A slow return (like a slow cooker but without the delicious nourishment)

I have been trying to write this for a year now. An entire 291 days has passed without so much as one finger hitting the keyboard in an attempt to jot down one or two sentences for you. But you’ve been on my mind, reader. And I’ve struggled with each word that’s scrolled the monitor inside my head, wondering placement and poetics while trying not to sound too pompous.

 I might sound too pompous. At least I’m putting fingers to keys!

I realize that my hemming and hawing over what to write in this space may seem comical. You didn’t expect me to show up, so why am I so worried about being here? I don’t know, but I can probably trace it to my childhood and family of origin and fear of rejection. Or at least, I bet that’s what my therapist would like me to do, if I were to be truly honest with myself. But I’m really good at deflection, so I’m going to blame it on work and an increasingly stressful professional life. One I love – but one I have had to fight really, really hard for. Let me explain?

I wrote a lot here, on twitter and in paper space (paperspace?) about my struggles in attaining an educator’s licensure in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 2013. You can read up on those struggles, if you choose. I asked many agencies for advocacy and help. By the end of May (2013) I had assurances from the makers of the licensure exam that an accessible computer-based test would be provided free of charge by the beginning of June 2013. And it was. And I passed. And I kept my job. And all was well.

Except that it’s not all well. Perhaps because I am one of many disabled persons in the United States facing a staggering unemployment rate and open discrimination disguised as deference to the Americans with Disabilities Act. And while I have ensured that as of July 2013 I could pass a test to keep a job I loved and created, I cannot take state-required certification tests to achieve career advancement. And I can’t access many college curriculums built on flash-based 508 non-compliant web platforms. And I can’t walk out of my house without being grabbed, touched or talked at without regard for my bodily autonomy, integrity or agency.

So the work isn’t done. And I haven’t even begun to talk about it. But I’m going to try.

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But Why Is This Wrong, Really?

But Why Is This Wrong, Really?

I’ve gotten a lot of emails and tweets from folk trying to help. I’ve also gotten responses from folk who are as heartbroken and desperate as I am – or hopeless to a positive outcome. D/deaf folk in Massachusetts are struggling to pass educator licensure tests requiring skills they simply don’t have (if ASL is their’ only language). Other blind or learning disabled folk have reached out to share stories of repeated testing attempts with nothing but failure to show for it. Eventually, humiliation and finances (those tests aren’t free!) prove too great and they give up.

I’m not giving up.

Today I received a few emails asking me why I haven’t mentioned Braille, since the MTEL accommodations lists Braille (and large print) as alternative testing options. These are questions the folks at the MTEL office (the PearsonVue folk who administer the Massachusetts-specific educator licensing tests) asked me as well, in November of 2012. Simply put, I am not Braille literate, and large print isn’t large enough for my vision. There are many reasons for my lack of functional Braille literacy – if you read my initial post you’ll remember that I wasn’t aware I was disabled until high school. By high school I mean twelfth grade. Too, I was not raised in the most supportive or functional of families, and I didn’t have access to appropriate or continuous medical care growing up. I raised myself, spent years on the streets or friends’ couches, and made my way on charity, luck and government assistance. 

One of the reasons I am an assistive technology specialist now is because I look back at my education and groan. I blame no teacher or school – my family moved from one place to the next each year, so how could any teacher or administrator know me or my struggles? But I wish upon a million stars that someone had (for so many reasons) intervened during my childhood, taken me out of the dysfunction I was stuck in and given me a true opportunity at stability and educational access. But that isn’t the story I have to tell. 

I support Braille literacy for all who want it. Someday I will have the time and energy to sit down and move beyond grade 1 (and um, remember all of grade 1 Braille, if I”m truly honest). But today? Today I use the tools I have – that have served me well through multiple degrees and jobs. And I continue to work full-time in a Title 1 public school system, single-handedly building an assistive technology department from scratch (something I’ve lovingly done over the past three years) and work to stay there. I want to continue to be the change for students with disabilities that I wish I had as a child. 

UPDATE: on PearsonVue and MTEL accommodations

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Someone at Pearson Vue must have gotten wind of me, that is – after I failed the reading subtest of the Massachusetts Test for Educator Licensure (MTELs). Because last week, I got a phone call from one Cindy Wills and a new cast and character, Caroline Bertrand. Both women were pleasant and thoughtful as they told me all about the work their’ engineers and programmers had undertaken to meet my testing needs. Of course I still had the option of taking a human scribe/human reader test again – and that accommodation would always be offered to me. But they were trying. They would call me back in one week.

………….

I let the first call go to voicemail as I sat in Diesel, my favorite coffee shop in Davis Square. I had someone take a message for me the second time, trying desperately to hold on to my sunny Wednesday disposition. This afternoon I called her back. No direct line, so I waited 12 minutes for customer service to reach my call in the queue. A few confused hums and haws before Caroline Bertrand answered.

Hello? Hi. Yes it’s me. Yes you have an update. Ok. Let’s hear it.

I can take the test! Hurray! I can take it the first week in June! Because the engineers must first do usability testing! Hurray!

Except not really.

