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Policies & Procedures
7/17/2015 12:00 AM

For years, disability services providers at the University of Montana worked to raise awareness of the needs of students with disabilities. An Office for Civil Rights complaint and its resolution agreement made accessibility a topic everyone on campus is aware of and changed the way officials across campus think about accessibility.

For years, disability services providers at the University of Montana worked to raise awareness of the needs of students with disabilities. An Office for Civil Rights complaint and its resolution agreement made accessibility a topic everyone on campus is aware of and changed the way officials across campus think about accessibility.

Before the agreement, the attitude on campus was that “DSS deals with accessibility so the rest of us don’t have to,” said Dan Bowling of Student Affairs Information Technology.

Now everyone assumes they’re part of the solution, said Janet Sedgley, electronic and information technology accessibility coordinator and manager of accessible technology services.

In most cases, OCR agreements address the specifics of a complaint. But the Montana agreement took a broader approach, Bowling said. For example, before the complaint, students needed to request captioning. Now, the assumption is that students should be able to walk into any class and have videos captioned. Plus, that agreement required the institution to develop and institute procedures to purchase only software that is accessible and to make complying with accessibility standards a part of the request-for-proposal process for the purchase of any new software.

Bowling predicts that far-reaching agreements like the one UM entered into will become more common. Consider the steps UM officials have taken to address accessibility to be proactive on your campus.

Complaint resulted from frustration

The Alliance for Disability and Students at the University of Montana filed the complaint in May 2012. In October, a student represented by the National Federation of the Blind filed a civil suit. A joint settlement to the OCR complaint and the lawsuit was agreed to, and the Resolution Agreement was signed in March 2014.

“The complaint arose out of student frustration,” said Amy Capolupo, director of Disability Services for Students. Not enough people were addressing student technology access. The alliance that was formed that made the complaint wanted action at UM, but they also wanted to have a broader impact, she said.

Before the complaint was filed, officials and staff members didn’t know how to address issues or they chose to ignore the needs, said John Greer, IT director for the UM library.

Allegations in the complaint included:

  • Inaccessible class assignments and materials on the learning management system (Moodle).
  • Inaccessible live chat and discussion board functions in the learning management system.
  • Inaccessible documents that are scanned images on webpages and websites.
  • Inaccessible videos in Flash format that are not captioned.
  • Inaccessible course registration through the website CyberBear.
  • Inaccessible classroom clickers.

Team effort addresses problems

A group of officials at UM decided to take action before they received the formal complaint, said Barb Seekins, Americans with Disabilities Act team leader. The team included the vice president of student affairs, the IT director, the provost, and staff members who worked in disability compliance. The group recommended forming a task force.

The group members knew that one requirement that would be forthcoming would be to create a policy, so they got started on that. And in fact, the resolution agreement called for a policy and a self-study.

“I think when we started, we had no idea how big the problem was. It just sort of overwhelmed people,” Seekins said. “What’s really important is a self-study to give you a sense of what you already have so you’re not overwhelmed.”

Agreement requires accessible software

Before the OCR agreement, officials assumed that having a clause in the contract that said software was accessible would be enough. Now all software has to be evaluated, Capolupo said.

The evaluation process is not simple, Bowling said. When evaluators spot problems, they talk to the vendors, who frequently have no idea what the evaluators are talking about. And accessible software doesn’t always exist. Under the agreement, UM has conditional use of software if no accessible products are available. And UM officials build solutions in house in some cases.

Another problem is that vendors won’t let the institution have software until it’s bought, and the accessibility evaluation must be completed before the purchase, Bowling said. Typically, a backroom deal is necessary to complete the evaluation.

Sometimes a top-rated vendor is not accessible, but a third-rated one is. That can cause hard feelings from the division seeking to purchase the software. “The accessibility police get a bad rap,” Bowling said.

At UM, all software is evaluated for accessibility, not just the software that is student-facing, Greer said. In some cases, software will be used by only 10 faculty members, but it still has to be evaluated.

Some vendors have been very good to work with, said Marlene Zentz, senior instructional designer and accessibility specialist for UMOnline. For example, officials at Moodle, the learning management system, knew UM would not renew its contract if they did not make their product compliant. The forum is one of the more complicated tools in Moodle. Before Moodle revised it, users could see who was responding to comments by indentations. But screen readers could not interpret the indentations, Zentz said. That’s fixed now so that everyone can use the forums.

