Building an Access Ramp to Information Technology

It takes a campuswide commitment to support the technology needs of students with disabilities, for without the combined efforts of the library, computer, and technical staffs, as well as student input and the commitment of key administrators, these projects will flounder.

Physical ramps have long provided access to buildings for students with motor impairments and adaptive computer technology is now needed to provide access to the information technology of schools and universities. This was spelled out by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which in Case Docket 09-97-2002 said: "The magnitude of the task public entities now face in developing systems for becoming accessible to individuals with disabilities … is comparable to the task previously undertaken in developing a process by which buildings were to be brought up to specific architectural standards for access."

None of us like being told what to do. Even less do we like thinking that what we have been doing needs to be changed because we didn’t do it right. This is frequently what technical staff hear or believe they hear when they are told to make changes to their IT systems. Like anything else in technology, modifying a system is much more work than incorporating the necessary features at the beginning.

Technology is nothing more than a tool that empowers us to do something better than we could do without it. Adaptive computer technology empowers students with traditional print disabilities to receive education in the most level learning space available in history. By making these modifications we provide these students with independence, dignity, and the ability to compete as equals with their peers and actually reduce our educational costs in the process.

A woman graduate student in a major university in the West a few years ago complained to me that her university had no screen-reading software to let her work on a computer in spite of her blindness. The school was mandated to provide her access to an education, but I was amazed to learn that they did this by providing her with a human reader for her entire graduate program. When I noted that the cost of this would have purchased several adapted computer systems, I was amazed to learn that this happened because there was plenty of money allocated to the reader budget but not to an equipment budget.

Today, there are a number of adaptive technology systems that run on standard computers and enable people with disabilities to operate most common computer applications. Synthetic speech can speak the contents of the screen for someone who is blind. Font sizes can be enlarged for someone with limited vision. Voice recognition enables someone without adequate hand use to control the computer. Someone with visual or cognitive processing problems can change the look of a monitor and simplify its display, enabling them to better understand what is presented. Besides being a cost-efficient way to provide an education to this special population, these students will significantly improve their academic performance over the cost of using other support systems.

However, there are some common educational software programs that have not been designed to interface with adaptive technology, and there are some disciplines that pose other significant barriers. Software must be designed so that it can be operated with the use of keyboard commands and not only function with the use of a mouse. Some technical information is still represented in Braille or raised-line hard copy for users who are blind, and do not, as yet, totally function in a digital setting.

Relevant Legislation
Historically, the 1973 Rehabilitation Act has been the cornerstone of law for education and disabilities, particularly Section 504, which mandates that students with disabilities receive equal opportunities for a full education. The second piece of relevant legislation is Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which deals with providing equal communications for people with disabilities as for those communications provided to others.

The Department of Education case highlights several points associated with Section 504 and Title II, specifically the law’s application to technology accessibility in the California State university system. As the docket indicates, recipients of federal financial assistance are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of disability in programs and activities. Title II of the ADA also requires that communications with persons with disabilities "are as effective as communications with others." In this context, communication means "the transfer of information, including (but not limited to) the verbal presentation of a lecture, the printed text of a book, and the resources of the Internet."

The Office of Civil Rights has held that, "the three basic components of effectiveness are timeliness of delivery, accuracy of the translation, and provision in a manner and medium appropriate to the significance of the message and the abilities of the individual with the disability." Increasingly, the law is being interpreted to set the bar very high in defining what is "a reasonable accommodation."

In specifically discussing the university library, Case Docket 09-97-2002 states that the larger and more financially endowed the library, the higher the expectation that a greater volume of information will be made available within a shorter amount of time, particularly when reasonably priced adaptive technology is available to replace tasks that previously required personnel. An important indicator regarding the extent to which a public library is obligated to use adaptive technology is the degree to which it relies on technology to serve its non-disabled patrons. Similarly, the more a school is invested in information technology, the more, the court believes, it can afford the cost of adaptive technology, and it cannot claim the expense is an unreasonable burden.

