Accessible Technology in Education: Problems and Solutions
Presenter: Terrill Thompson
With technology, curriculum, or any resource, we should ask "can everyone access this?" "Everyone" includes theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking who has a motor neuron disease that is related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; T.V. Raman, an engineer at Google who is blind; Christian Vogler, a computer scientist who is one of the leaders in automatic sign language recognition and is deaf; Thomas Edison, who is believed to have had ADHD; Carol Greider, who has a Nobel Prize in medicine and is dyslexic; and the many college students who have disabilities.
To broaden participation in computing fields, we need to break down barriers for more people to participate. Accessible technology is a tool that allows us to do this. The idea of interacting with computers with a keyboard, mouse, and monitor is becoming outdated. Today we have a diverse array of technologies that we use to access electronic information, including phones, tablets, and hundreds of assistive technologies including screen readers, Braille output devices, speech input, and eye tracking systems. Individuals may or may not be able to listen to sounds, see text or colors, use a mouse, or have a long attention span.
As we create websites and electronic documents, and as we choose technologies to use in delivering our educational content, it's important to remember the different ways people will access these resources. Fortunately we don't have to have access to, and ability to use, the myriad devices that individuals use. Accessibility standards provide a central point of communication. If we create content and use applications that follow accessibility standards, it will increase the likelihood that everyone will be able to access and utilize our resources. Examples of accessibility standards include the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, 508 Federal Government accessibility requirements, and Auburn University's institutional policies.
According to WCAG 2.0, accessible information technology should be:
- Perceivable–Content must be presented to users in ways they can perceive, whether they do so visually, audibly, or by touch;
- Operable–Interface controls must be operable to users regardless of their mode of input (e.g., mouse, keyboard, speech);
- Understandable–Users need not spend time trying to figure out how it works;
- Robust–Content must be designed to work across the full spectrum of technologies, including assistive technologies, even as technologies evolve.
Some basic steps for making IT accessible include:
- Use alternate text, HTML headings, and HTML labels to form fields when creating a web page;
- Choose accessible modules and widgets;
- Become familiar with standards and guidelines for websites;
- Caption videos and use accessible media players for video delivery;
- Give feedback to vendors and developers to help make things more accessible;
- Ask vendors about accessibility and demand accessible products.
Defining and Designing the Human Interface: Disabilities in STEM Education
Presenter: Vincent Martin
Vincent spoke about his own experiences as a student with a disability and his interests in accessibility. As a high school student he wanted to go to the Air Force Academy, but he decided not to because he would not be allowed to fly because of his nearsightedness. Around this time, he started finding it more difficult to play sports as his vision started deteriorating. He enrolled at Georgia Tech to study engineering, but found that in large classes he had difficulty seeing the board. He transferred to a smaller school to help alleviate this challenge.
Shortly before graduating college, he diagnosed his own eye disease—retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that can lead to complete blindness. He had a job offer to work at major company, but it was rescinded because of his disability. At the time, the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits this type of discrimination, had not yet been passed.
He began thinking about how computers might benefit him, particularly if he could hear rather than see the output. He has worked with computers since then in fields such as rehabilitation engineering, teaching, and systems analysis. He became interested in how people interacted with computers and began doing research on human-computer interaction issues. His employer recommended returning to school. At that time, he went back to school to study psychology, interactive computing, and human-centered computing. In particular, he's studying how people who cannot see make use of computers.
Vincent still encounters challenges on campus, yet most problems can be solved through effective communication. After moving into campus housing, he recently found that he could no longer access its website to pay rent online. He's encountered similar difficulties with downloading EndNote software that Georgia Tech has a site license for and with accessing the website for the local public transportation authority. Despite advocating for himself in each of these situations, finding solutions hasn't always been easy. There are often simple solutions to these problems. Providing accommodations and accessible tools can save money by avoiding costly retrofitting and, in some cases, even lawsuits. Using universal design helps everyone, including individuals without disabilities.
