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.
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