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John Scott

May 6, 2019

Equity and Access over Three Generations

UC Berkeley takes on Digital Accessibility

Through the Decades: From Analogue to Digital 

In parallel with the Civil Rights movement and the Free Speech movement, the late 1960s gave rise to the Disability Rights movement. Led by activists like Ed Roberts, the University of California at Berkeley emerged as a hotbed for the movement, which demanded that physical spaces, campus facilities, and academic programs be able to accommodate people with disabilities. Their advocacy eventually resulted in the first independent living facility for people with disabilities in 1972, and helped advance section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Only two decades later, Lucy Greco picked up that torch, serving as Berkeley’s accessibility evangelist, and working across the campus to ensure students with disabilities have equitable opportunities for success. Over her 25 year career at Berkeley, Lucy has worked with students in using assistive technologies, tested campus web services and learning technologies for screen reader accessibility, and drafted campus accessibility policies around procurement and web presence. In her quest to bring accessibility to every corner of the campus, Lucy describes how for the first time, she has a tool that helps her reach faculty inside their courses. She is adamant that faculty want to do the right thing, they just lack the awareness and the basic skills to make accessibility a part of their teaching and learning.

The biggest problem has always been getting to faculty and getting them to fix the problem before it happens, getting them to understand what accessibility means. Ally gets to the faculty where they are at, and gives them the information in small digestible bites, which is really important.

– Lucy Greco, Accessibility Evangelist, UC Berkeley 

During the podcast, we also spoke to the accessibility team lead at Berkeley, Dr Joseph Ferria-Galicia, who shares a very personal connection to the disability community. Having experienced his own brother lose his vision, Joseph recounts how screen reader technology and the web helped reconnect his brother to the world, but also revealed the barriers his brother encountered navigating inaccessible websites. As an instructional designer, Joseph prioritized accessibility, and partnered with Lucy to create a template and strategy for accessible course design.

When he was assigned the task of leading the deployment of Bb Ally on a campus as large as Berkeley, there was some initial trepidation about how his team might handle service requests and potential pushback from faculty. But through strategic messaging and a focus on building faculty awareness first, Lucy, Joseph, and the team at Berkeley are seeing some initial successes in terms of faculty usage and awareness, and now able to better identify opportunities for further impact. Joseph credits his collaboration with Bb accessibility strategist Krista Greear for helping guide their process toward a full campus rollout, and mentions the guidance he received from members of the Ally Community.

Three keys to an effective messaging strategy for faculty:

  • Based on your institutional goals and culture, set clear expectations about first steps for engaging with the instructor feedback and where to start with course files. Focus on the easy fixes first!

  • Legal mandates are important, but keep the messaging positive by focusing on accessibility as a social justice issue and the benefits that an inclusive learning approach can have on all students.

  • Remind them that students can’t see the indicators and that they won’t be able to fix all their issues overnight. It’s a journey!


The Non-Traditional Learner is the New Norm

The shifting landscape of higher education today has been well documented, and institutions are reimagining how to engage and support diverse students. In our conversation with Berkeley’s alternative media supervisor, Joseph Polizzotto explains that his office is receiving more requests from students with documented disabilities to have their learning content in a format that fits their unique learning needs. Based on his experiences in the classroom and in his current position, Joseph highlights the ways that assistive technologies and access to alternative formats of learning content can positively impact the student experience, and sees these kinds of tools becoming a more regular part of all student learning.

For Andrew Phuong, who completed his undergraduate degree at Berkeley and has continued there for his doctoral degree in education, assistive technologies have played a central role in helping him be successful in higher education. After struggling in his early years in school, Andrew was diagnosed with processing delays that impacted his ability to retain and understand information without the appropriate accommodations. When Andrew arrived at Berkeley, Lucy introduced him to Kurzweil, which he continues to use as a study tool, leveraging the text-to-speech capabilities to listen and read at the same time, which helps him concentrate and comprehend the material.

Why Ally is really effective is because a disabled resource program may not have the time and resources to make that text accessible. Ally gives us the opportunity to make last minute changes, like convert it into a different language or a different modality like ePub where they can annotate it.


– Andrew Phuong, Doctoral Student, UC Berkeley 

As an instructor and researcher, Andrew argues that curriculum should be responsive to the interests and inquiries of students, so being able to update syllabi or offer supplemental materials is an essential pedagogical practice. However, this can also create challenges for students who use assistive technologies if these materials are not accessible and the alt media team cannot remediate the content with such short turnaround. For Andrew, having a tool inside the course that can allow a student to easily OCR a scan or engage with an ePub can ensure students who use assistive technologies do not miss out on these kinds of adaptive learning opportunities.

Following in Berkeley’s tradition of activism and scholarship around disability rights, Andrew’s research focuses on what he calls “adaptive equity-oriented adaptive pedagogy [citation link].” Through experimental design, Andrew has set out to demonstrate empirically that fostering a sense of belonging and being responsive to changing student needs can have a direct impact on student success. From Ed Roberts in the 1960s to Lucy Greco to Andrew Phuong, Berkeley has seen three generations of disability rights advocates and innovators pass through Sproul Plaza, paving the way for more inclusive campus learning experience for future generations.




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