“The law says educational institutions have to buy accessible software. It doesn’t say vendors have to produce it,” Greer said. If officials from all institutions demanded that software be accessible, vendors would provide it, he said.

Engaging the campus

Early on, one of the hardest parts of dealing with the complaint was that it was hard to keep rumors under control, Sedgley said. Officials had to respond to those rumors and say, “No, we don’t really have to do that. This is what we have to do. It makes a better educational environment. It’s helping everyone.”

Representatives from the executive office and legal counsel held community forums to address the complaint, and that brought attention to its importance, Bowling said.

Zentz and Sedgley visit all the departments for training. Sedgley talks about policy. Zentz explains to the faculty how to build an accessible syllabus that opens the door to an accessible course and accessible use of the learning management system. They expected some pushback from the faculty, but the reaction has been predominantly the opposite, Zentz said. Faculty members think making their courses accessible is the right thing to do. Once the trainers demystify what that means, they are eager to do all they can.

At the beginning of the process, a blind student also worked with officials to review documents and explain accessibility problems they presented to faculty members.

Materials must be updated

The library faced many challenges in making its materials accessible, Greer said. Documents were hosted on an inaccessible platform. Officials moved those to the accessible platform Moodle built. UM subscribes to many databases and services that are used by libraries worldwide. Their content and platforms vary widely in accessibility. Some vendors have been very good about remedying problems, but others have not. For important but inaccessible content, the library is working with DSS to provide solutions in house, Greer said.

Much of the library’s media content was acquired before captioning was available on the products. The library staff has been searching for newer media that is fully captioned and purchasing accessible versions.

Rather than having additional money to address the accessibility issues, the library has changed its priorities for purchasing, in some cases buying an accessible version of something it already has rather than buying something new, Greer said.

Ensuring that all media on campus is captioned cannot be completed overnight. Interpreters on staff still do captioning for students in classes and work closely with the library to meet needs.

Under the terms of the Resolution Agreement to resolve the OCR complaint, UM was required to develop a website related to accessibility. Review it at https://www.umt.edu/accessibility. Among other materials, the website includes UM’s Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility implementation plan and policies. Review the Resolution Agreement at http://www.umt.edu/accessibility/docs/FinalResolutionAgreement.pdf.

OCR resolution brings changes in assumptions

The OCR complaint and its resolution changed assumptions about accessibility at UM. Review the chart below to see how attitudes changed:

Student Success
6/17/2015 12:00 AM

Studies have shown that having a sense of connection to people in school and participating in academic or social activities can increase the chances that college students with disabilities will persist in pursuing their degrees. Study groups and informal meetings with faculty outside of class can help students build connections. Research has also found the reverse of this to be true — that those who did not do such things tended to drop out. Given this, it is important to both inform students about how connections can benefit them and help them find ways to make connections.

Studies have shown that having a sense of connection to people in school and participating in academic or social activities can increase the chances that college students with disabilities will persist in pursuing their degrees. Study groups and informal meetings with faculty outside of class can help students build connections. Research has also found the reverse of this to be true — that those who did not do such things tended to drop out. Given this, it is important to both inform students about how connections can benefit them and help them find ways to make connections.

Your staff can help to share information with new students, talking to them at their initial intake appointment about how participating in activities like study groups and clubs and talking with professors outside of class can help them to be successful. If you don’t have time to have such conversations, consider putting together a handout or mass email to share this information with all incoming students. Of course, the information will carry more weight if it is endorsed by other students, so consider asking some of your successful students to share their experiences and comments in a brief write-up that you can hand or send to new students.

Consider how your office itself can be a place of connection for your students. Seton Hill University’s disability services office, for example, takes a very active role in forging relationships with students by keeping in touch in various ways throughout the semester. Staff members meet with all students when classes start to review their schedule and discuss any strategies that might be useful for the classes they are taking. The office offers students (especially freshmen) coaching appointments at varying rates of frequency according to students’ needs.

