Born unable to Swallow how to succeed in college as student with disabilities
Sarah Boury’s graduation ceremony was a milestone for her, but also a reminder of the kind of challenges she and other college students who are deaf face — something she wants to change.
Boury — of Ankeny, a native of Des Moines and whose mom is a professor at Iowa State University — graduated this year from the University of Northern Iowa with a bachelor’s degree in family services and social work.
UNI highlighted her as a history-making graduate — having earned her double-major degree while deaf, breathing with one lung and on a tube-feeding system.
However, Boury said, “I just felt like I was missing out on the graduation ceremony,” because there was no interpreter or captioning available. Everyone has masks on as a health precaution against COVID-19 and leaving her unable to read lips compounded those issues.
The pandemic also created new accessibility problems for her by way of remote learning, but accessibility was always something Boury had to consider when weighing her college options for where she would be successful.
More than 19% of U.S. undergraduate students and almost 12% of postbaccalaureate students live with conditions including blindness, deafness or being hard of hearing, mobility impairment, speech or language impairment, or mental health problems, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. NCES data from 2017 showed that students with disabilities were more likely than their peers to have left college without a degree and less likely to have attained a degree within six years.
Boury said she knew from her high school accommodations and Individualized Education Program what she would need from a college, and that included a campus that was easy to get around on, and “I also needed to make sure (a college) would provide a sign language interpreter.”
Boury said one school she visited did not really provide or have high-quality interpreters, so “Obviously, it wasn’t a choice.”
Before the pandemic, she said she would sit at the front of the class with an interpreter, and she would also have a note-taker.
She was not interested in remote learning before, because “I knew that it would be a challenge.”
Boury finished her degree virtually because of the pandemic, however, and “It was much harder for me, virtual.”
There was having to juggle two live screens — one for her class and one for her interpreter — with the workaround being to have her interpreter join the Zoom class.
Then there was also that Zoom did not offer automatic closed captioning. That meant her professor for a class had to type in what they were saying, but sometimes that information was not complete or of good quality to continue through a whole virtual meeting, Boury said.
Zoom announced in February that it’s “working towards making live transcription available to all of our users in the fall of 2021. To help free account holders who want live transcription before then, we will also be offering live transcription to meeting hosts upon request.”
Addressing technology companies, Boury said, “I hope that there is better captioning because sometimes the captioning is not accurate. There are many mistakes in the captioning. Captioning improvement would be a big thing for me.”
Beyond the pandemic, a 2015 analysis published in the “Journal of College Student Development” that looked at barriers college students with disabilities face found the most common barrier was that students avoided asking for accommodations because of being “judged, humiliated, and embarrassed by instructors, either in private or in front of the class” before, or “because they did not want to be regarded as ‘less capable of making it through the class.’”
Inexperienced or unresponsive advisers, physical and mental challenges, social stigma, and feeling intimidated by disability staff intended to help them were also among the issues students in the study said they experienced.
“Many students felt conflicted about using disability support services on campus because they did not know how to be a self-advocate or what to advocate for,” the study found. “Students confessed they did not understand who were eligible for services and what kind of services they would obtain, thus making it even more bewildering.”
The Chronicle of Higher Education reported last month that some students also do not want the accommodations granted because of the pandemic to go away as campuses return to pre-pandemic operations, as the playing field got leveled.
Boury wants to work for change in her career, through Mainstream Living — an Iowa organization that serves adults with intellectual and physical disabilities, brain injuries, mental illness, or who are medically fragile — or by going to graduate school for a master’s degree in social work or student disability services and then working with students in a disability office.
She’s been turned down by a master’s program in Iowa but said she will apply again and would love a summer internship with student disability services.
“Advocate for yourself,” is the advice she would give her earlier self or another student with a disability going off to college. “Push for what’s needed, and push to make it happen. Explain to them what’s needed. Set up meetings to make sure there’s a way you can speak up for yourself and work with the team.”