Justin sitting in wheelchair with communication device, mom sitting next to him
Accessibility (#A11y), Advocacy

Presentation at Closing the Gap 2016

On October 20, 2016, I presented with Jay Wyant and Jennie Delisi from the State of Minnesota’s Office of Accessibility, and my mom. The following is what my mom and I shared with the audience for our presentation, Accessibility and Printed Materials that Prepare Tomorrow’s Workforce.

Smiling Jennie Delisi, Jay Wyant, Kris Schulze and Justin Smith

I am honored to talk to you about my experiences, with accessibility. It has not been easy for me because of some barriers that I experienced myself in school. I am going to talk about some of these barriers and then share how I can be most independent when accessible classroom materials are set up well for me.

My mom, Kris Schulze, has helped me ever since the beginning. She often would do what she could to make my work as accessible as possible and help me prepare to be more independent so that I can go to college and become an author.


Along with cerebral palsy, or CP, I also have auditory neuropathy and hearing loss. Even with hearing aids, my hearing can still be like a static-y radio. Let me tell you what happens when closed captioning is not turned on for classroom videos or movies – I cannot hear and sometimes cannot process what is being said. I would have to watch the video or film over again at home with captioning turned on. This means more time spent doing homework that others did not have to do. Captioning can help many students, not just those of us with hearing difficulties. In college and in future jobs, I will also need closed captioning or CART (communication access real-time translation).

Another barrier for me was the move to Google Docs in my school. When I type, I use one finger on an adaptive keyboard and a joystick mouse. I have found that Google requires more mouse movements to do the same thing that I do in Microsoft Word. I can highlight two sentences in Microsoft Word in 20 seconds because I can turn the highlighter mode on in just one click. It is easier to highlight the important parts of whatever topic I’m learning about. Guess how long it takes in Google Docs? Almost twice as long – 38 seconds with five to six extra mouse clicks to highlight the same two sentences. Imagine how that extra time can add up when reading long documents when I get to college.

Another difficulty I faced often, especially in high school, was that I would receive the handouts during class. My paraprofessionals would write answers and I could not read their handwriting. Later when it was scanned, it was inaccessible. I could not use text-to-speech to read the answers back out loud or go in and type in answers of my own very easily. This is the type of work that could be set up for me to do by myself with very little help. Yet, this kind of thing happened so very often to me. This brings me to my next barrier – delivery.

I, if at all possible, need classroom materials ahead of time. It takes me four to five times longer to do the same amount of work as a lot of other students. This means an assignment that takes another student an hour to do may take me four to five hours. If I did not get assignments ahead of time I fell behind the rest of the class. No one wants to be behind.

Over time, this is getting easier because of school learning systems like Schoology. Also, I would have teachers who e-mailed me assignments ahead of time. I had my share of teachers who were not technology brave or organized. It takes me a lot of energy to go through a school day. Three hours of homework after school was difficult. I needed weekends to keep up.

My mom will tell you more about planning and how important it was for me to be able to participate in class in ways that mattered.

Mom’s part of the presentation

Planning ahead and allowing for extra time was crucial for getting a head start on assignments and preparing to participate fully in class. A lot of Justin’s teachers did their best to make this happen and tried to get Justin assignments ahead of time and extended due dates.  Most were on board with reducing the volume of what we’d think of as “busy work.” There were others where we struggled to make it work. By making sure Justin had work ahead of time and knew what was coming, he was better able to balance homework loads from multiple classes. Unfortunately, that didn’t always happen and he would find out about big assignments at the same time as other students.

As Justin mentioned, it takes probably 4-5 times longer for him to complete assignments than the average time it takes most students to complete assignments. That means if a student or teacher expects students to spend about 10 hours on a research paper,that same assignment, could easily take Justin 40-50 hours to complete. His brother now is going through some of the same classes as Justin had as a sophomore and doesn’t spend nearly as much time on homework. I remember Justin spending at least an hour or two a day keeping up with homework for some of those same classes.

For Justin to more actively participate in class, answer questions, or express his ideas – he needs to have quick responses programmed into his device – because otherwise by the time he types out a response, the rest of the class will be 3-4 questions past the one he wanted to respond to.  He needs a heads up a day or two before so he can take the time to program some quick responses or ideas he wants to share into his communication device. For class presentations, we go through a process where Justin does the research and work of preparing the PowerPoint, and then spends additional time telling me what to program into his communication device. That takes time. But, what an impact his voice and his words have, as evidenced through his speech to a 3000 person audience at his high school graduation ceremony last summer.

I think some of the things that educators and his support team may not always be aware of, is what life looks like for the hours beyond the school day. A typical day for Justin starts with 1½ hours getting dressed and eating breakfast. In high school, he took 4 academic courses, an adaptive phy ed course so that he could get out of his chair and stretch mid-day, and a resource hour to work on homework. He would come home from school, get out of his chair for around 30 minutes, and then start in on homework for 2-3 hours. That would take us up to dinnertime. It takes about an hour to feed Justin dinner. He then would have about 30 minutes to do whatever he wanted before it would be time to start getting ready for bed – that takes about another hour. He needs a good 10 hours + hours of sleep a night. On weekends, he would often spend 6-10 more hours doing homework, more if working on longer writing assignments. We often felt pretty out of balance in our household.  Planning was critical in helping make it a bit less chaotic and frantic.

What did a typical homework assignment often look like for Justin, check it out in this quick video: Inaccessibility

Back to Justin

So, this happened over and over and over again. My mom or dad would get home from work, or my personal care attendant would need to help me with homework that was not accessible. Text-to-speech would not work. Sometimes, it was easier to have someone just retype worksheets so that I could use them. I would dictate my answers because of how long it takes me to type.

When course materials are not accessible for me that means, that I am more dependent on others to do things that I could have been able to do on my own. I want to be as independent as possible. I know it may seem difficult to make materials accessible, but Jennie Delisi will tell you ways in which to do this, because accessibility matters!

Jennie Delisi and Jay Wyant, from the State of Minnesota’s Office of Accessibility, presented ways in which to prepare accessible documents as well as why accessibility is needed. Please check their website for finding helpful resources.

Accessibility matters

I want to show you what happens when things work well for me. Thanks toBookshare, I am able to read independently. Let me tell you, I read non-stop! Not just for school, but I read all kinds of literature. Also, teachers who use tests and worksheets that include a mix of multiple choice, short and long answers works well for me.

Because I have a difficult time with hearing, I find additional online resources help me better understand what we’re learning in class. I just got to see John Green at NerdCon: Stories in October. John and Hank Green create Crash Course, an entertaining way to learn about history and other topics. Khan Academy and Crash Course helped me make it through my high school career. You can check my earlier blog post for more resources that were helpful for me and you can check out my speech that I gave at high school graduation. To wrap up, let’s check out what I can do when materials are accessible for me: Accessibility.

5 thoughts on “Presentation at Closing the Gap 2016”

  1. Well done with creativity for problem solving! Bringing in outside help to evaluate the schools system is also a big yes!
    Making sure all computer or video is closed captioned is really important for a special needs student- but also raises the mean score of all students watching.


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