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Accessible Technology: Opening Doors for Disabled Students

Accessible technology helps higher education institutions improve information delivery, especially to students with disabilities.

By Diana Oblinger and Laura Ruby

"Adaptive computer technology is creating the most level learning space in history for students with disabilities", says Norman Coombs, professor emeritus at the Rochester Institute of Technology and CEO of Equal Access to Software and Information, a nonprofit organization that provides online technology training for people with disabilities and accessibility consulting services to schools, colleges, and libraries. "Today, almost every course in high school and college involves the use of a computer in some way", Coombs continues. "Increasingly, if information and technology are not designed to be accessible to students with disabilities, then the students access to education rapidly moves backward."

Education's "return on investment," although unmistakable, is often hard to measure. There is, however, a direct correlation among education, employment, and income. That's true for people with disabilities, just as it is for others. The 1990 Census showed that people with disabilities who had less than a high school diploma were employed at a rate of only 15.6 percent. For those with at least a high school diploma, the employment rate nearly doubled to 30.2 percent. Those who had completed at least four years of college were employed at a rate of 50.3 percent.

By deploying accessible and assistive technology to facilitate educational opportunities for students with disabilities, colleges and universities can significantly improve those employment figures. Yet, the benefits of accessible technology to individual students and faculty go far beyond job opportunities. Coombs, who is blind, uses his own experience as an example.

"I taught history for 20 years, but after I started using a computer my colleagues told me that I seemed like a different person, more poised and confident", Coombs says. "I ve seen the same thing happen with my students who have disabilities. Accessible technology empowers people, and the independence they gain from it changes them, makes them better. Empowerment and transformation are the true purposes of education."

Along with the benefits that accessible technology provides for individuals, it also enhances an institution's ability to retain valued students and attract the most talented minds without regard for physical capabilities. Accessible technology increases personal productivity, enhances collaboration and communication between students and faculty, and helps colleges and universities accommodate individual learning styles and preferences. And accessible technology helps institutions achieve greater diversity. A campus should reflect society as a whole, which includes people with disabilities.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics Study on Postsecondary Students With Disabilities, roughly 6 percent of all college and university students have a disability, and those numbers are increasing as accessible technology opens doors to education for people with disabilities. To address the needs of this population, colleges and universities nationwide are using a variety of policies and practices designed to help ensure equal access to education through the use of accessible technology and Web design. Accessibility programs at the University of Washington, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Rio Salado College in Arizona, and the University of Texas at Austin illustrate some possibilities.

University of Washington

The University of Washington (UW) was one of the first universities to develop an adaptive technology lab (now called the Access Technology Lab) , which houses a collection of technologies that students, faculty, and staff can test-drive. The UW accessibility program, which includes many different on-campus services as well as the DO-IT outreach program, is unusual because it is so far-reaching and comprehensive.

"Along with that central resource, we also have a distributed model, because we really want adaptive technology to be out in the various departments computer labs", says Sheryl Burgstahler, director of both the Access Technology Lab and the DO-IT program. "We work with departments on a consulting basis to help them obtain the necessary hardware and software if they have students with disabilities in their departments."

"It used to be that if someone needed adaptive technology, we would supply that technology, and that was the end of the story", she adds. "Now, with so many resources available electronically, and often only available electronically, we ve put much greater effort into helping departments and other groups on campus make their resources accessible." The counsel her group provides to var-ious departments may involve everything from procurement advice as they buy software, to consultation on the design of accessible Web sites.

DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) is primarily an outreach program that extends beyond the borders of the university campus. For example, DO-IT currently has a grant from the National Science Foundation to improve access to science, engineering, math, and technology in colleges, universities, and K-12 schools in a four-state region: Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. The goals of DO-IT's programs are to foster the success of people with disabilities in college and careers.

"At every turn, we look for ways that we can use technology to meet those goals", Burgstahler says. "For example, we have a very strong mentoring community, where we have adults with disabilities mentoring kids with disabilities—and it's all on the Internet.

University of Wisconsin at Madison

The University of Wisconsin at Madison (UW-Madison) was one of the first universities in the country to develop an IT accessibility policy, along with a compliance timeline for legacy resources (such as Web content that was already posted when the accessibility policy took effect) and support to help people achieve compliance.

Those efforts have paid off in the form of some innovative programs. UW-Madison has deployed computer kiosks at key locations throughout the campus, providing convenient access to the Web and e-mail. Several accessibility features are enabled on the kiosk computers for users with disabilities, including full keyboard access, adjustable keyboard settings, and adjustable font sizes, styles, and colors.

The university recently installed Kurzweil 3000 network server software, which provides reading, writing, and test-taking solutions for people with learning disabilities. The dual highlighting feature allows students to simultaneously highlight a sentence and have each word read aloud, which increases both auditory and visual comprehension. To further increase the students learning potential, the software also includes powerful decoding tools such as dictionaries and synonyms to provide alternate word choices; writing tools such as an audible spell checker and word predictor; and study skills tools that allow students to highlight main ideas, add annotations, extract outlines or word lists, or create voice notes.

