Dividends Magazine, 2023-24 Edition
By Emily Daniels
In the ever-evolving realm of higher education, innovation and inclusivity stand as crucial factors molding the educational journey. In an effort to enhance inclusiveness in education, Dr. Kathleen Thomas, a Professor of Economics and the Department Head of Finance and Economics at Mississippi State University, initiated a search for solutions to assist students with low vision in her economics courses.
The catalyst for this innovation was the realization that traditional approaches to making course materials accessible were falling short. Thomas, with over two decades of teaching experience, acknowledged that graduate school training seldom covers the importance of providing alternative text for visuals and PowerPoint presentations. It was the shift to online learning during the pandemic that brought accessibility to the forefront.
“When the pandemic hit and so many more things were going online, there were a lot more messages that were coming out of the Center for Distance Education about what we needed to do to make our classes more accessible,” recalls Thomas.
She discovered the limitations of alternative text for economics graphs, particularly for students with visual impairments. In her pursuit of enhancing Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance within her classes, she conceived a tangible solution. Thomas recalls discussions with Eric Hill, Director of the MSU Center for Entrepreneurship and Outreach, and her first thought of potentially utilizing a 3D printer. Her exploration also led her to the National Center for Blindness on campus, where National Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision (NRTC) Director and Research Professor Michele McDonnall suggested the Swell Form Graphics Machine as a more suitable solution.
How does a Swell Form Graphics printer work? The machine itself operates simply–much like using an Easy Bake Oven. It uses specially treated paper that, when passed through a heating element, puffs up the black ink, printing an embossed representation of the image or text.
The machine, priced at $1,500, proved to be a game-changer. What started as a grant application for her class evolved into a broader proposal to benefit the entire campus.
“I requested funding from the MSU Ottilie Schillig Special Teaching Project Grant to purchase a Swell Form Graphics Machine to aid low-vision learners who might enroll in my classes as well as other classes across the University,” says Thomas.
Collaborating with the MSU Disability Resource Center, the MaxxSouth Digital Center in the University’s Mitchell Memorial Library was chosen as the machine’s home. Despite logistical challenges during a departmental move, the machine was eventually set up, and faculty members were trained on its user-friendly operation.
According to Micah White, Associate Director of the Disability Resource Center (DRC), MSU currently serves around 40 low-vision learners on campus each year. There may be many others with visual impairments that are undocumented, though. Thomas shared an experience with a student dealing with macular degeneration who had not yet sought assistance from the DRC. The student, in an in-between space of vision loss, faced challenges with reading braille and fully comprehending textual information on the tactile graphs.
Thomas acknowledged that while the machine is a helpful tool, it is not a cure-all, but she highlighted the Swell Form Graphics Machine’s potential as one tool among many to assist instructors in accommodating students with low vision. She emphasizes its user-friendliness, urging faculty members to explore its potential for making educational content more accessible. In addition, Thomas remains intrigued about its broader effects, affirming that educational innovations attract students and contribute to a more enriched academic environment for everyone involved.
Having laid the groundwork for inclusive education with innovative teaching methods for students with visual impairments, Mississippi State seamlessly transitions its commitment to accessibility into the realm of human resources (HR) education. Now, professors like Dr. Emily Marett are spearheading initiatives to ensure HR professionals understand the intricacies of ADA compliance and foster a workplace environment that recognizes and maximizes the potential of individuals with blindness and low vision.
Marett, an Instructor of Management in the College of Business, is on a mission to shape the future of human resources. Specializing in courses such as Organizational Communication and Introduction to Human Resource Management, she has taken on a groundbreaking project in collaboration with colleagues at MSU’s NRTC.
Her journey into this innovative initiative began when she encountered Sylvia Stinson-Perez, the Director of the Vision Specialist Program and the Older Individuals Who Are Blind (OIB) Technical Assistance Center at the NRTC. Stinson-Perez, who is blind herself, presented on nonverbal communication skills during a staff development conference, leaving Marett inspired and driven to make a change.
The catalyst for Marett’s involvement came during a session where she realized that all her presentation slides contained images, creating a potential barrier for those with visual impairments. Quick on her feet, she verbally described each image to accommodate Stinson-Perez, sparking a friendship and collaboration that would lead to a groundbreaking project.
Marett joined forces with NRTC colleagues in 2020 to secure a five-year, $875,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research. This grant fueled the development of interactive training materials for HR managers, designed to dismantle barriers to employment for individuals with low vision and blindness.
Describing the project’s origin, Marett explains, “They knew that they wanted to take the NRTC’s expertise in research on the employability of the visually impaired and translate it into training materials, to cover various topics – dispelling myths, addressing employer concerns and showcasing the capabilities of individuals with visual impairments. And when they were starting their planning for this last funding cycle, they knew that they wanted to take it further.”
Marett emphasizes the vital role HR professionals play in shaping employment opportunities for individuals with visual impairments.
“The HR professionals are bigger gatekeepers than they realize because if they don’t understand the capabilities of people with blindness and low vision, then they might inadvertently not let those folks get further in the interview process,” she notes.
The project involves the development of an interactive video, a pioneering tool designed to challenge misconceptions and provide valuable insights into the capabilities of individuals with blindness and low vision.
“It’s a two-part project,” Marett shares. “We’ve been developing the interactive video and testing it with my Intro to HR and senior-level HR students in the College’s MILO lab [Market Innovation Lab and Observatory]. Now that it’s developed, we’re testing it with adults in the local area who work in hiring positions or anyone who participates in hiring practices.”
Describing the interactive video, Marett outlines its web-based format, offering an array of menus and videos.
“There are three menus with hundreds of videos,” she explains. “It’s a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ style. Users get to explore and pick the videos that are of most interest to them or that might pertain to them.”
Marett reflects on the impact of the project, sharing the challenges faced during its development.
“One of the biggest challenges was to organize the information in a way that wouldn’t be overwhelming, because we found so much good content. Content selection was a challenge because there were more resources and many of them shared different perspectives,” she notes. “With visual impairments sourced from birth, trauma, age or disease, there can be many varying opinions.”
Despite the challenges, Marett’s passion for the project shines through.
“It’s been a really fulfilling and enjoyable project to work on, and I believe it has really enhanced the quality of the ADA section in my HR classes,” she says.
As the project continues to unfold, Marett remains dedicated to reshaping the narrative surrounding employment opportunities for those with visual impairments. With each interactive video and every HR professional trained, Marett and her colleagues at MSU’s NRTC are paving the way for a more inclusive and understanding workplace.