The third piece of legislation that affects accessibility is the 1998 revision of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which addresses the accessibility of electronic and information technology in considerable detail. The law, "requires access to electronic and information technology provided by the federal government," and specifies that federal agencies must ensure that this technology is accessible to employees and members of the public with disabilities to the extent it d'es not pose an "undue burden." Section 508 primarily applies to the federal government. A Department of Justice Web page concerning Section 508 says that, "states which receive federal funds under the Technology Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988, are required by that Act to comply with Section 508."

This has resulted in many vigorous discussions as to whether this means that state universities and colleges are covered by Section 508, though there is no widely accepted conclusion to the question. Some colleges have adopted the Section 508 standards either to be safe or because they seem like a credible guide to follow. Others seem to believe that it d'es not cover them. Regardless, institutions may be wise to spend money on making education more accessible rather than defending themselves from litigation.

Internet Resources for Assistive Technology

EASI: Equal Access to Software and Information (www.rit.edu/~easi)
EASI has served schools and universities since 1987. Besides providing campus consulting and on-site presentations, it provides eight month-long, online courses on different aspects of accessibility and has reached some 4,000 people in more than three dozen countries. It also provides hour-long, synchronous, Web conference presentations on specific skills to assist faculty and instructional designers. EASI also has contact with a national network of consultants with experience on major universities and colleges.

DO-IT: Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology (www.washington.edu/doit)
DO-IT is the recipient of several grants and national awards for its work in helping students who want to make careers in the science disciplines. It received a White House award for its mentoring program. DO-IT also has close ties with regional and local organizations that can provide on-site assistance.

WebAIM: Keeping Web Accessibility In Mind (http://webaim.org)
WebAIM was established with a FIPSE LAAP grant and maintains a Web site with a rich array of resources. Its staff frequently presents at conferences and on college campuses. While the supporting grant is ending, WebAIM is making plans to continue its excellent work beyond the period of grant funding.

Campuswide Responsibility
The proverb says that it takes a village to raise a child, and so it takes a campuswide commitment to adequately support the technology needs of students with disabilities. This d'es not mean that the task is that difficult. Rather, today’s decentralized information technology systems themselves cross disciplines and departments.

At many institutions, the technical departments have argued that all of the needs of students with disabilities should be handled by that office. Not only d'es that department’s staff lack the advanced technical know-how it requires, but the Office for Civil Rights insists that students with disabilities, like all students, are the responsibility of the entire institution.

Disabled student service staff do not have the advanced computer technology skills that may be needed to fix a problem. The computer staff do not have the awareness of disabilities that may be needed to effectively work with special students. Technical staff frequently are short on human skills. None of the groups have the skills to advise faculty on designing accessible course content. Librarians may be called on to assist a student in researching information and are a vital aspect of a student’s education. Without the commitment of key administrators, the project will flounder. Finally, it requires student input to be sure that the support actually serves their needs.

The most irksome topic in the task is deciding who pays for adaptive computer technology and its support.

When I procured funds for my college to purchase a Braille embosser, (the equivalent of a printer), there was a six-month-long battle between the computer department, student affairs, and the library for which department should shoulder maintenance and support. No single department wants to see its budget stressed with new responsibilities.

Reasonable Costs
Because the department dealing with students with disabilities is usually one of the poorer departments, it is a bad home. The computer department usually has more funds available, and, if it has to be connected with the budget of a single department, it can best afford the expense. Many colleges provide a special budget line coming out of institution-wide funds, although it may become housed in a single department.

The courts have stated clearly, when discussing "unreasonable" costs, that it would evaluate that claim based not on a department budget but on the institution’s finances. This means that the claim that some special equipment is too costly will seldom if ever be considered.

Top Ways to Get Started

  • Begin by putting an institutional commitment into practical effect.
  • Identify groups on campus that need to be involved in supporting the provision of information technology access for students with disabilities.
  • Look for individuals who have a passion for creating this level learning space.
  • Be sure to get administrative and student involvement.
  • Network with other campuses to learn what they are doing to create this barrier-free information technology system.
  • Check with professional organizations to see what support mechanisms they may have. Contact organizations that specialize in assisting schools and colleges to meet this challenge.
  • Be sure to allocate adequate financing and establish some institution-wide source for funding.

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