A Rant on JAWS–or Should I Say, the Lack Thereof

Well friends, since many of you are also blind like me, you are aware of the special accommodations we need, especially in school and the feeling of isolation that these accommodations sometimes require. For example, in elementary and middle school, I had to have a bigger desk to accommodate my braille writer and the fact that braille takes up more space and requires thicker paper than print meant that all my binders and folders were ten times fatter than those of my sighted peers. Accommodating this larger desk often required me to sit off in a corner, separate from the class. In high school, I started using a BrailleNote which, as you probably know, is a lot more compact than a Perkins braille writer and can store all of my files electronically. This finally allowed me to sit in a regular desk and feel like a part of the class. But the BrailleNote wasn’t practical for math because so much of math involves graphs and diagrams which cannot be depicted on a braille display and my math textbooks were always so large that they required me to have my own room in the library instead of a locker like my peers. And of course, for assignments that required use of a regular computer, I had to use a separate room where my special laptop equipped with screen reading software could be plugged in. But when I came to college, this feeling of separateness, of “being different” no longer existed. (I still had to take tests separately, but that was it!) This can be attributed to the fact that I only had to take one semester of math, so other than that, all of my textbooks can be stored electronically. I still use a BrailleNote, so I don’t have to be separated from the class. But most delightful of all was that when I had to do research, I no longer had to sit at my separate special computer because almost all of the computers on campus had JAWS on them. There were only a couple computers that didn’t have it, like the little cubicles in the library where you can use a computer to see if a book is available. But all 52 computers in the main computer lab in the basement had JAWS, as well as all of the computers in the classroom labs, the big computer lab in the library, even the communication building which is technically off campus. I never appreciated how awesome this unfettered access to JAWS has been until this year when I just found out I won’t have it anymore.
So on Tuesday, shortly after posting my exciting writing news, I got an e-mail from the director of Disability Services. She said that the director of client services in the technology center wanted to know my class schedule and the computer lab I frequent so that he could make sure that JAWS would be available on a computer. On “a computer?” I didn’t like that wording at all, but was in such a state of shock that I just sent a reply with the times I was planning on using a computer lab and mentioned that I generally use the main lab in the campus center since the smaller classroom labs are often occupied by classes. On Wednesday, I didn’t want to get myself in a bad mood before an exciting morning of apartment touring (the subject of a post in the near future), but when we got home at about 1:30, I called this client services director to try and ask if this was going to be a permanent thing or if it was just temporary while they did upgrades or something. I got his voice mail, so I left him a message but did not hear back from him that afternoon. Thursday was my first day of school and I didn’t have class until noon. But when he still didn’t call back in the morning and my 2:00 english class got out early, instead of making my way to a barbecue for the senior class, I decided to go to the campus center and try to get an “ambush interview” as journalists say. It worked! He was there and said he had time to talk, even helping me find a chair in his office. But when I asked him if this was going to be a permanent thing, he said “yes.” And do you want to know why? “We did some upgrading of the computers and had a hard deadline for when things had to get done. JAWS wasn’t working, so we just had to go ahead and do the upgrade without JAWS.” He said he was having a meeting with disability services the next day to discuss which computer would be easiest for Gilbert and me to navigate to and that they would put a sign by that computer saying “reserved for JAWS users between such-and-such times.” Normally, this kind of reassurance would be enough to assuage my frustration, but not this time. You don’t know how much I wanted to rail in to him about how much this unfettered access to JAWS my first three years at this college meant to me, how it allowed me to do research alongside my peers as opposed to being off in a corner somewhere, how much it meant to me to be able to use any computer any time I wanted like my sighted peers instead of having to reserve times, how there were times when a computer would randomly freeze or crash as computers do but how this never escalated to tears or panic because I could just switch to another computer. And what if something came up, like say, a class gets canceled and I would like to use the time to get some work done, but find that my special computer is being used by another student who would understandably say “but I’m not using it during the reserved times.” I am not looking forward to the potentially awkward task of asking a student if they would be so kind as to move to another computer as this is the only one I can use. In general, my college