Kimberley Bassi-Cook, associate director of disability services, says that the coaching helps students make a smooth transition to college and keeps them on track academically. The office also sends out messages throughout the semester when it receives helpful information about other on-campus supports. Students’ grades are reviewed by staff at the midterm point. Those who are doing well get a congratulatory message, but those who are not are invited into the office for help in figuring out what is not working and to discuss what available supports might be helpful. All students are also invited in to discuss classes for next semester, learn what they can expect during advising, and get tips for self-advocacy. At the end of the semester, the office invites students who feel they need any changes in their accommodations for the next semester to come in and discuss these changes. Bassi-Cook says that many students take advantage of the supports the office offers, and it’s no wonder. Such outreach surely creates a sense of connection for registered students.

Don’t forget to recruit faculty in your efforts, too. Researchers Ketevan Mamiseishvili and Lynn Koch suggest that professors can assist these efforts by incorporating cooperative learning activities into their classes to help students develop relationships with their peers. They can also encourage all students to come to office hours for an informal chat.

Administration can help, too. The office handling student activities can ask clubs to make sure that announcements and meetings are accessible to all types of students and remind them of the importance of inclusiveness.

Students may not engage in social activities for a variety of reasons, including shyness, a feeling of being overwhelmed by schoolwork, or the need to work in order to pay expenses. Some may have language-based or social disorders that make verbal interaction a challenge. Think about resources on your campus that might be used in unexpected ways to help students connect with their peers.

St. Petersburg College’s Tarpon Springs campus has created a unique opportunity for connection in cooperation with the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art on campus. Barbara Thompson, disability resources manager, selects a group of 10 students with Asperger’s and other disabilities that can make it hard to connect with peers to participate in a weekly Art Encounter. Students work on various projects with an art therapist. Thompson says that when the students create work or discuss art, they often bring things happening in their own life into the discussion. She says that the interactions improve students’ self-esteem, strengthen critical thinking and social skills, and make it easier for them to communicate with others.

As these examples show, there are many ways to marshal the resources on your campus to help students feel connected. Since retaining students is a shared goal, make sure to recruit others to help you in your endeavors, and think creatively.

To learn more about factors researchers have found to contribute to the persistence of students with disabilities in college, please see my last article, “Understand the myriad factors affecting student retention.”

Universal Design
5/18/2015 12:00 AM

The goal of universal design when applied to education is to make learning inclusive for all students, not just those with disabilities. It is an approach to designing all products and services to be usable by students with the widest possible range of both functional (physical) capabilities and different learning styles.

Ronald Mace earned a degree in architecture from North Carolina State University in 1966, where, as a wheelchair user, he encountered many barriers. He believed that instead of modifying specific facilities to meet the needs of certain users, all facilities should be designed to accommodate as broad a population as possible, according to the Center for Universal Design. The goal of universal design when applied to education is to make learning inclusive for all students, not just those with disabilities. It is an approach to designing all products and services to be usable by students with the widest possible range of both functional (physical) capabilities and different learning styles.

Seven principles of universal design

The following general principles were developed by the Center for Universal Design and have become widely recognized as a summary of the vision of the universal design movement. The list below is based on version 1.0 of the principles, dated April 1997. The Center’s website has a wealth of universal design resources and can be found at www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/.

  1. Equitable use. The design should be appealing, useful, and marketable to people with diverse abilities rather than being targeted at a specific segment of the population.
  2. Flexibility in use. The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. It should accommodate right- and left-handed people and let the user work at his or her own pace.
  3. Simple and intuitive. Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills or current concentration level. It should also provide effective prompting and feedback during and after task completion.
  4. Perceptible information. The design should communicate necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities. One way to do this is to use different modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for redundant presentation of essential information and provide adequate contrast between essential information and its surroundings.
  5. Tolerance for error. The design should minimize the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions. The design should provide warnings of possible errors and provide fail-safe features.
  6. Low physical effort. The design should allow the user to use the item efficiently and comfortably with a minimum of fatigue.
  7. Size and space for approach and use. The design should allow everyone access and use of all components regardless of body size, posture, or degree of mobility. It should also accommodate assistive devices or personal assistance.

