BSW student Katie Lester wins scholarship and hopes to continue advocacy work

by Ahliil Saitanan  |   

Katie Lester and her service dog
Katie Lester and her service dog taken in New Orleans, La. (Photo courtesy of Katie Lester)

A big congratulations is in order for Katie Lester, a senior in the Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) program at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Recently, she received $8,000 from the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) scholarship program with multiple sponsors donating to the scholarship. Katie was one of 30 scholarship recipients and her award was specifically for academic excellence and service to the community.

Before joining the UAA BSW program, Katie had a lot to think about after losing her vision. She had to stop and think about what mattered most and what she really wanted to do with her life. With previous customer service work experience in childcare, retail, restaurants, catering, and simply helping people, she made it her goal to continue helping others to the best of her ability by pursuing an education that would help support that goal.

“With the vision loss, it opened my eyes to another side of how to navigate and learn. If it wasn't for me owning a duplex in Seward and renting half of it, there was a high chance I would have lost my home after I lost my vision,” Katie says. “Because I could no longer bring in funds, a lot of things trailed after dealing with the loss of my vision and the grief that came with it, but I’m learning a new way of living, navigating on a computer non-visually and navigating with a cane.”

Katie chose to enroll at UAA after meeting with the Alaska Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and faculty from the UAA School of Social Work about what would work best. She also spoke to other people who are visually impaired and held degrees in social work.

“Just working with all of the different faculty, especially in the School of Social Work program, they've all been helping to make sure that I get what I need to succeed just like any other student,” Katie says. “The faculty of the School of Social Work program care.”

Working to help improve systems and processes

The award plaque Katie Lester received on behalf of Kurzweil Technologies. Katie was awarded for academic excellence and service to the community.
The award plaque Katie Lester received on behalf of Kurzweil Technologies. Katie was awarded for academic excellence and service to the community. (Photo courtesy of Katie Lester)

Although the ePortfolio platform meets accessibility requirements, it does not necessarily mean that Katie has an easy time navigating a course’s portfolio expectations. She experienced many challenges and issues related to accessibility and more detailed usability, which included:

  • navigating to different sections;
  • adding content; and
  • finding buttons, especially because some weren’t labeled.

“Finding videos and finding the right ones, instead of making sure I don’t add in a template versus just adding a picture or video I’m planning to use. And then the color and design schemes, like the colors in the settings, are not labeled, so I can’t tell because it just says numbers or something else,” Katie says. “I have a little bit of vision to where I can see a bit of color contrast, but someone with completely no vision doesn't have that. They can't see how it looks and will need someone to assist.”

With those issues at hand, Katie worked with Paul Wasko, UAA ePortfolio (eWolf) Initiative Coordinator, last fall semester to modify the structure of a required portfolio for a course, an effort that was fully supported by her instructor.

An example to help visualize this is how most people can navigate a webpage very well with the use of a mouse; Katie doesn’t use a mouse at all.

“Finding the pages if they're not linked or created as a link, I would hit the tab button, hit enter, and then tab two more times to go down to the name of the title of the page and then hit enter again just so it'll switch a page,” Katie says. “A lot of it was navigation. A lot of it was sometimes not finding certain things or seeing how it looked.”

Making a difference

With the challenges Katie faced navigating ePortfolio, Paul connected her with Jeffrey Yan, one of the co-founders and CEO of Digication. Through meetings with Jeff and others, there will be continuous new updates and changes in the Digication ePortfolio system through this upcoming school year.

Katie also has connected with the accessibility team at the University of Illinois (Information Accessibility Design and Policy), which works closely with Digication, and has been recruited as an end-user subject matter expert on how to improve navigation. She will be working with IADP on accessibility enhancements and recommendations.

Out of this collaboration, Katie hopes to help others in the future and hopes to be seen as someone that understands. 

“I want to be accepted when I say that something truly doesn't work and not be seen as just some blind person that doesn't know what they're doing,” Katie says. “I want to be recognized as someone that has knowledge and experience with possible solutions. It's a huge benefit to be able to help them see my side of things and to help make things more accessible for future users of the ePortfolio system.”

Future plans

Over Labor Day weekend, Katie will be attending a leadership seminar hosted by the NFB in Baltimore. She will be completing her BSW internship with Disability Support Services at UAA by doing case management work with students.

Katie plans to work through the next year and then apply for the UAA Master of Social Work program. Her end goal is to have a clinician’s license to provide counseling and therapy to those that have lost their vision or have a different disability and need someone to talk to.

She also would like to continue her advocacy work with Digication or UAA by ensuring accessibility and the actual usability of a tool.

“There's a difference between saying it's accessible and actually being able to use it. So working on that side, I want to help create more accessibility and equal access for all students.”