Voices from the Field: Interview with Jonathan Stricklen

Voices From the Field - Interview with Jonathan Stricklen

Jonathan Stricklen

Jonathan Stricklen

Jonathan Stricklen teaches Spanish at the Ohio State School for the Blind. He holds master’s degrees in Spanish and Special Education and is a certified Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments (TVI). Combining his specialized knowledge and skills with his lived experience as a person with visual impairment, an assistive technology user, and a braille reader, Jon is uniquely positioned both to teach and to be a role-model for his students. During the month of May, in recognition of Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), OSERS has been highlighting challenges and successes related to digital accessibility. We met with Jon to learn more about his experiences with accessibility as an educator.

What drew you into the profession of teaching?

One important influence came from my family. When I was in middle school, my mother went back to college and ultimately became a professor of nursing, and her example and experience certainly impacted my perspective on teaching and learning. Additionally, I became a peer writing tutor when I was in college, and one day a staff member I was working with said to me, “Well, obviously, you’ll have a career as a teacher!” This statement helped me to recognize my strengths and to consider education as a career path.

How does accessibility (or lack thereof) impact your career?

At a non-teaching job in my early 20s, lack of understanding of disability and accommodations was sometimes a barrier. For example, because of my eye condition, I’m very sensitive to bright light, and so an important part of an accessible work environment for me is needing to have a workstation away from sunny windows and bright lights. Simple accommodations can make a big difference but sometimes require a lot of self-advocacy, and employers are not always receptive.

Now that I work on campus at a school for the blind, I have easy access to most of the workplace accommodations I need. If I were an itinerant teacher (like most TVIs who work in local school districts), I would need to consider options or accommodations for transportation between schools and might need more assistance with some aspects of student assessment, such as evaluating students’ functional vision in a variety of lighting conditions.

A hand positioned to read the raised braille characters on a refreshable braille display positioned beneath the keyboard of a small laptop.

Refreshable braille display.
Sebastien.delorme, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In terms of digital accessibility, I use an iPad that has built-in features to help me access alternative text descriptions for images, magnify text and images for easier access, and output text to a refreshable braille display. In my classroom, my students and I use a combination of assistive technology tools ranging from braille notetakers and embossed braille materials to computers, iPads, and large-screen monitors, projectors, and TVs. I’ve found that many students are excited to realize that their teacher is using some of the same technologies that they’re using, and they ask me questions to learn from my experience.

How has the accessibility of instruction, learning and communication changed since you were in school?

When I was in middle school, I struggled to see the board and to find accessible educational materials. I used magnifiers but not higher-tech tools like CCTVs (closed-circuit televisions). In high school, my parents bought me a MacBook with built-in accessibility features. Also, my TVI provided me with a much more robust digital magnifier (the Amigo), and my teachers made large-print copies of materials and provided access to files digitally. I really began to take my education more seriously because I had much better access to instruction.

A person pointing to handwriting magnified on the screen of a large CCTV reader

CCTV reader for people with low vision.
U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As we integrate more technology into schools and classrooms, we can level the playing field for students with visual impairments by providing more accessible materials and tools. However, sometimes there is an over-emphasis on the most visually stimulating and exciting innovations without consideration for whether everyone will have access. Instead of helping, sometimes new technology can create new accessibility barriers. For example, my experience has been that few of the new online versions of textbooks from publishers have been truly accessible. Fortunately, I can use Bookshare to access an alternate, accessible version of the books I need.

What are some of the most important actions schools and school systems can take to improve accessibility for teachers and students?

Teachers, parents and other education partners need to have training! Training is essential to know what a student needs and to support the students’ use of technology. I remember receiving a book player from the National Library Service when I was in 5th grade. It might have been a useful tool for accessing audio books, but I never really used it, because I never received explicit instruction in how to operate it and best practices for using audio texts. Children and their service providers each need training to ensure that the technology will be put to good use. Otherwise, it may very well end up in storage for the remainder of the year.

What advice would you give to someone with a disability who is considering a career in teaching but is worried about accessibility barriers?

I would say that it’s essential to just keep going. You will need to be a strong self-advocate, and you may need to move around to a few different jobs or job sites to find one that is a good fit for you. But don’t give up! Your example and leadership will help set the stage for even more accessible educational and professional experiences for those who follow in your shoes.

Learn More from Jon about Accessibility!

Jon was featured in the National AEM Center’s Accessible Learning Across the Lifespan video series.

* Additional Digital Accessibility Resources

Looking to learn about even more digital accessibility resources? Check out this recent OSERS GAAD blog post, Accelerate Access, or these Office of Educational Technology GAAD blog posts, Celebrating GAAD: Accessibility Resources for Educational Communities and Celebrating GAAD: Why We Need More Educators with Disabilities.

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

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