Universal Design for Learning

The seven principles of universal design are generic and were originally conceived in the context of physical architecture. The question of how to apply them to education is outlined by the movement known as Universal Design for Learning. The movement was developed at the Center for Applied Special Technology, a nonprofit research and development organization founded in 1984. This initiative deals with general education issues and, as a result, its principles can be more readily applied to the classroom than to online learning. However, its experience in working toward universal design in classroom education is a good foundation on which to develop concepts relevant for online learning.

CAST describes UDL as a flexible approach to curriculum design that offers all learners full and equal opportunities to learn. Based on research into the diverse ways people learn, UDL offers practical steps for giving everyone the chance to succeed. CAST believes that some people are visual learners, some learn by doing, and some learn by hearing, and has developed a set of guidelines that can include all of these learners.

Apply universal design to online learning

On October 28, 2009, the U.S. Government Accountability Office submitted a report to the Committee on Education and Labor of the House of Representatives entitled “Higher Education and Disability: Education Needs a Coordinated Approach to Improve Its Assistance to Schools in Supporting Students” (U.S. GAO Report GAO-10-33, 2009). The report noted that schools are increasingly using the universal design model in curriculum development and delivery. In this context, online learning is one of the many delivery platforms benefiting from the inclusion of universal design.

Online learning, by its basic nature, limits the availability of some of the learning modalities discussed by CAST. For example, a math problem can only be solved online by manipulating numbers on the computer, not by manipulating physical objects, as can be done in a live classroom. As a result, some of the CAST universal design for learning principles may have limited applicability for online learning. Nevertheless, the concept of looking for ways to accommodate the unique skills of online learners is worth considering.

Creating accessible online course content

The accessibility of the course content itself is the second requirement for the creation of accessible online learning. The American Foundation for the Blind noted that some courses actually posed very few of the problems mentioned by students taking the survey. These courses had a number of similarities:

  • Consistent designs
  • Proper headings
  • Fewer frames
  • Contrasting colors
  • Accessible graphics

As you will see shortly, all of these features align with the principles of universal design. They make the content clearer for people with vision, visual processing and cognitive disabilities — as well as for those with no obvious impairment. That is, the short list of features that the foundation’s survey found that helped students with disabilities are things that are important in creating content that will benefit anyone.

In the sections that follow I provide an overview to designing optimally accessible content. The key word here is overview.

Be learner-centered

Thomas Friedman, in his 2005 book The World Is Flat, contends that information technology is leveling power relationships. Many online teachers have observed this phenomenon in action and remark how online classroom behavior mirrors the shift of power from teacher to students. This doesn’t mean that the students have all the power and the teacher none, but rather that in the online arena the two are now more equal participants — partners even.

Modularize and organize your course content

Dividing lessons into small, “bite-size” pieces — often called “chunking” — has long been advocated as an important learning tool for students with disabilities, especially those with learning cognitive disabilities. Students with hearing impairments whose first language is American Sign Language also benefit from this, as do nonnative speakers without disabilities. Ruth Clark also recommends segmenting online lessons for all learners so that they can be completed in short chunks. Limit asynchronous e-learning lessons to two to five minutes and synchronous e-learning lessons to an hour.

Chunking implies not only that the document is modularized but also that it is well-organized. Good structure — or rather, the headings that provide the visible framework — is an aid to content navigation for all users. Using well-thought-out, descriptive headings will enable users with disabilities to navigate quickly through the document, just as do users with normal vision. Skimming a page looking for the next section is a common practice. But for users of some assistive technologies such as screen readers, this is only possible when the document uses properly constructed headers, which enable these users to jump from one header to the next. Otherwise, the user has to read a line at a time to find the next section.

Provide a text equivalent for every nontext element

A screen reader cannot describe an image, but the author can attach a short, hidden text description to the image that the screen reader will vocalize for its user. We are not advocating text-only course content. Using graphics cannot only make the content more visually appealing and interesting, but also for topics in art or science, for example, they may be essential. A chart or diagram may convey information better than can be done verbally. Some learners, including those with learning disabilities and cognitive disabilities, often learn better from visual representations. That said, it is important not to clutter documents with graphics for the sake of decorations. Ruth Clark recommends the careful use of relevant visuals to promote learning, but strongly advises against adding graphics that do not clearly support the text.

Include captions for multimedia presentations

Here presentations refers to multimedia such as video or a narrated PowerPoint slide show that includes a sequence of pictures accompanied by a soundtrack. These provide hearing-impaired people with the ability to understand the audio-only content as well as to make sense out of a video.

