Best advice from students with disabilities as they move through their higher education journey
Hunter McGowan with his guide dog Atlas (Photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)
Hunter McGowan’s journey through higher education has been one of preparedness, patience and perseverance.
Navigating the system requires a strategy
“There’s a lot to do on top of what everyone needs to learn when you go to college that the average student may not have to worry about.”
By Mary Niederberger
June 7, 2021
As a college student, Hunter McGowan has spent countless hours before and after class visiting with professors to explain his disabilities, collecting textbooks and course materials in advance, using special software to prepare them for his use, connecting with note taking services, and caring for his guide dog, a black lab named Atlas.
Over the years, he’s watched his peers slide into class at the last minute and close notebooks at the end of lectures, likely not to think about the notes again until they are needed for homework or studying.
But McGowan lives in a different world, one where preparation for class begins before the semester starts and continues before and after most classes.
McGowan has significant vision and hearing loss as the result of Usher Syndrome Type 2. He earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania in 2019 and is currently working on a master’s degree in counseling there. And, he’s been happy with the support and accommodations he’s received along the way as he deals with the rigors and learning experiences of college all while managing his disabilities.
But there’s something he’d like those around him to know about his higher education experience and those of other students with disabilities:
“There’s a lot to do on top of what everyone needs to learn when you go to college that the average student may not have to worry about,” McGowan said.
He makes it clear in his soft-spoken and measured manner that he’s sharing his story not in an effort to get pity — he says he and other students with disabilities don’t need that — but to provide insight.
Hunter McGowan working at his computer that is loaded with assistive software. (Photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)
Here’s his story:
McGowan said he found it’s better to meet with his professors before classes begin, rather than wait for the first day. He schedules appointments during office hours to introduce himself, and to help identify any obstacles he may face in the course.
He figures it’s better to be prepared than surprised.
“My strategy is to meet with the professor outside of class and present myself to them and say, ‘Hey, I am a student with a disability in your course and I’d like to discuss the accommodations and discuss the challenges I may have for the class,’” he said.
McGowan can’t read small print so he has to access his textbooks in a digital format that he downloads to his computer where special software makes it possible to enlarge the print or have the material read to him.
But to make that happen he first has to purchase a hard copy of the book, then make a request to be issued a digital copy. The process can take up to 48 hours. Then he loads it onto the computer he uses in class and formats it to his needs.
Written materials for class are handled in the same fashion — obtained in advance and formatted for his use.
Most of his accommodations are spelled out for the professor in a document prepared by the university’s Accessibility Services office. They generally include extended time for test taking, the ability to take tests in a distraction-free environment, and the ability to use his technology in class.
Some professors, he said, discourage students from using laptops in class because of the distractions they can cause.
There have been times when McGowan has encountered obstacles that weren’t covered by his accommodations document and he’s found that having established relationships with professors has helped in those situations.
For instance, in a biology class when he anticipated that a microscope slide would not provide the proper magnification to assist him, he said he and his professor “brainstormed a solution” that involved mounting a camera over the eyepiece and connecting it to his laptop.
“It does really come down to a strategy. You certainly have to think about things more,” he said.
Hunter McGowan outside of his North Huntingdon home with guide dog Atlas. (Photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)
“Accommodations — they are there to level the playing field so that people with disabilities can do their work as good as their peers. But it doesn’t mean that the process is easy. There are extra steps and extra planning.”
McGowan uses digital hearing aids. “I have a pretty significant hearing loss. So without them I can’t really function well.”
The hearing aids come with a microphone accessory that uses bluetooth technology.
During in-person classes, the microphone can be put on or near the professor. In Zoom classes during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been placed near the computer speaker if needed.
McGowan chose Edinboro as an undergraduate because of the accessible campus and the programs and services offered by the accessibility office. He stayed as a graduate student for the same reasons. The assistive technology he uses is provided through the state Office of Vocational Rehabilitation’s Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services.
In high school, his assistive technology was provided through his Individualized Education Program, which his mother helped to negotiate with school officials. For college, however, he needed to work with the state agencies to get the devices he needs in the classroom.
That process, McGowan said, was the first step for him in separating from his high school world, where his accommodations were met through his IEP, to the secondary world, where he had to plan and advocate for himself. He also got involved in his IEP process, alongside his mother, while still in high school to be better prepared for college.
In college — even with the accommodations he’s received — he’s had to learn to budget his time “around the services you qualify for.”
In some classes, professors posted lectures and other materials to the online platforms they used. But in others, McGowan was given permission to record lectures and to have a notetaker provided to accommodate his vision and hearing. In those instances, he had to schedule time after classes to visit the Office for Accessibility Services to deliver the handwritten notes so they could be typed for him.
“So what I was able to do, I would take my notes at the end of the day and I would label what class it was and I would give it to the office administrator and she would give the handwritten copy to the student worker who would type it for me and send it to me via email,” McGowan said.
McGowan works with a guide dog as a mobility aid and he has to adjust for Atlas, too.
“I have to factor in his needs throughout the day as well — when he needs to go out to the bathroom or when he needs to play or exercise.”
Hunter McGowan demonstrates how assistive technology on his computer works. (Photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)
Since classes moved online in March, 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, McGowan has had a few struggles with online discussion boards on the academic platforms being used in his courses. “There are some extra steps (including copy and paste) that I do to make it accessible,” he said.
Performing the extra steps, “can be very tiring. But if you have a significant visual impairment, it is even more tiring.
“Moving forward at some point I might advocate for more universal design for these internet platforms. I think those companies that make those platforms are starting to realize that. It’s a process for them to do that,” McGowan said.
He stressed that his assistive technology makes his coursework accessible, but not easier.
“Yes, there are so many different types of technology. Some are very simple, some very high tech. But that doesn’t mean the work that the person can do is going to be easier. It just means it levels the playing field,” he said.
This recent semester was tough for McGowan because of the significant amount of screen time required for attending class and reading. “It was a very heavy content semester,” McGowan said. “That can be taxing with a significant vision loss and hearing loss.”
The recorded lectures helped because he could go back and listen later. Sometimes, all of the extra work makes him so tired that he has his parents read his material to him.
“I’m not trying to give people with disabilities pity, but I think (the extra work) it’s something that people should acknowledge who don’t have disabilities.”
McGowan said his hard work has paid off. This fall he will be starting a practicum in the Career Connections Center of Westmoreland County Community College. There, he will provide career-related counseling to students.
“I think it's going to be a good fit. It's going to have what I’m interested in and what I’m studying,” McGowan said. Eventually he hopes to work in career counseling “in the disabilities area.” ✹
This story was made possible through a fellowship from the Education Writers Association.
Mary Niederberger covers education for the Pittsburgh Institute of Nonprofit Journalism. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Edited and Produced by Brittany Hailer. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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