Student Accessibility Services alters role of access assistants

Student Accessibility Services announced in an email Oct. 26 that beginning in spring there will be fewer access assistants and they will no longer take notes for or be assigned to students with disabilities. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

From attending classes to writing notes and going over material after lectures, access assistants are pivotal for aiding students, like junior psychology major Kasey Nichols who is visually impaired, in their academic success. Their role, however, will change as Student Accessibility Services (SAS) adjusts to USF’s budget and hiring constraints. 

Starting in the spring semester, access assistants will no longer automatically be assigned to impacted classes nor take notes for students in need, according to an email sent by SAS coordinator Amanda Roe on Oct. 26. With the change, students may be assigned an individual access assistant based on course or access needs.

SAS Director Deborah McCarthy said in an email interview with The Oracle that the changes were made because SAS wants to increase student advocacy on their needs and levels of assistance. 

“Best practices for students who have visual disabilities stress student participation in conversations about the level of assistance needed,” she said. “These same best practices encourage students to work as independently as possible as frequently as possible.

“[SAS] is exploring ways to extend a valuable resource to the greatest number of students.”

However, Nichols said after a meeting Nov. 6 with McCarthy and other concerned students that the changes are directly related to USF’s budget cuts in state funding. 

As a result of the cuts, a hiring pause has been put on all departments indefinitely by USF administration while budget decisions are made for the upcoming academic year.

“The changes seem to be coming because there is a hiring process that is on hold right now,” Nichols said. “A lot of the access assistants are graduating and you can’t hire an undergraduate to be an access assistant … so there is a hold. 

“The response we got was that they won’t know until students register for classes how the changes will play out.”

If students reach out to SAS in need of an access assistant, they will share them with at least one other student, according to Roe’s email. This will allow SAS to maximize the impact of currently employed assistants without hiring new ones. 

A number of access assistants, including Hope Zikpi, will be leaving in the spring after graduating from their academic programs, which will spread current resources even thinner and force SAS to re-evaluate the role.

Zikpi was informed of the changes during an interview with The Oracle. Access assistants had not been told of nor given input into the changes before the students were informed. 

“It just doesn’t make sense because they have tutors and everything else for athletes,” Zikpi said. “They have money, but it depends on where they want to invest it.” 

Nichols said the newly implemented policy could severely hinder her and her fellow visually impaired classmates. 

“Having an access assistant really made a drastic difference for me academically,” she said. “From my first semester here to my last two with an access assistant, you can really see how my grades have improved.”

Access assistants perform tasks for students with many different disabilities, including visual impairments and processing disorders. These tasks can range from note-taking, writing down what students say, reading tests or quizzes out loud, recording and editing student speeches and helping with technology usage during the pandemic. 

Instead of access assistants being able to take notes, visually impaired students will be forced to seek out a peer notetaker or ask their professors to provide them with extra accommodations, according to McCarthy.  

“Students who need assistance with note-taking continue to have free access to several note-taking technologies,” she said. “Additionally, volunteer peer notetakers will continue to assist students as needed.”

Nichols has never found success with either of these options. 

“It is really hard to find someone who can produce your specific needs for notes,” she said. “You can’t just convert a PowerPoint slide into a Word document.” 

Zikpi spends multiple hours each day taking notes for students she is assigned to and attested to how important it is. 

“The students that I work with all have visual impairments, and I can’t see them taking their own notes without some kind of personal assistance,” she said.

Some of Zikpi’s students get extended time for assignments and exams, but even with her help, it still takes almost the full amount of their specific allotted extra time to complete them

“I cannot imagine how this will affect students with learning disabilities or processing disorders,” she said. 

In light of the situation, Nichols took the issue to Facebook to raise awareness of how the newly implemented policy could hinder her success and the success of others at USF. 

In less than two weeks after she posted, she received overwhelming support, which prompted her to start a petition to encourage USF faculty and administration to reconsider the recent changes.

“The petition kind of started by accident, I posted on the class of 2021 [Facebook] page to make people aware in case they missed the memo for disabled students,” she said. “I said that there had to be something we could do and threw out the idea of a petition and everyone started saying that they would sign it if I made one.” 

The petition was made Oct. 26, soon after Nichols received the email. It had garnered 186 signatures as of Nov. 8. 

“I really wanted to address [the changes to note-taking and class attendance] in the petition and make sure that those changes be re-evaluated because they were made in such a short period of time,” Nichols said. “There was no lead-up before the email came out and I hadn’t heard of any changes prior.” 

Zikpi supports the petition and said the changes were not the correct route to take. She said she didn’t know how any of the four students she works with would be able to complete schoolwork without someone in their classes to take notes for them. 

“It’s just concerning because [students with disabilities] don’t really have any other options. There are plenty of areas they could have cut from that you can just fix some other way,” Zikpi said. 

While there are no plans to reverse the decision, Nichols said she will continue to fight for the proposed limitations to be re-evaluated

“I understand that the school has been hit pretty hard, and I wouldn’t know how to come up with these changes,” she said. “But there has to be middle ground instead of saying that it’s just hard for the school and not acknowledging that these changes will be hard for the students.”