Captions have other uses. A video can be searched via the text in the captions, allowing the ability to quickly locate an item without having to sit through the presentation. It also can make a captioned Internet video searchable using an Internet search engine.

This article was excerpted and adapted from Making Online Teaching Accessible: Inclusive Course Design for Students with Disabilities. For information about this and other Wiley products, go to www.wiley.com.

Conversation With: Emily Shryock
4/7/2015 12:00 AM

Emily Shryock, the assistant director of services for students with disabilities at the University of Texas at Austin, has used social media extensively to conduct outreach for her office and create greater awareness on campus about how it helps students with disabilities.

Emily Shryock, the assistant director of services for students with disabilities at the University of Texas at Austin, has used social media extensively to conduct outreach for her office and create greater awareness on campus about how it helps students with disabilities.

Q: How and why did you get interested in the use of social media as an outreach tool for your unit?

A: I began exploring social media about two years ago. We had a blog on our website, but I was already using Facebook personally, so I wanted to experiment with using it professionally to maintain timely communication with our students and create awareness of what was going on in an informal, engaging way.

I also wanted to engage others on campus, such as students who don’t have disabilities but who, for whatever reason, had an interest in disability. With Facebook, they could take what we post and share those items with their own networks. We now have also started using Twitter as well.

Q: What has been the outcome of your social-media efforts?

A: One unexpected but positive outcome was that we’ve really been able to extend our reach and create partnerships with other campus groups and community organizations that we otherwise would not have had an audience with. Connecting with those groups has allowed us to broaden the reach of our postings, because when they share our posts they reach all of their followers. And internally, it has contributed to creating a more connected campus and generating awareness of what my office does.

Having those connections has also meant that getting content to post regularly is never a problem. Particularly when it comes to community organizations that serve individuals with disabilities, what they post are often things that we know would be of interest to our students, so we can just share.

Q: What advice would you give someone at another institution looking to do the same thing?

A: Start small and start with what you’re comfortable with. Just because you say you’re going to do social-media outreach doesn’t mean that you have to do all kinds of social media at once to start.

For a while, I was just posting to Facebook and learning, and not necessarily advertising that we had a Facebook page. It was a couple of months before we actively began advertising our page. I wanted time to get familiar with how everything worked. With Twitter, I did the same thing — quietly posting content while figuring out how to use the platform effectively.

When we were ready to go public, we included information about our social-media efforts in our newsletter and added links to our website and email signature lines. Liking other groups’ pages and inviting students and others to “like” us also helped.

Prioritize what will go on your Facebook page and Twitter feed, because there’s a lot of content out there. For us, anything from our office gets priority, followed by university and community events, and then national and international items related to disability. And post often, so things stay fresh and you keep people engaged. We post three to five times a week, and it takes no more than five to 10 minutes to post.

Also, maintain consistency. I do all the social-media posting for our unit for that reason. At the same time, we’re very intentional about representing different kinds of disabilities equally in our postings.

For more information, you may contact Emily Shryock at emily.s@austin.utexas.edu.

Conversation With: Melanie V. Tucker
3/10/2015 12:00 AM

Melanie V. Tucker, the assistant vice president for student affairs at Northern Illinois University, spearheaded efforts to implement the principles of universal design across her unit and campus.

Melanie V. Tucker, the assistant vice president for student affairs at Northern Illinois University, spearheaded efforts to implement the principles of universal design across her unit and campus. Below, she explains her motivations for doing so, and the outcomes.

Q: What got you interested in universal design applications for student affairs departments?

A: Prior to my current role, I served as the director of two disability resource centers, so I was very familiar with universal design to begin with. When I stepped into my current role, I realized that implementing some universal design strategies across my department was a way to not only contribute to retention initiatives, but also to increase partnerships across campus. I was particularly moved to do this by research about student persistence when students feel valued and included in their campus communities, and I wanted to move us away from the compliance and medical model toward a social justice model.

Q: How have you specifically promoted the principles of universal design within student affairs?

A: My division puts on professional development conferences each year for us and our partners across campus. I use that opportunity to conduct training for staff from offices within my department, as well as other areas of the institution, on how to infuse universal design into what they do.