Reframing our Approach to Accommodations
Presenter: Tracy Donald
"Accommodations" tend to be retroactive—there's a problem and someone takes the time to solve it, usually with a specific individual in mind. But if adjustments are made proactively, things can be more usable for everyone, not just people with disabilities.
This approach also supports the independence of individuals with disabilities. There are many challenges with the typical, retroactive accommodation approach. First, students with disabilities who require accommodations need to bring acceptable documentation of those disabilities to the service unit on campus that is charged with this responsibility and request appropriate accommodations. These accommodations can be isolating if, for example, a student needs to use a separate assistive technology lab to access the equipment or software he/she needs. Second, access needs to be reconsidered each time a new individual uses the system. Third, there are many potential accessibility challenges on a college campus. For example, ramps may need to be added to a building with only steps, classrooms might not have room for individuals using wheelchairs to navigate, desks may not be designed for students who are left-handed, or doors may be too heavy for a user to open.
Applying universal design can ensure that buildings are accessible to everyone—individuals with disabilities as well as individuals with strollers or those who are carrying things—and can lead to fewer requests for accommodations.
When implementing universal design, there are three things to consider: (1) the design of the environment, including buildings and classrooms; (2) the design of class materials such as tools, documents, and websites; (3) and the design of learning, including how classes are approached, teaching methods, and assessing students.
Applying universal design to the environment at the outset can be significantly less expensive than retrofitting facilities at a later date to accommodate students. Universal design of class materials can greatly reduce the need for the instructor to create accommodations for students with disabilities. When instructors create a course, they can incorporate tenants of universal design by presenting content using multiple methods, allowing students to express their understanding of the material in multiple ways, captioning videos, or providing online lecture recordings or notes.
Auburn University Student Veteran Services
Presenter: Johnny Green
Veterans who have been involved in recent conflicts are returning to campus. Some of these veterans have disabilities that include mobility impairments, post-traumatic stress disorder, or learning disabilities. Some veterans have a hard time focusing on their classes when memories or other issues related to their military experiences take their attention. Auburn is trying to work together to make sure that student veterans have access to all of the resources that they need and have a smooth integration into campus life.
There are several things that faculty and staff can do to help smooth the transition from combat to the classroom. One is to be sensitive to issues that affect student veterans in the classroom and other campus settings. For example, some veterans have difficulties with sudden movement, loud noises, or derogatory remarks made about the military. Another is to recognize veterans for their contributions. Auburn recognizes student veterans at football games.
A Veteran's Center was designed after a 2009 task force examined ways to best support veterans at Auburn. The Center helps veterans academically, professionally, and personally. It supports veterans who are trying to transfer to Auburn, need access to financial aid, or have encountered difficulties once they arrive. Auburn is a partial Yellow Ribbon School, which means that it provides limited support to veterans by providing a $1,000 annual scholarship towards the cost of in-state tuition, allows re-entering troops to retroactively withdraw from classes, and provides mental health resources for post-traumatic stress disorder. Auburn has been particularly concerned about student veterans' access to mental health resources because the Veterans Administration (VA) is not located nearby. Working with the VA, Auburn has a mental health program that allows veterans to receive therapy via online video chat. Auburn also offers peer tutoring to veterans, especially to those with low GPAs. Auburn is also working to renovate a space on campus for veterans to congregate.
A Survey of Assistive Technology
Presenters: Representatives from the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind and E.H. Gentry Technology Center
The E.H. Gentry Center in Talladega serves to provide advice to users or potential users of assistive technology. Individuals can visit, experiment with technology, and determine which products may meet their needs. Various brands of assistive technology equipment can have a wide range of features, compatibility with other programs, and price points. The E.H. Gentry Center helps sort through the options available to consumers. During this presentation, representatives demonstrated a variety of products, including screen magnification, screen readers, closed circuit televisions, optical character recognition.