Experts in Video Accessibility: Dominique Williamson, Online Student & Disabled Veteran
Earlier this week, the Sloan Consortium continued with it’s second of four webinars focused on Student & Faculty Success in Online Education, sponsored by 3Play Media. In January’s webinar we heard from school administrators who have implemented higher education accessibility policies. This time, students got to sound off. What Students with Disabilities Want Faculty & Administrators to Know explained in depth the learning concerns of disabled online students and alumni.
One of those student speakers was U.S. Army Veteran, Dominique Williamson, a retired First Sergeant pursuing his BA in Health and Physical Education at Columbus State University. Sustaining a traumatic brain injury as the result of a helicopter crash, Williamson lends a unique perspective as a soldier returning from service with new physical and psychological stresses. While their injuries and limitation vary, it is estimated that 45% percent of the 1.6 million veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are seeking disability services. Williamson furthers our understanding of what it can mean to be disabled and we were lucky to have his insight when we were granted an interview.
3PLAY MEDIA: During the webinar you mentioned the condition that you have, a traumatic brain injury (TBI). How does that impact hearing, especially when you’re watching video for class? Do you use captions and transcripts?
DOMINIQUE WILLIAMSON: It definitely helps me to observe the content a little better than normal. But when it comes to videos in the classroom, one thing that I’ve noticed, different people deal with their TBI or their migraines a little bit differently. Sometimes you just have to adjust the brightness and the sharpness of the display of the videos, to reduce any adverse effects. But captions are a really good help.
3PLAY MEDIA: I know you have some ringing in your ears which adversely affects your hearing and that you try and sit in the front of the class to be able to lip read. When you use captions, is that to help hear the video, or is it because it helps to engage with the video?
DOMINIQUE WILLIAMSON: It does both. It helps me to hear, but it also helps me to focus and actually engage. I have tinnitus and sometimes the ringing is not too loud. Then there are times when the ringing is so loud that it is just overwhelming.
3PLAY MEDIA: What percentage of the video you encounter as part of the class work is accessible?
DOMINIQUE WILLIAMSON: Well I guess it really all depends on the class. Unfortunately, some or even most of the time, the captions aren’t available.
3PLAY MEDIA: What do you do in that situation?
DOMINIQUE WILLIAMSON: I really just try to buckle down and get a good understanding of it alone. If that doesn’t work, then after class, pull the teacher to the side and talk. At Columbus State University, in the beginning of each semester, you fill out a form from the disabilities office. You then take it to all of your professors. They have to sign it.
Basically it just shows your special needs and the adjustments needed to pass the class. The teachers are aware of your needs up front. So when you pull them aside and ask to watch the video at another time, or even borrow it, they have no problem with that.
3PLAY MEDIA: You talked a lot about self-advocacy, what does that entail? Is it a single conversation that you have with your professors? Or is it an ongoing process?
DOMINIQUE WILLIAMSON: It’s an ongoing process, or can feel like that in the beginning. As the semester starts, professors have so many different students. So I try to engage them. When I talk with them, I just let them know, this is who I am and these are some of the things I’m going through. They might have gotten it within the first few days, but then I’ll go back and reiterate it. By the third time, they’ve got it and they know me. I definitely have to be the one to open my mouth about my special needs. That is somewhat frustrating. I guess, frustrating isn’t the best word. Probably, embarrassing.
Failure, in my eyes, is not an option. So I have to do what I have to do to be successful in my schooling. There is an initial reluctance that I think a lot of soldiers go through. They’re reluctant to raise their hand and say: ‘Hey, I need help. ‘
3PLAY MEDIA: As a soldier, you, and people like you, were trained to be self-sufficient in so many diverse situations. Do you think that is why it can be hard to ask for help from other people?
DOMINIQUE WILLIAMSON: Yes. I think it’s based off rank. For instance, if you have a lower enlisted soldier, they’re in a position where they’re expected to ask for help, mainly because they’re still getting groomed in their profession. But with a person like me – I was a First Sergeant and in charge of hundreds of soldiers – I was the one that folks would come to asking for help. I was never the one to ask for help.
So now, dealing with physical, mental, psychological and emotional stresses, I’m in a role reversal. It’s very difficult; you go from being the person gives answers, to the person who’s asking questions. I have to humble myself to get the help that I need.