Part of what I love about universal design is that it just makes sense. Once people get that universal design doesn’t have to be real complicated, there’s this sort of lightbulb moment, and suddenly they start looking at all of the things they do, down to the very basics, like how they market programs and events. For instance, do they place fliers on bulletin boards across campus? Well, that doesn’t work for everyone. So they then start considering how they might do such things differently to create inclusion.

Sometimes, people also find that what they’re already doing is in line with the principles of universal design, and so they see off the bat that being inclusive can be easy, and it doesn’t necessarily mean any added work.

Q: What advice would you have for someone at another institution looking to emulate your efforts?

A: Find allies across campus. Those folks could be faculty members or colleagues from other departments. Knowing who has people’s ears can make a big difference, because as a UD advocate, I can’t be in every meeting or at every table.

Invite people to come and have a conversation about universal design. Once you create some excitement around the topic, it will spread. Other departments have started inviting me to their departmental meetings to talk about what universal design would look like within their divisions.

And approach the conversation from a perspective that offers broad appeal. For instance, explain how inclusion creates a welcoming environment that promotes retention, not just for students with disabilities, but for all students. Don’t frame universal design as being a cure-all, but rather one more tool we can use to positively impact retention.

Counter resistance before it comes up. For example, talk about how, sure, some things can cost a lot of money, but there are many others that would cost little or nothing at all and can make a huge positive impact.

For more information, you may contact Melanie V. Tucker at mthompson3@niu.edu.

Conversation With: Elizabeth G. Harrison
1/19/2015 12:00 AM

Elizabeth G. Harrison is the director of the University of Dayton’s Office of Learning Resources and associate director of the Ryan C. Harris Learning Teaching Center. She has presented extensively on the topics of working with faculty to promote universal design and expanding accessibility for students with disabilities.

Elizabeth G. Harrison is the director of the University of Dayton’s Office of Learning Resources and associate director of the Ryan C. Harris Learning Teaching Center. She has presented extensively on the topics of working with faculty to promote universal design and expanding accessibility for students with disabilities.

Q: How can disability services providers work with faculty members to increase accessibility?

A: It’s sometimes easier to say this than to do, but disability services providers should really get to know the faculty development and learning support people on their campuses. These people can become powerful allies in reaching out to the faculty and educating them about how to broaden accessibility.

Get to know those folks on campus who, from your point of view, have roles that seem in one way or another to be related to what you do. See exactly what it is they do and how it overlaps with your own role or what you think needs to be done to broaden accessibility. Find out what they think about disability and talk with them about the things you want to do. If they’re receptive, work together on those things. Don’t think that it has to be you alone doing this, because we all care about helping students succeed.

Q: Why aren’t such collaborations more commonplace?

A: Disability services providers may sometimes think of themselves as the only people on campus who serve students with disabilities, the only ones who care about serving students with disabilities, or the only ones who can serve those students. But that’s not the case. There are many others who, if you could just help them to understand the issues facing students with disabilities, would become committed to expanding accessibility.

For some DS providers, I think it may be the case that they got into disability services because they have a family member or someone they care about who has a disability and needed support in college. Or perhaps the DS providers themselves experienced college as students with disabilities, so now they feel a personal commitment to expanding access for others, and they feel that they can’t put that commitment on others. We all operate on certain assumptions that have been built over the years as a result of our own experiences, and that can get in our way.

I encourage people to explore their own assumptions about things such as faculty and their own roles at their institutions. Ask: Why do I think I’m the only one, or my office is the only one, who can do this work? Why am I convinced others will say “no, we can’t do this” or “this won’t work”? Why do I think others may not care? Try to get past that and work intentionally to expand your own mental model while at the same time educating others to help them do the same thing.

For more information, you may contact Elizabeth G. Harrison at eharrison1@udayton.edu.

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  • Meet the Editor

    Joan Hope
    Managing Editor

    Joan Hope became editor of Disability Compliance for Higher Education in 2014. She brings years of experience in higher education and journalism to her work.

    Joan taught writing and literature courses for eight years at colleges and universities including Indiana University at Bloomington, Clark University, and Houston Community College. As a freelance journalist, she published hundreds of articles in newspapers, magazines and reference books.

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