Access to Computers


After this presentation, faculty and administrators will be able to:

  • summarize the legal rights of students with disabilities as they relate to computer access
  • discuss the issues, needs, and concerns of people with disabilities in accessing electronic resources
  • describe common types of adaptive technology for students with disabilities
  • plan for the procurement of adaptive technology for campus computer workstations


This presentation can be modified or expanded to include more specific information about computer technology for students with sensory, learning, or mobility disabilities by using the videos and handouts entitled Working Together: Computers and People with Sensory Impairments, Working Together: Computers and People with Learning Disabilities, and Working Together: Computers and People with Mobility Impairments.


45 minutes or longer with modifications.


Department chair, faculty, staff, TA, student, or other department member who has experience working with technology and students with disabilities. The program may be co-presented with a staff member of a campus unit responsible for providing computer accommodations for students with disabilities.


  • Select the presenter(s).
  • Develop presentation outline and activities using the "Sample Script" provided in this section and the ideas listed in the Presentation Tips section.
  • Create presentation slides from provided templates.
  • Add the contact information for campus resources to the "Resources" slide and to printed publications as appropriate.
  • Photocopy the handout template, Working Together: People with Disabilities and Computer Technology. Create alternative formats as necessary.
  • If presenting the optional content "Mentoring: Case Study," photocopy the handout template Opening Doors: Mentoring on the Internet.
  • If presenting the optional content "Universal Design" or "Planning for Computer Access," photocopy the handout template Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction.
  • If expanding the content to include more information about specific disabilities, photocopy the handout templates listed under the "Modifications" section above.
  • Photocopy the presentation evaluation instrument to distribute at the end of the session (see pages 189-191 for examples) or create your own.
  • Add a link on your department's website to The Faculty Room at

Equipment and Tools

  • DVD player and monitor
  • Video projector, computer, and presentation slides; Internet connection (optional)
  • Videos (open captioned and audio described version of Working Together: People with Disabilities and Computer Technology, Opening Doors: Mentoring on the Internet (optional), and those listed under "Modifications" as desired)
  • Handouts (Working Together: People with Disabilities and Computer Technology, Opening Doors: Mentoring on the Internet (optional), Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction (optional), and those listed under "Modifications" as desired)
  • Presentation evaluation instrument

Presentation Outline

  1. Distribute handout(s).
  2. Introductions.
  3. Begin presentation.
  4. Discuss computer access and case studies.
  5. Introduce and play video(s) as noted in script.
  6. Discuss possible accommodation strategies on your campus.
  7. Discuss department or campus issues.
  8. Note campus resources.
  9. Distribute and collect completed evaluation instruments.


For further preparation resources for this presentation, consult:

Sample Script

Today we will be discussing computer access and adaptive (or assistive) technology for students with varying types of disabilities.

The objectives of today's presentation are to:

  • describe the legal rights of students with disabilities as they relate to computer access
  • summarize the issues, needs and concerns of people with disabilities in accessing electronic resources
  • describe common types of adaptive technology for students with disabilities
  • discuss strategies to plan and implement adaptive technology capabilities for campus computer labs/workstations

Computer Technology in Postsecondary Education

Computers are essential tools in academic studies and employment. It's difficult to imagine a state-of-the-art university without thinking of computer databases, email, interactive websites, and online-based distance learning. Recent advances in assistive technology, greater reliance on computers in all fields, and increased availability of electronic information have resulted in life-changing opportunities for many people with disabilities. In combination, these technologies provide people with disabilities better access to education, careers, and other life experiences that were not available to them in the past. Faculty and administrators can play important roles in ensuring access to these empowering tools for students with disabilities.

What are some of the computing resources currently used in your classes or by your department?

[Solicit audience input, such as online journals, websites, and databases. List items noted by participants.]

The information covered in this presentation will provide you with tools and insights that will help ensure that these resources are accessible to students with disabilities. Today, I will share some success stories that provide examples of the impact that adaptive computer technology has had for people with disabilities. Then we will consider the most important legislative directives that apply to computer access and look at some statistics about people with disabilities. With that background, a video presentation will provide an overview of how people with disabilities use computers.

Today's presentation will help you understand the impact of computer-based technologies for people with disabilities and give you ideas about improving access in your course or department. Much of the information presented today is provided in your handout Working Together: People with Disabilities and Computer Technology.

Access to Computers: Case Studies

I'm going to start by sharing with you a few stories of people with disabilities who are able to access electronic resources, thanks to the availability of adaptive technology and accessible resources. You'll meet them in the video we'll view shortly.

