Teaming up to take down barriers

Aaron Page lost his eyesight five years ago. As a UM student, he has faced barriers with inaccessible technologies and inaccessible content. He’s also dealt with attitude barriers from some faculty resistant to change.

Marlene Zentz, an instructional designer in the School for Extended and Lifelong Learning (SELL), has long advocated for making course materials and technologies accessible to users with disabilities. She also has faced barriers when it comes to affecting change. But momentum is picking up. 

“We’d been working away at it and providing education, but we couldn’t get any real traction until that OCR complaint hit,” she says. “That was something we saw as a genuine opportunity to accelerate our work and move it forward.”

Check out the slideshow of 3 items below:

  • Slide Title: Aaron Page and Marlene Zentz presenting to Business School faculty Slide Caption: Aaron Page and Marlene Zentz present to faculty from the School of Business Administration
  • Slide Title: Aaron Page Slide Caption: 'I like the fact that what I’m doing is going to make things better for the next blind student.' - Aaron Page
  • Slide Title: Aaron Page and Marlene Zentz presenting to Business School faculty Slide Caption: Zentz and Page estimate they’ve delivered more than 50 joint workshops and conference presentations over the past two years.


Visit umt.edu/accessibility for resources related to UM's Electronic and Information Technology policy.

In 2012, a UM student filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights citing accessibility barriers with course content and technologies, including UM’s learning management system Moodle. A task force was formed to address electronic and information technology accessibility issues. In September of this year President Royce Engstrom unveiled a policy that requires web pages, documents, media, and other instructional materials be made fully accessible. 

After the complaint was filed, Robert Squires, SELL’s director of instructional design and technical support, tasked Zentz with making course materials in Moodle accessible. By that time, Aaron was working as a student consultant at the IT Central help desk. One day Squires invited IT Central employees to meet with the UM Online team for training on answering Moodle questions. During a Q&A session, Aaron spoke up.

“I made the comment that I thought 90 percent of the headaches I had with Moodle could be addressed if Moodle courses had more heading structure,” he says. “Robert asked to talk to me after the meeting and he offered me a job.”

Zentz started working side-by-side with Aaron to gain an understanding of what made online materials work with assistive technologies. She recognized early on that Aaron could be a powerful presentation partner with his ability to demonstrate the challenges faced by students with disabilities. It took Aaron some time to warm up to the idea.

“It was really nerve-racking when we first started doing these presentations,” he says. “I’m not the most outgoing person, so being asked to speak in front of a group of people was pretty scary. But I like the fact that what I’m doing is going to make things better for the next blind student.”

“It was a natural extension of what they were doing with testing,” Squires says of the idea of having the two collaborate on training workshops. “Marlene brings an invaluable instructional design perspective while Aaron shares his experiences and stories as a student. When you hear it from a student’s perspective it’s extremely powerful.”

Zentz and Page estimate they’ve delivered more than 50 joint workshops and conference presentations over the past two years. This fall they have been providing training for UM schools and departments to prepare faculty to meet requirements of the new EITA policy.

As presentation partners, Zentz and Page fit together perfectly. Their strengths complement each other and they project warmth and humanity.

“We do a lot of laughing together and we like to keep our presentations with some humor in them and not make this a heavy topic,” Zentz says.

“Having both of us together really makes it better because I can demonstrate the technology and I can show the why, and Marlene can explain the instructional design and the how,” Aaron says. “It just works.”

Aaron will graduate from UM next December. He says the opportunity to work as an accessible technology advocate has shaped his future plans. 

“It’s completely put me on a trajectory of what I want to do after graduation,” he says. “This work has introduced me to something I really like because it allows me to work with new technologies, but I also get to do something that has purpose, that’s going to help people. It’s not just good for me, it’s good for everybody.”

The collaboration between Zentz and Page is making a difference. Zentz says that the technology vendors she collaborates with are responsive to improving their products, and most of the faculty she works with have a positive attitude. 

“Our basic advice to faculty is to just get started, get on that continuum of accessibility,” Zentz says. “You don’t have to do everything all at once, but the new content you create should be created accessibly. There are a lot of faculty who want to do the right thing, and once they see what they need to do, they’re very positive about doing that.”

- Gordy Pace, gordy.pace@umontana.edu