"In the past, adaptive equipment in the campus computer labs focused on people with visible disabilities such as mobility, vision, and hearing impairments", says Alice Anderson, coordinator, Technology Accessibility Program, Division of Information Technology. "By addressing the hidden disabilities, such as learning disabilities, the university is able to serve a group of people that often falls through the cracks." In a 2002 study by the National Center for the Study of Postsecondary Educational Support, 31 percent of the participants with specific learning disabilities indicated that their disability was first identified at the post-secondary level.

Rio Salado College

Rio Salado College is a community college that offers a variety of nontraditional educational programs for working adults. Half of its 40,000 students are enrolled in distance learning courses. Known today as "the college without walls", Rio Salado became the first Arizona college to launch Internet courses in 1996, and now offers 275 courses online. The college also provides a broad range of online student services, such as registration, tutoring, academic advising, library services, and counseling.

"We support our students where they are", explains Carol Scarafiotti, dean of instruction at Rio Salado. "There is only one version of every course at Rio Salado. We have a centralized course development process, and we make sure accessibility is built in while courses are being developed." Rio Salado uses Bobby, a program that tests the accessibility of Web pages, as courses are being developed, to ensure that all of its course offerings are fully accessible.

Scarafiotti doesn't know how many people with disabilities are enrolled in Rio Salado's distance learning courses because the college only becomes aware of a student's disability if he or she asks for assistance. "So far this year 85 students have requested assistance because of some type of disability", she says. "This is a low number considering that the flexibility of e-learning should be appealing to students with disabilities. However, we believe that many students with disabilities actually enroll in our e-learning courses but do not request assistance." Scarafiotti notes that many college students with disabilities already have the assistive technology and other equipment they need to complete courses from home without additional help from the college. When students do need help, Rio Salado is ready.

Whether a student who is blind needs a screen reader, or a student with agoraphobia needs a proctor to visit his or her home to oversee a final exam, Rio Salado lives up to its commitment to support its students where they are.

University of Texas at Austin

At the University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin), John Slatin runs the Accessibility Institute, which is dedicated to making the Web more usable for everyone. UT-Austin's Web site was recognized at last year's Conference on Technology and Persons With Disabilities as the most accessible of the country's 100-plus research universities. Slatin looks at his university's world-class resources—such as its incomparable Latin American collection—and imagines what it would be like to have them all online and fully accessible to everyone, from scholars to school children.

"There are about 4 million people with disabilities in Texas, out of a population of 22 million", says Slatin, who is recognized nationally as a leader in accessibility issues. "About 500,000 are kids in school. The resources of this university, and every university, should be available to them wherever they are. It should not matter if they have a disability."

Slatin's vision is more than a dream. He is actually working with the university to make it happen, but the technical challenges are daunting. Finding a way to translate images and artifacts into rich experiences for people with vision disabilities, for example, can be extremely difficult. Slatin, who is blind, understands that challenge well.

Another accessibility issue that Slatin wants to overcome: the assumption that all people with disabilities have the assistive technology they need and can carry it around with them wherever they go. "I would like to see point-of-need delivery for assistive technology and accessibility features", he says. "When a person logs on to a network with an established user name and password, his preferences—including any assistive technology he might need—would automatically download to that machine."

Design Makes a Difference

According to Slatin, everyone should support accessibility as a matter of self-interest, and people without disabilities should keep in mind the widespread benefits that accessibility inevitably creates. "Good design is accessible design", Slatin says. "Making the Web accessible allows people with disabilities to participate as equals in the university community and in the world beyond campus, but it also improves the user experience for people who don't have disabilities."

Coombs agrees, comparing the broader benefits of accessible Web design to what happened when curb cuts were introduced on American sidewalks. "Curb cuts were made to assist people in wheelchairs, but they brought immediate benefits to people riding bicycles, pushing baby carriages, and so forth", he says. "Accessible Web design is the equivalent of electronic curb cuts. Everybody benefits."

The U. S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights has compared the task of providing access to information through the use of accessible and assistive technology to society's previous challenge of using ramps, elevators, and other architectural changes to make buildings accessible to people with disabilities. Federal laws mandate equal access to education for people with disabilities, but they often fail to provide practical information to help college and university administrators achieve that goal.

For example, while Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act mandates that students with disabilities receive equal opportunity for a full education, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 requires that communication for people with disabilities be equal to those for others, neither law provides clear guidelines to help colleges and universities take advantage of IT. Refinement and further definition depend on case law, which often creates multiple interpretations.

"Courts and colleges look at things differently, especially when it comes to budgets", Coombs says. College budgets are often fragmented, divided into small portions, which can leave administrators and department heads feeling as though there simply isn't enough money to afford accessible technology or to implement accessible Web design.

"It's a matter of priorities", Coombs says. "Any budget decision takes money from something else. I know of one university a few years ago that hired a human reader for two years to assist a student who was working on a master's degree instead of purchasing a screen reader application, even though the screen reader would have been far less expensive. The reasoning was that there was no money in the university's equipment budget, but plenty of money in the reader budget."

