Blind UC Davis student fights for equal access to education

Blind UC Davis student fights for equal access to education

“You don’t need vision to succeed,” UC Davis graduate student Hoby Wedler said. “However, you do need equal access to opportunities.”

In Wedler’s case, equal access to opportunity came in the form of audio textbooks. He is currently lobbying at the White House and in Congress to grant all students who have sight and reading disabilities access to audio textbooks.

Wedler is completely blind. He graduated from Davis with a double major in history and chemistry in 2010. Now he is continuing his education at UC Davis as a chemistry Ph.D. student.

Wedler, who said that he considers being blind nothing more than a nuisance, said that he credits a huge part of his educational and life success to audio textbooks.

“They leveled the playing field for me,” Wedler said. “If I failed, it was my fault. I could no longer blame it on not being able to see thanks to audio textbooks.”

Audio textbooks, which were provided to him through a non-profit organization for the visually impaired called Learning Ally, are much more convenient, efficient and effective than Braille, the alternative, Wedler said.

“The general chemistry book used at Davis is normally one very heavy, 500-paged book, but in Braille it is over 30 volumes of large books,” Wedler said. “It is very difficult to work with 30 books.”

On top of being inconvenient, Wedler said that Braille books take twice the amount of time to read than audio textbooks do.

“Audio textbooks give me easy access to the material and allow me to absorb it much more quickly,” Wedler said. “Sometimes audio books allow me to get through material more quickly than my sighted peers.”

Hoby Wedler has always been a high-achieving and passionate student, said professor of Chemistry, Dean Tantillo.

“There’s not a soul in the chemistry department who doesn’t know who Hoby is,” Tantillo said. “He is a fantastic, smart student and he says that he owes a lot of his academic success to the equal opportunity that audio books have provided him.”

The audio books that Wedler uses and is lobbying for are created by Learning Ally, a group that works to help the sight- and reading-disabled.

Members have access to Learning Ally’s database of over 70,000 titles, 50,000 of which are textbooks. Volunteers and employees work together to create 5,000 new audio books every year. Additionally, a member can request that an audio book be made and it will be ready in approximately two weeks.

Membership to Learning Ally used to be free for sight- and reading-disabled students. However, government funding cuts have brought the cost up to $99 a year.

“This is a service that levels the playing field amongst the sighted and the non-sighted, the reading-able and the reading-disabled,” Wedler said. “It should be free.”

Wedler is lobbying to make membership to Learning Ally free so that all students, no matter their socioeconomic status, can have access to audio books.

So far he has received positive reactions from the government officials he has met with. Most have promised to do their best to bring back funding for Learning Ally within the next few years. All were happy to hear about Wedler’s mission.

“One official thought that the government was still funding Learning Ally and was glad that I informed him otherwise,” Wedler said. “This shows that this issue is one that needs more awareness.”

SARA ISLAS can be reached at city@theaggie.org.