  • Nhi has low vision. She uses a computer that has a large screen, as well as a speech output system that reads text or images that appear on the screen. When she uses her computer she can research a term paper easily and quickly.
  • Justin is blind. He uses a portable Braille display and printout system. He is able to type his notes for his college classes using the Braille display and then print them out for his teachers.
  • Katie is deaf. She often uses a sign language interpreter. Online, however, Katie communicates with the reference librarian quickly and easily through email.
  • Crystal has a learning disability that makes it difficult for her to read. She uses a speech output system that reads the computer screen to her. This helps her read and understand books for her classes more quickly.
  • Jeffrey has a mobility impairment. He uses a keyboard on which the keys are enlarged and widely spaced to avoid hitting more than one key at a time.
  • Oscar has a mobility impairment. He uses a voice-activated system that replaces his keyboard. It allows his computer to write what he says as he speaks into a microphone, allowing him to write his papers on his own. Having this adaptive technology makes him feel more independent; he doesn't have to rely on someone else as much.

These stories provide examples of students with disabilities who can successfully access computers and electronic resources. You will see more examples in the following video presentation. This presentation and the accompanying handout are both entitled Working Together: People with Disabilities and Computer Technology. The handout gives an overview of computer access problems and solutions. The video highlights the educational opportunities that access to computers, adaptive technology, software, and the Internet provide to people with specific disabilities.

As the individuals in the video demonstrate, computers help reduce many barriers faced by people with disabilities. The students in the presentation demonstrate various technologies that make it possible for them to access computing resources. These are only a few examples, since abilities, disabilities, and learning styles are unique to individuals and vary depending on different situations.

Adaptive technology can be hardware or software, easy or difficult to use, inexpensive or expensive, generic or unique to an individual, and stand alone or network. [Provide examples of each.]

[Note: You can modify or expand this presentation to focus on specific disability types by using the videos and handouts Working Together: Computers and People with Sensory Impairments, Working Together: Computers and People with Learning Disabilities, and Working Together: Computers and People with Mobility Impairments.]

Mentoring: Case Study (optional)

Next we will consider an example of an application of computer and online technologies that benefit people with disabilities—mentoring. We will view a video presentation and review the accompanying handout, Opening Doors: Mentoring on the Internet. The handout gives an overview of the benefits of mentoring on the Internet and of how technology overcomes barriers found in traditional in-person mentoring. The video highlights how students develop supportive relationships with adult mentors online.

Legal Issues

We'll continue this presentation by talking about legal issues, universal design, and planning for computer access.

Ensuring that individuals with disabilities have access to computing resources can be argued on ethical grounds. Some simply consider it to be the right thing to do. Others are more responsive to legal mandates.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 requires that people with disabilities be given the same access to public programs and services, including educational programs, that are offered to people without disabilities.

The ADA is federal civil rights legislation that reinforces and extends the requirements of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requirements to all postsecondary institutions. Section 504 states: "no otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities shall, solely by reason of their disabilities, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination in any program or activity of a public entity." When people think of the ADA they often think of elevators in buildings, reserved spaces in parking lots, and lifts on busses. However, ADA accessibility requirements apply to people with all types of disabilities and to all programs and resources offered at our institutions, including those that use computers and the Internet.

Disabilities covered by legislation include, but are not limited to, spinal cord injuries, loss of limbs, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, hearing impairments, visual impairments, speech impairments, specific learning disabilities, head injuries, psychiatric disorders, diabetes, cancer, and AIDS. The conditions listed may limit people's abilities to perform specific tasks. Some of these conditions are readily apparent; some are invisible. Some affect computer use; some do not.

Additionally, some students who have the same diagnosis may have very different abilities when it comes to performing a specific tasks. For example, one student who has cerebral palsy may have difficulty walking. For another student, cerebral palsy may result in no functional use of his or her hands or voice. Ultimately, a student who has a disability requires accommodations only when faced with a task that requires a skill that his or her disability precludes. This may include computer access.

Universal Design (optional)

[Include the following content if appropriate for your audience.]

When it comes to using computing resources, individuals with disabilities face access issues in one or more of three areas. The first is access to the computing facility itself. Users must be able to get to the facility and maneuver within it.

Second, users must be able to access a computer. When the needed accessibility features are not built into commercial products, special hardware and software (called adaptive or assistive technology) can be used to provide access. For example, people who are blind can equip their computers with software and hardware that will read aloud all text that appears on the screen.

Third, users must be able to access electronic resources. Once computer access barriers are removed, electronic resources, such as applications and websites, may present access challenges for some people with disabilities. This problem can be avoided if software and website developers employ principles of universal design when they create their products.

