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Technology (Innovations for Education)

Access for All

Adaptive technologies 

PHOTO COURTESY OF EVGENY PAVLOV

As a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in the early 1990s, Patrick Burke would write a paper on a clunky laptop that would read the words aloud as he typed. But if he were still in school today, the process would be much different: Burke, who lost his sight as an infant, would dictate his paper to his iPhone, transmit it to his computer and then format it.

As adaptive technology for students with disabilities changes, the applications once used on desktop or laptop computers are increasingly shifting to mobile devices. Not only are college student reading their electronic textbooks on smartphones, but they are also downloading apps that can convert website texts or Word documents into speech. “It’s a cultural change,” says Burke, now the coordinator of the Disabilities and Computing Program at UCLA. “I think that mobile technology is going to be the way things will go on from here.”

Taking it Online

After ensuring that their facilities and programs were accessible to students, faculty and staff with disabilities, colleges and universities are now focused on retrofitting their electronic resources, such as websites and online courses, so that they are usable by their entire campus community.

“Online education is the next frontier,” says Marcia Wiedefeld, director of disability support services at Loyola University Maryland, a private Catholic school in Baltimore. “That opens up our college to people all over the world, and professors who are teaching online should think about accessibility from the get-go.”

For online courses to be accessible, Wiedefeld says their web pages must include readable text or alt tags on images, which can be detected by screen readers. Alt tags use the “alt attribute” in HTML and XHTML documents to specify alternative text (alt text) that is to be rendered when the element to which it is applied cannot be rendered. It is also used by screen reader software so that a person who is listening to the content of a webpage (for instance, a person who is blind) can interact with this element. Similarly, videos need to include captioning, whether they are embedded in an online course page or a website. “Even if you don’t have a deaf user in the class, still caption it because you’re teaching it that way,” Wiedefeld says. “It might benefit someone’s learning style.”

E-Readers and Accessibility

The issue of accessibility on college and university campuses generated national interest when the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind sued Arizona State University in 2009, after it launched a pilot program to distribute electronic textbooks to students via the Amazon Kindle DX. While the Kindle DX had text-to-speech capabilities, the organizations argued that blind and visually impaired users could not navigate the device’s menu system, or even turn on the screen-reading feature.

The case was settled a year later when Arizona State agreed to end its pilot program and evaluate whether any e-book readers it deploys in the future are accessible to the blind. Amazon also agreed to improve the accessibility of the Kindle and add text-to-speech capabilities to its navigation system.

While the lawsuit targeted Arizona State, the complainants also asked the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division to investigate the use of the Kindle DX in pilot programs at five other institutions that were assessing the role of e-textbooks in the classroom — Case Western Reserve University, the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, Pace University, Princeton University, and Reed College.

As a result of their investigation, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education in 2010 released a “Dear Colleague Letter,” stipulating that all emerging technology — such as electronic book readers and online courses — at educational institutions ranging from elementary schools to universities must be fully accessible to students with disabilities, including those who are blind, have low vision, or have a learning disability that makes it difficult to get information from printed sources.

Fully Accessible

At Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, the Disability and Access Center began complying with the intent of the letter by ensuring that online classes were fully accessible and by discussing how its website could be modified so that it was usable by all students, faculty and staff.

“All our online pieces and anything that’s electronic needs to be made accessible without request,” says Lance Alexis, director of the center, noting that the letter did not specify a deadline for complying with these requirements. “It’s a long journey, because there are a lot of layers with all the electronic offerings at the university. But we need to be moving in that direction, and we hope to be able to stay ahead of the curve.”

Another goal of the university is to help the students who use adaptive technology become as independent as possible, Alexis says. One tool the center has recently began using is the Livescribe pen, a traditional pen equipped with a computer and a microphone that records a lecture as a student takes notes on special paper. Designed for students with learning disabilities, the smartpen allows users to replay the audio lecture when it is tapped anywhere on their notes.

“A Livescribe pen is a better alternative when you’re talking about independence than a peer note taker in the classroom,” Alexis says. After a trial run with Livescribe this year, he says the center will be distributing them to students who want to try the smartpens next fall.

As adaptive technology is continually being updated, universities are trying to make the newest versions available to students on their campuses. Most adaptive technology is now available via smartphones, which many students prefer to desktop or laptop computers, says Burke, of UCLA.

Yet many students with disabilities still want to use adaptive technology via their laptops to write papers and read electronic textbooks with screen readers. And such students are more often enrolling in colleges or universities with most of the adaptive devices they need already loaded onto their laptops.

“Anybody who arrives at UCLA, if they have made it with whatever disability they have and gotten this far already having used the computer technology in high school, they arrive with their whole setup on their laptops,” says Burke. “All they need from us is a little bit of troubleshooting and tech support with the new versions when they come out.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of College Planning & Management.

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