Courts have ruled that colleges and universities should not approach accessibility as an ad hoc issue, responding on a student-by-student basis. Rather, most case law on this subject has declared the need for comprehensive policies to address accessibility issues and keep post-secondary institutions in compliance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA.

Procurement Policies

The 1998 amendment to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires the federal government to make the data and information provided by electronic and information technology accessible to employees and the general public. Section 508 now offers accessibility standards for myriad technologies, including the Web, software, hardware, telecommunications, and portable devices, and establishes procurement preferences for technologies that meet those standards.

Although Section 508 doesn't apply directly to colleges and universities, it offers a useful model for institutions that want to establish procurement policies that provide maximum accessibility to technology and information. Some, like UT-Austin and UW-Madison, have chosen to incorporate Section 508 in their accessibility policies, along with other guidelines, such as those published by the World Wide Web Consortium. Others, such as Temple University in Pennsylvania and several California State University campuses, have adopted policies with guidelines similar to Section 508 regulations.

"Section 508 gives us standards and policies that are being used by a very large group, the U. S. government, the largest procurer of technology in the world", Burgstahler says. "So we look to those standards, and we apply them as guidelines for technology on our campus, and we also point people to the World Wide Web Consortium standards. We want people to embrace accessibility, not just look at a list of standards and say, 'yes, we complied'. But if we can get people to at least meet those minimum standards, then we've gone a long way toward achieving our goal."

Some of the procurement processes and infrastructure established jointly by government and industry to help federal agencies comply with Section 508 regulations may provide valuable tools for higher education as well. IT companies now publish the accessibility features of their products in standard templates, called Voluntary Product Accessibility Templates, which makes it easy for a university to evaluate a mainstream IT product's accessibility prior to procurement.

Meanwhile, other work is taking place at the federal level to enhance accessibility. Congress is considering legislation to expand programs that increase access for students with disabilities to include distance education. Pending reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) offers new chances to strengthen educational opportunities for people with disabilities and to bridge the gaps that are sometimes created between laws that are meant to be complementary.

For example, the transition from high school to college can be especially difficult for students with disabilities. During their K-12 years, students with disabilities are used to having individualized education plans, mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and written each year by a multidisciplinary team that interacts with the students and their teachers, parents, and rehabilitation professionals to ensure that their specific needs are met. When those students leave the K-12 system and go to college, they suddenly lose that support system and often don't know how to request an accommodation at their institution.

If colleges and universities succeed in using accessible technology to create equal access to education on their campuses, then such problems may be solved without additional legislation or government intervention.

Collaboration Creates Opportunity

Coombs and others note that one of the biggest challenges to achieving universal compliance with accessibility standards on campuses is that so much Web content is produced by faculty and is outside the control of college administrators.

Slatin, Burgstahler, and Anderson agree that part of the solution is to foster collaboration among people from many different groups around the campus, so that solutions are group directed and voluntary. Burgstahler says UW started a user group on campus that develops Web sites and Web content. Group members support each other in making their Web resources accessible to people with disabilities. UW also has an accessibility committee that meets regularly to talk about accessibility issues on campus and make recommendations to the administration.

To achieve genuine progress, there must be a strong commitment at the highest levels of the university. In particular, there is a great opportunity for constructive partnerships between chief business officers and chief information officers to advance institutional initiatives, such as diversity and enhanced accessibility.

Anderson notes that because of the collaborative work done by the Web Accessibility Committee at UW-Madison in the past two years, "an inclusive e-culture is developing" on campus. Coombs sees that as one of the important benefits of this kind of collaboration.

"It is increasingly clear that, instead of issuing directives, schools need to form loose teams of all the stakeholders to discuss issues, gain awareness, and develop the desire to voluntarily establish policies that promote accessibility", he says. "The sense of community that comes from a team tackling a task and working together spills over into a spirit of cooperation with untold benefits."

Resources

For educational institutions that want to initiate or strengthen their accessibility programs, additional help is available from EASI (www.rit.edu/~easi); DO-IT (www.washington.edu/doit); Microsoft and other industry leaders; federal and state governments; and other sources. The U. S. Department of Education provides links to resources about accessibility and universal design (www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ovae/pi/AdultEd/disaccess.html). Microsoft's Accessibility and Education Web sites (www.microsoft.com/enable and www.microsoft.com/education/?ID=accessible) provide in-depth information to help higher education institutions integrate accessible technology into their programs.

In addition, the Microsoft sites provide:

In a book titled Accessible Technology in Today's Business, Microsoft outlines a comprehensive five-step process to help organizations develop and execute a strategic accessible technology plan, as well as ideas on how to measure progress and sustain the plan across time (www.microsoft.com/enable/business/plan.aspx).

Author Bio Diana Oblinger is executive director of higher education, and Laura Ruby is manager of regulatory and industry affairs, at Microsoft.

E-mail dianao@microsoft.com, lruby@microsoft.com