Designing a product or service involves the consideration of myriad factors that include aesthetics, engineering options, environmental issues, safety concerns, and cost. One issue that designers often overlook is that of universal design. In general, universal design refers to designing products and services that can be used by people with a range of characteristics, abilities, and disabilities.

Universal design is defined by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University as "the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design."

At this center, a group of architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers collaborated to establish a set of principles of universal design to provide guidance in the design of environments, communications, and products.

General principles of universal design require that the design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities; the design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities; the design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities; the design can be used efficiently and comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue; and appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user's body size, posture, or mobility.

When designers apply these principles, their products meet the needs of potential users with a wide variety of characteristics. Disability is just one of these characteristics. For example, one person could be male, tall, fifteen years old, a poor reader, and blind. All of these characteristics, including his blindness, should be considered when developing a product he might use.

In the case of computer design, people with disabilities benefit when computers and software are designed with universal access in mind. Then, they can access the computer using built-in features or, in some cases, with the addition of adaptive technology.

Planning for Computer Access (optional)

[This section is optional; include if appropriate for your audience.]

Computer and network technologies can play a key role in increasing the independence, productivity, and participation of students with disabilities. Now that we've considered universal design, let's think generally about some of the characteristics of adaptive technology to consider as you plan to incorporate such technology into your department.

Adaptive technology comes in many forms with many different characteristics. It comes as hardware, software, or a combination of the two. What examples of hardware and software did you see in the video presentation?


  • Jeffrey has a mobility impairment. He uses a keyboard on which the keys are enlarged and widely spaced to avoid hitting more than one key at a time.
  • Oscar has a mobility impairment as well, and he uses a voice-activated system that replaces his keyboard. It allows his computer to write what he says as he speaks into the microphone, allowing him to write his papers on his own.]

Adaptive technology can be easy to install or it can require long-range planning, analysis of needs and options, and funding for implementation. For example, a trackball is inexpensive and can be easily added to a workstation, assisting people who have difficulty using a standard mouse. On the other hand, a blind student may use hardware that includes a personal computer, screen reading software, and Braille printer. Setup and support of such a system requires extensive training to use effectively.

Adaptive technology can be generic or unique to the individual. For example, screen enlargement software serves people with a variety of visual and learning impairments. On the other hand, a speech input system needs to be trained by an individual user. Each user must train the system to recognize his or her voice.

Adaptive technology software solutions, such as screen enlargement programs, can be installed on one machine or networked so that they are available from more than one computer workstation. Solutions that incorporate hardware are often most appropriate on stand-alone stations. However, if these are stored near computer workstations, they can be easily moved to the particular station a person is using.

Given these characteristics of adaptive technology, multiple approaches should be considered when providing accommodations. Some solutions can be implemented quickly and easily. These solutions will provide quick rewards that will provide the necessary motivation and support for the longer processes required to install more complex equipment and software.

Remember, you don't have to do everything at once. A department can start small and add to its collection of adaptive technology as it receives requests and as staff gain skills in providing training and services for them.

Discussion Questions

[Discuss these and other questions of interest to participants.]

  1. What are the ethical and legal issues related to providing students with disabilities access to computing resources?
  2. How would you respond to administrative concerns related to the added costs involved in making campus computing resources accessible to people with disabilities?
  3. In our institution, who should be responsible for ensuring that computing resources are accessible to individuals with disabilities?
  4. What procedures do we have or should we have for responding to accommodation requests from students with disabilities?
  5. When should we be proactive and when should we be reactive regarding provision of equipment and software that makes computers accessible to students with disabilities?

Case Study

[Consider having participants discuss a case study. Case #2 in the Presentation Tips section.]


This presentation addressed issues related to adaptive technology. We learned how adaptive technology can assist people with a variety of disabilities. But remember, there are two other parts to the access equation—ensuring that campus computer facilities are accessible to students with disabilities and using universal design principles to ensure that electronic resources at our school are accessible. Only when all facilities, computers, and electronic resources are accessible can students with disabilities participate on a level playing field in academics and careers.


Here are some resources that might be useful to you as you work to maximize effective communication with all students in your classes. [Elaborate.]

For comprehensive information on accommodations, a wide range of case studies, frequently asked questions, and general resources, visit The Faculty Room at This resource was developed by the University of Washington as part of a nationwide project to provide resources to faculty and administrators so that they can make their courses and programs accessible to all students. You can link to this resource from ____. [Arrange to provide a link from your campus' disabled student services website before the presentation.] Consider linking to this website from your department's faculty website.

Thank you for your time today and for your interest in finding ways to ensure that all of the students in our programs have equal opportunities to learn, explore interests, and express ideas.