I can read the test on one computer using [brand name] speech-to-text software. On a separate computer will sit a proctor scribe who will input my answers. Because I can’t both read and respond to an electronic test myself. Not after five months of work!

I sent her back to the drawing board. It makes no sense. Any programmers out there think they can convince Pearson Vue and team that an accommodation does not mean what they think it means?

UPDATE: current status with Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Massachusetts Department of Education will not review my licensure application without passing MTEL scores. I cannot take the necessary test to receive passing scores because PearsonVue refuses to make the test accessible. I loose my job in T-73 days. Call or write Commissioner Mitchel D. Chester, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Seconday Education and ask why? 

Twitter: MassEducation
Online: doe.mass.edu/contact
Phone: 781-338-3000
Address: 75 Pleasant Street, Malden MA 02148

Help Me Keep My Job!!!

A few phone or email based ways to help
1. Contact PearsonVue, makers of the MTEL and tell them this is wrong. 800-989-8532. Remind them of the legal requirement to make all digital examinations accessible to persons using assistive technology. Also point out that providing two versions of the same test to one disabled applicant does not equal an accessible accommodation. 

2. Contact Judy Sohn-White, educator policy, preparation and leadership, DESE 781-338-6600 xt. 6254. Tell her this is wrong. Ask her to allow my application for educator licensure to be approved without requiring the Reading Subtest of the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure (MTELs) – because they are inaccessible and illegal.

 
3. Contact Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Tell him that requiring applicants for educator licensing in Massachusetts to pass a test in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Tech Act is not only unconscionable but just plain wrong. Kindly point him in the direction of my case. I need my licensure in Educational Technology or I loose my job.
  • Email Commissioner Chester – mchester@doe.mass.edu
  • Call Commissioner Chester’s office – 781-338-3000 
  • Send a letter: 75 Pleasant Street, Malden MA 02148 USA
3. Contact Cindy Wills and Caroline Bertrand, MTEL alternative testing accommodations coordinator (at PearsonVue) and tell her this is wrong. There’s no direct line, but the MTEL number is 413-256-2892. Please make it clear that the test is not accessible until I can both read and respond using assistive technology.

I”m preparing a file with the Department of Justice, after talking through this with their’ ADA hotline. Again, thank you. I’m so beaten down by this whole thing.

A Blind Person Wants to be a Teacher…

My name is Jeanette and I am blind. This is not usually something I immediately share, often because it’s obvious in the way I move or via the giant black labrador guide dog padding softly at my side. I’m also a first-generation American, raised in poverty and instability. I didn’t realize I was disabled until high school – when a guidance counselor told me. He introduced me to a vocational rehabilitation program that helped me go to University; without that assistance I would have continued in homelessness and/or applied for disability benefits.

Twelve years later, I independently made my way through undergraduate and graduate programs, exploring career options I never thought possible while growing up in government housing. Even though my vision continued to worsen and I struggled to learn new ways of living and learning without my once functional vision, I graduated with a Masters Degree in Special Education with a focus on assistive technologies. I had found a way to marry my passion for helping people with my love of technologies.

In October of last year (2012), I took the next step in achieving my dreams – I applied for the Massachusetts Test for Educator Licensure (MTEL). The tests I needed to pass, Communication & Literacy would grant me licensure as an educational technology teacher through the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The tests were newly digitized – meaning that they were no longer paper and pencil reading/writing exams. I was thrilled! I paid the additional fees to take the tests in this new format and submitted the necessary paperwork to request testing accommodations. The administrator of the MTEL, PearsonVUE requires individuals with disabilities or religious needs to submit documentation verifying any accommodation requests they make. I gathered my certificate of legal blindness from the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind (MCB) and necessary forms outlining my access needs and waited for a response.

One month later, PearsonVue contacted me to say that I could not take the computer-based exam. Even though it was relatively new, it was not created to be accessible to people who need assistive technologies to use computers. I use speech to text software, often called ‘screen reader’ software (brand names include JAWS, Window Eyes or VoiceOver) to navigate computers using a complex system of keyboard shortcuts and commands. A pre-programmed computerized voice, customized to my reading speed and needs (pronunciation, pitch, etc) allows me to access most all parts of a mainstream computer and most websites with ease. It’s the same software I teach to some students. And although “screen reader” software has been in existence since the late 1980s and is built-in to the Apple operating system from OSX+, PearsonVue neglected to craft its’ new computer-based tests to be compatible with it.

I was told the only accommodation I could receive would be a human scribe/human reader. This isn’t an uncommon offer, but is one that the Department of Justice issued a statement against (citing discrimination) in September of 2012. Why? Because it’s impossible to take many types of examinations in this format. The reading portion of the MTEL I needed to take included 5-7 paragraph passages with 7-10 questions afterward. Questions like: refer to paragraph 2, line 3 – what word would you replace with ‘than?’ Try listening to a person read 5-7 paragraphs, then ask you this question. Now the two of you will try to figure out how to go back to that paragraph and line – but you’ll have to direct them to read for context and include the word you need to switch out for a few different options in the sentence and then read the entire paragraph to test for accuracy……..confused? Me too.

