about. I want to highlight the good work my university is doing, however I hope that one day we reach a point where this isn’t necessary, because disabled people are viewed as equals and treated accordingly.

Offering accessible library materials

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve set foot in the library since starting university almost two years ago. I pop in now and then, but mostly to buy a cup of coffee or meet friends. Instead of skimming through huge textbooks like many sighted students, I go online, log into the catalogue for my university library and type in whatever I’m looking for.

One of the first things I did when arriving at Coventry was check whether the eBooks the library has are accessible. They are, as are the majority of the online journal articles. I have access to almost everything that sighted students do, with the exception of a few books that aren’t available electronically. Knowing I can read these books from wherever I happen to be, and that I don’t have to stress about finding an accessible copy is such a wonderful feeling.

Accessibility benefits everyone. If I find out I need a book for one of the modules I’m taking I’ll email the subject librarian. The first thing she does is try to buy an electronic copy for the library. This means not only do I get access to the book, but every other student at the university does as well.

Making the exam process smoother

As a disabled student I receive extra time to take my exams. This considers things such as the time it takes me to look up words in the dictionary (I’m a languages student), whether I read at the same speed as others and if I will need to take breaks. The down side to this is that my exams are often located in a building I’ve never had to go to before, meaning I have no idea where they actually are!

In first year, I had to call around, working with my disability advisor to sort out getting to and from the exam. Luckily, the disabilities team are great and were more than happy to assist with this; however, we talked about how this whole process could be made easier. One idea was to have exams only in the building the disabled student uses, they will be in their own room anyway, and it would mean they’d know how to get there. Unfortunately, that isn’t always possible; however, this year registry contacted me in advance to find out if I would like someone to show me to and from the exam. A tiny adjustment like this, made in advance really does make all the difference. I know someone will be meeting me, that I’ll get to my exam on time and that it’s all in place weeks before I actually sit the exams.

A health and wellbeing app all students can use

Coventry University has a health and wellbeing app that you can download that contains university specific information. You can find out about the medical centre, mental health support or welfare advice. It also includes the number of the university protection service. If you are in an unsafe situation you can call them from within the app.

I’m pleased to say that the app is voiceover accessible. This is incredibly important as all students must be able to access this information, especially the contact details for the protection service. I know that if I ever am in an unsafe situation or simply need some help on campus then I can access all the information I need.

Although the university is ensuring blind students have access to some of its facilities there is a lot of work to do. The criticism I levelled at them last year is still very much valid, and it is because of my lecturers, and the disabilities staff that I am successful here. As a whole, the university needs to consider accessibility a priority, not an afterthought or a problem for someone else to deal with.

Here are three things they can do to become more accessible to blind students.

  • Putting braille on all the buttons in lifts. Currently only the lift that goes up to the disabilities department has braille. This shows that the university can do it, they’ve just chosen not to.
  • Adding alt text to all the images they use on twitter and descriptions to their Facebook posts. This is very easy to do and takes only seconds. Often the university posts images of event posters that I can’t access, whereas if they added alt text I’d know what they were and would be able to fully participate. They also post fun pictures that students and others have taken on campus and it would be nice to be able to join in and enjoy those as well.
  • Ensuring screenreader users can book rooms and appointments. Currently I can’t book an appointment with the disabilities team because the system the university uses isn’t screenreader accessible! This is ironic, but also painfully disappointing. I hate to use money as a reason, but I do pay a lot to study at Coventry, and when the systems they use aren’t accessible, it really sends the message that disabled students aren’t welcome. If the university had considered disabled students when choosing a booking system I wouldn’t be here now, telling them they needed to spend money fixing it. Therefore, when you design products with the needs of disabled people in mind you actually save money in the end.

I think that Coventry University has made some progress over the last year. Being asked about my specific exam arrangements, beyond the standard questions regarding the format, was a welcome change. However, the university still has a huge amount to do. I listed three things they could do to become more accessible to me however there are many more.

I love studying here and I want it to be somewhere I can be proud of. I want to be able to encourage younger blind people to consider studying here, and tell them about all the amazing things we are doing to ensure we are accessible. Currently I can’t do that. I am doing well, but much of that is down to luck, and the people I have managed to surround myself with.

I will graduate in just over two years’ time. I want to be able to write another post then telling you all about the huge step forward the university has taken. How it is more accessible to not only blind students, but also all disabled people. Let’s hope I can do that.

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