3PLAY MEDIA: Do you know other veterans, who are students and have accessibility hardships, that don’t ask for assistance?
DOMINIQUE WILLIAMSON: Yes. I think that faculty and staff should be trained to observe some of the symptoms that might be associated with these problems so they can reach out to a person that’s more reluctant to ask for help and say: “Hey, I’ve noticed that you’re a little withdrawn.” Then, maybe they’ll learn a little more.
When someone comes to you like that and shows you that they care for you, instead of being another number in a classroom, I think this can pull a person out of their shell and help.
3PLAY MEDIA: When you sign up for a class, what steps do you take to facilitate your learning experience? What advanced preparation do you do?
DOMINIQUE WILLIAMSON: I’m still close to the base, so instead of going through the actual school, I sign up for my course through the Military Educational Center. They have liaisons from the school used to working with military personnel, most of whom are ex-military. They have a certain level of sensitivity and understanding of what a soldier goes through, but they’re attached to the university, helping bridge the gap for us.
That has helped me out significantly, we also have our own academic advisers. It really makes the process easier for us, instead of going into a university and being overwhelmed by no one having any sensitivity towards your particular needs. Many of us have apprehension when starting our education again, after so many years. You’re not the average person coming from high school; you’re so far removed from it.
3PLAY MEDIA: When you get a syllabus at the start of a new course, do you have a procedure or checklist for review? How do you know which course materials might be easy for you to consume and what might be more difficult?
DOMINIQUE WILLIAMSON: That’s a good point. What I do right now, I sit down with my adviser. We go through the syllabus and the advisor gives a professional opinion on whether they feel that this would be something that might be too overwhelming for me, or might be doable.
They break down the entire syllabus and just walk me through it, so I get a good understanding before I commit to taking the class. It gives an extra layer of assurance for success in the class.
Some classes require me to retain information a lot longer than others. If it’s something that I only need short term, I can grab onto it. But if it’s long term—for example, if I’m reading Plato, Aristotle or Decant, which is already difficult to read, remembering it can be even harder. In classes like that, they allow me to have a tape recorder. Now I’m able to go home and regurgitate the lecture. Listening to it several times allows me to hold onto the information, at least long enough to take the quiz, and make a successful grade.
3PLAY MEDIA: It sounds like a selection process. Deciding what you’ll be able to absorb, or not, and then finding solutions?
DOMINIQUE WILLIAMSON: Yes, and it’s frustrating at times. You want to be able to function, operate like anyone else. But there are times you just cannot. I’m a perfectionist. I’ve always pushed myself to be the best that I can be.
But frustration becomes negative. It can put you in a state of depression, questioning: “Should I even do this?” But, you need to continue. Don’t stop. Don’t quit. By the time you go through that big circle, it’s exhausting.
3PLAY MEDIA: If you could give three tips to other veterans going through similar situations, what would those be? How can they take control of their education?
DOMINIQUE WILLIAMSON: First, I would say, do the research– choose the university that tends to your need. Not all universities are made equal when it comes to offering assistance to the disabled. There are some schools that are a little bit more user-friendly. Those are the ones that I would focus on versus a university that does not take a priority stance on helping a small percentage of disabled.
The second tip I’d give them is to actually get up and do it. There is a fear, that despite wanting to, will cause you to just sit there. Just get up and take that leap of faith.
Thirdly, realize that there are safety nets and programs that will catch you when you fall. There are folks in disability services as well as military liaisons here to help navigate you along the way.
3PLAY MEDIA: All right, Dominique, thank you. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.
DOMINIQUE WILLIAMSON: Thank you so much for talking to me, have a good day.More about Dominique Williamson
Dominique Williamson is a retired United States Army Veteran. Before retiring medically as a First Sergeant in December 2012, Williamson served as a flight engineer. Williamson served in Afghanistan, Beirut, Lebanon, Central America, and tours in Europe, as a part of a NATO helicopter flight crew. State-side, he was recently a liaison between the Warrior Transition Battalion and the Soldier in Family Assistance Center. Currently pursuing his BA in Health & Physical Education at Columbus State University, Williamson takes a mix of courses both online and on campus. Married and a father to three, Williamson volunteers his time helping wounded veterans and soldiers cope with their disabilities.