is a friendly community, but if the person at that computer happens to be that one jerk who won’t move to another computer, I’m out of luck. And on the reverse side, I might not need to use a computer during the reserved time but if I don’t need it, it will sit empty which isn’t fair to my sighted peers. Or what if next semester, I have a class that meets in one of the classroom labs. JAWS would have to get set up on one of those computers so I could participate in class. I’m sure they would be willing to set up another computer in this case, but it would fall under the category of a “special accommodation” instead of something I could just take for granted, and I would probably want to come to campus over Christmas break to make sure it has been set up and is working properly so that I am not at a disadvantage the first day of class. But given that I was too frustrated to address these concerns in a calm, respectful manner and didn’t want to sully my reputation on campus as the happy easy-to-get-along-with girl with the positive attitude, I decided to just say thank you and end the meeting there. Yesterday, since I happened to be going to the Disability Services Office to take a comprehensive test for my Capstone course, I voiced my concerns to the administrative assistant who was attending the meeting. (That reminds me, unbeknownst to even the administrative assistant, the computer that I used to take tests on didn’t have JAWS either. Fortunately, she was able to procure a laptop that had JAWS so I was able to take the test. I don’t like laptops as well but made do with it). After talking out my frustration with Mom on the way home Thursday, I was able to think rationally and she helped me with how I should word my concerns. We came to an agreement that since the computer lab is first-come-first-served, it would make the most sense for the sign to say something like “this computer is reserved for JAWS users unless there are no other open computers.” (It is extremely rare to have to wait for a computer, although I have heard of it happening in the last weeks of classes when exams and projects are due). If there are no computers open and someone is using the JAWS computer, then of course it is fair for me to wait like anyone else. But it is not fair or practical to only reserve JAWS for certain times. The administrative assistant said she would bring up these concerns. But even though I calmed down enough to make the best of this new reality and voice my concerns in a respectful manner, I still feel sort of as if I have been betrayed. “We couldn’t get JAWS to work by the deadline, but oh well. We’ll go ahead with the upgrade anyway,” is essentially what he said. What do you readers think? Am I justified in being upset about this, or am I making mountains out of anthills? Did any of you enjoy such unfettered access when you were in college, or have I been spoiled and need a “welcome back to the real world” speech?
When I expressed my frustration to my dad, he compared this situation to the limited handicapped parking spots. I didn’t tell him this, but to me, these two situations are very different. While I can empathize with the frustration of people who are honestly handicapped when all the handicapped spots are taken, often by people who are not handicapped, the reality is that it is impossible to have all parking spots close to the door. But it is possible to have all computers in a campus network equipped with JAWS. It had been done until this year.
It isn’t characteristic of me to rant like this, and I apologize if this is starting to sound like a pity party. I can kind of understand where the technology people were coming from. When you’ve got three thousand plus students on campus, only one of whom needs JAWS (that I know of), I suppose it would be unreasonable to slow down an upgrade for the whole campus. At the same time however, did they really have to have that upgrade? Would it really have been the end of the world if heaven forbid, the campus had to use microsoft version 2007 instead of version 2011 for one more year until they could get JAWS working properly? Am I justified in feeling as though the rest of the campus is taking a step forward as I take a step backwards?
Alright, I will stop ranting now, but I do have one more question. Should I take this displeasure at what I perceive as a lack of consideration for myself and future blind students that may choose my college to the powers that be, or is this just a reality of life that I should just shut up about because there is nothing I can do about it, so it’s not worth the fight?
Thank you so much for reading this rant on a beautiful Saturday. I just really needed to get this off my chest and I look forward to hearing any advice you might have or if you have had similar experiences.

Published by Allison Nastoff

As I write this in 2020, I am 30 years old. I am blind, and Gilbert was my first guide dog. He passed away on December 2, 2020, but I decided to keep the title for my blog as a tribute to him because he will always hold a special place in my heart. In 2012, I earned a Bachelor of Science in Communication with a journalism emphasis, and went back to school for a Paralegal certificate in 2014. I worked for five years at a Social Security disability firm. When the pandemic hit, I did some reflecting and decided to resign from this job and take seminary courses. My dream is a career as a teacher or writer where I can be a blessing to others.

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