I told PearsonVue this was not possible for me. I could not be accurately assessed on my reading and writing skills if given a test in a method that I don’t use to read or write. After some advocacy by the MCB, PearsonVue called me in December and offered to type the test into a document that I could access on my laptop with my screen reader software, to be accessed independently in the same way I access other text in my day-to-day. They prefaced this offer with a 6-8 week wait period, meaning that I would l likely have to wait until February 2013 to take the test. I agreed, hopeful.

In February, 2013 I received another call from PearsonVue. They no longer believed they could type the test for me, and that the wait might be 6-8 months or longer. Needing licensure to apply for a job, and worrying about the already 4 month delay, I agreed to register to take the test with the human scribe/human reader option. I had to wait another month for PearsonVue to arrange this. So the first weekend of March, 2013 I finally sat down at Somerville High School to take the Communication and Literacy portions of the MTEL.

Five and a half hours later, I was in tears. Two retired teachers acted as proctors, and both had encouraged me to take breaks or simply give up. They realized how impossible it was to take the test(s) in this fashion and were sorry for me. They sat and stared as I tried to work my way through finding (by ear) two errors in a sentence, be they spelling, punctuation or grammar, and then re-writing the sentence with corrections by dictation. For some of the multiple choice questions, one of the proctors would ask “does this answer sound like it could be correct? What do you think?”

Both women wrote letters of complaint to their’ supervisors, without my asking. They were upset for all of us, but especially for me. They didn’t see how I managed to stay in my seat and finish both tests, six and a half hours later. I said I didn’t have any other choice. I want my license. I want a job in my chosen field. This was the only option given to me, after five months of advocacy and unfulfilled promises.

I received my scores four weeks ago. I failed the reading portion of the test. The writing portion, which I was able to write on a computer, I passed. I wasn’t surprised at the scores. The anxiety, humiliation and frustration I felt during the testing didn’t seem to me to result in a realistic measurement of my intellect. I was drowning in impossibility.

I went in to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education this week. I asked how they would help me, now that I took the test they require for licensure, and I failed it, because the accommodations I needed were not provided. They said there was nothing they could do for me. The office in the DESE responsible for the MTEL accessibility said that they couldn’t help me – that while it may have been emotionally difficult, it is the accommodation PearsonVue provides and my only option was to retake the test using the same human scribe/human reader. Even though I sat across from the woman who works with PearsonVue to avoid this very type of problem, and explained myself, even as I cried – I was told that she had to enforce the law. There’s a law that states all Massachusetts educators must receive a passing score on the MTELs required for their’ specific license.

But there’s another law they are ignoring. I’m supposed to get a fair chance at taking the test – according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). New technologies are supposed to be accessible to assistive technology users. And since the DESE and PearsonVue aren’t applying those laws, I am becoming another disabled statistic. I can’t get hired as an educator without licensure. I can’t get licensure with passing a test that I cannot access. So I need help. My voice alone is not making a difference. I need the DESE to ensure that licensure requirements are achievable by persons with disabilities. I need PearsonVUE to ensure that the software they create to fulfill state-required standardized tests is accessible to persons with disabilities. And I need a fair chance to get the licensure I applied for so that I can do the job I am qualified for.

Please consider helping me. Check out future posts for contacts to reach out to, share this post.

Thank you.

The Comfort of Silence

Silence is easy to keep. I find silence something comforting, an old friend. Once I stop talking, picking up my voice and pushing it through my lips or fingertips is that much more difficult. I find silence calming, familiar, customary. Every few weeks I meet with a group of folks who have survived some form of trauma, be it physical, sexual or emotional. We sit at tables in a public space and drink teas and smoothies and try to figure one another out; whether we’re trustworthy confidants, whether we’ve got some alternative agenda for being here, whether we’re too damaged to consider friendly and/or perhaps whether we can find someone who is understanding enough to connect with in spite of ourselves. At these groups I’m reminded of every single disability-related event I’ve ever attended. We gather, we share quips and quirks, we write off oddballs and sometimes find connections. But we come broken in part, broken by a society that tells us we don’t fit.

If I step back from this blog for long enough I find it next to impossible to return. What have I to offer but the same abuse, disregard and dehumanization day after day? I continue to run in to bus drivers who refuse service, cab drivers who tell me what’s my job, mall security guards who lie and try to escort me off the premises, store managers who tell me other customers deserve a dog-free eating experience and I should take my food (that I just paid for) elsewhere. But if I don’t share these stories, if we who experience the daily trauma of living don’t share these stories with the world, will the world and our hearts change? Or will I simply fall back into the customary silence I’ve grown to love and cherish for so many years?

So….I come back here on a beautiful autumn afternoon to attempt to break this comfortable silence, to share with you what it’s been like the past few weeks to continue to walk in a world that doesn’t see me, that sees a puppy dog and possibly a loud-mouthed inconvenience. Because my silence is hurting me, and maybe it’ll end up causing hurt to someone else too. There are so many ways our bodies and hearts experience trauma. May we find spaces to be loud about them, talk about them and find safe healing.