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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

2-26-24 PDF
February 26, 2024
An inside look at Bobby B. Beacon’s insides. Illustrated by Bianca Oppedisano/ Mass Media Staff.
Bobby's Inside Story
February 26, 2024

The blind eye – UMass Boston’s Culture of turning the blind eye on students

College graduation is an opportunity to recognize the tens of millions of hours students spend collectively over the course of years before they earn the right to walk across the stage in caps and gowns. This is also a time for every person who works on campus to reflect on how their work contributed to the success of every graduate. However, staff members who are honest with themselves may find much room for improvement in how they fulfill the University of Massachusetts Boston’s mission to create a “vibrant, multi-cultural educational environment” that encourages a diverse student population to thrive and succeed.

I personally faced several barriers during my first semester at UMass Boston that would be daunting even for the most resilient among us. I am lucky I have learned to advocate for myself, or I would not have made it this far. But I am not proud or glad I had to overcome these barriers. Maybe what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but I would much rather avoid an environment that is likely to threaten my ability to thrive in the first place.

You know there is a serious problem when a whole class of people, such as blind students, is not able to complete the college application process, submit required financial aid documents, or sign up for classes independently. These obligatory procedures are impossible to complete independently for UMass Boston’s blind students who use assistive technologies to read their computer screens. My experiences as a new student point to a campus culture that is less than ideal when people need help navigating through the intricate bureaucracies to get things done.

My difficulties accessing college services stem mostly from poorly designed websites that are not fully compatible with the computer speech technologies blind people use instead of their eyes. It is easy to put the blame on bad technology design, but there is failure on the customer service side of the work culture at UMass Boston. Combined, this can become too much to bear, resulting in frustration, inefficiencies, and possibly lower graduation rates.

I first faced inaccessible technology on campus before ever stepping into a classroom. The admissions website has no provisions to enable blind people to pay the admissions fee without employing a set of working eyes.

I had to come to campus to meet with people in the admissions office since the web form is not accessible to blind people using screen-reading technologies. I did not allow a technical fault to hold me back. My application was accepted, and I started my first semester in September of 2014.

I attended classes for a short period of three weeks before another inaccessible website and subpar customer service on campus threatened my ability to receive financial aid and student loans.

Every student who receives financial aid is required to go through an entrance counseling procedure. I could not complete my entrance counseling independently. Again, the website was designed in a way which prevented me from entering my login password. I was facing the threat of withdrawal for non-payment since I could not complete the entrance counseling without help and could not pay for my semester until the issue was resolved.

I was denied any type of help with my login when I called the office for assistance. I knew I’d get better results if I came to the office in person. I was offered assistance when I first showed up, but the person who was helping me had to leave for the day. I eventually left to attend a scheduled class, and returned another day to complete the required but inaccessible forms.

My subsequent visits to the various departments on campus took me through a six-week rollercoaster ride that would have been avoided if staff in financial aid and the One Stop did not subscribe to the pass-the-buck approach which seems to be standard operating procedure at the university.

A third, but certainly not the last, example of trouble came during advising for the 2015 spring semester. Most of the websites needed to select and add courses in WISER worked, except for the final link to add a course to my schedule. In essence, I could drool over every course available to me, but I could not secure a place in any class since that specific link did not work for blind users.

It was clear to me after talking to a few people familiar with accessibility issues on campus that the college has known about the WISER issue for some time. I do not know how long they have been aware of the problem, but I must not be the only blind student who’s had to sign up for classes on campus in the past and noticed the site is not accessible. I was finally able to sign up for spring classes, but not before speaking with at least eight people in a period of nine days, including meetings to make sure UMass Boston staff followed through on what they promised to do on my behalf. I felt I needed to babysit and supervise this project every step of the way to reach a solution.

Students will take note and shine more brightly when every interaction between them and college employees is taken more seriously. University staff are not doing us any special favors when they react swiftly, owning responsibility for taking care of each and every incoming call, responding to each in-person office visit, or addressing every concern brought to their attention.

Each person was hired to fulfill a role on campus, not simply to warm a seat and collect a paycheck. Each employee holds the power to subtract hundreds of unnecessary hours from the thousands of hours each student works towards getting a college degree. The campus will be a different place and students will feel more respected when employees create and nurture the supportive work culture we all deserve.