Accessibility | Feature

Using the Cloud to Improve Access for the Disabled

A new initiative aims to give students with disabilities unfettered access to the internet by using the cloud to automatically customize any device for their needs.

This story appears in the December 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology. Click here for a free subscription to the magazine.

Technology now plays such an integral role in our lives that we tend to take it for granted. People with disabilities, however, don't have that luxury. In fact, unless society makes a concerted effort to ensure that technology is inclusive, we risk isolating people with disabilities. A new project run by Raising the Floor, a consortium of more than 60 academic institutions, businesses and non-governmental organizations, hopes to level the playing field. The Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure (GPII), as the initiative is known, will use a cloud-based service to automatically configure internet-connected devices to meet the needs of individual users with disabilities. As the GPII site avows, the goal is to build "an on-demand, personalized, accessible on-ramp to the internet."

As learning becomes increasingly mobile and 24/7, the ability to configure any device automatically is likely to make an enormous difference to students with disabilities. Even though most students arrive on campus with an array of devices, Ron Stewart, chairman and technology adviser of the Association on Higher Education and Disabilities (AHEAD), said that students with disabilities often don't understand how to use their assistive software or technology well enough to succeed in higher education. They are also unaware of helpful, built-in accessibility features. As a result, disability-service departments spend a great deal of time formatting devices and teaching people how to use them. Ideally, GPII would automate this process.

GPII is still in its early stages, but the development team envisages users going through a two-step process. Step one is a wizard that will help users identify which technologies and features could be of most benefit to them. This will be especially beneficial because it will give students with disabilities a chance to experiment — often for the first time — with accessible formats and to learn what works. For example, changing the background color on a device helps many people read with greater comprehension, but the best color is highly individualized.

Step two is developing a cloud-based profile that allows users to store their preferences, permissions and settings. Some sort of identifier — be it biometric, a USB stick, an NFC tag, or some other technology — will prompt a broadband-connected device to retrieve a user's settings and apply them. Equally important for public devices, the GPII cloud will automatically reconfigure the device for the next user.

Gregg Vanderheiden, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and codirector of the Raising the Floor initiative, coordinates the GPII effort. He hopes that universities will fund library pilot projects within two years. Campus pilots could roll out in three years, followed by K-12 schools in about five years. Eventually, the consortium wants GPII to become a standard element of society's digital environment, but Vanderheiden cautioned that the organizing team needs to "walk before they run." A demo kit that will allow schools to run pilots on a reliable, everyday basis should be available within 18 months, but Vanderheiden cautions that campuses "are big animals with complex ecosystems."

Compliance Struggles
A comprehensive solution could not come soon enough for higher education, which has struggled to meet government regulations governing accessibility. In addition to their own policies and state laws, post-secondary institutions must comply with Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973; the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Title II; and their implementing regulations, 34 C.F.R. Part 104 and 28 C.F.R. Part 35.

As part of these laws, schools must make course materials, instruction, assessment and buildings accessible — and supply assistive technology as needed. Unfortunately, many schools fall short. Among institutions that enrolled students with disabilities during the 2008-09 academic year, for example, only 70 percent provided adaptive equipment or technology, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). And, at 35 percent, graduation rates among students with disabilities are significantly lower than for the general population.

"There is a firefighter mentality," said Lucy Greco, Web accessibility analyst at the University of California, Berkeley, about how schools currently approach the issue of accessibility. "It's not systemic. If you build in accessibility from the get-go, it will cost less and work better."

Cost has certainly been a major stumbling block for schools, which have seen budgets slashed across the board in recent years. According to AHEAD's Stewart, disability services are "radically underfunded." Often they are not even a line item in the budget, he said, and any funds that are set aside are typically exhausted by February. A major university might have a disability-services budget of only $100,000 per year, even though it costs an average of $15,000 per year to accommodate a student who is deaf or hard of hearing, while screen readers and Braille displays for blind students cost up to $10,000.

If successful, GPII has the potential to lower the cost of assistive technologies dramatically. For example, a $200 tablet could replace a $6,700 Braille-output device, explained Stewart, and there are now free screen-readers that could reside in the cloud. Pay-per-use licensing structures could also help reduce software costs.

Increase in Demand
Finding a way to reduce costs is critical, since campuses are seeing growing numbers of students with disabilities, as veterans of the Afghan and Iraq wars enroll and others seek to realize the promise of assistive technologies. Often, what support schools do offer is mostly focused on students with sensory or physical disabilities, yet many of the new enrollees have learning disabilities, brain injuries and autism-spectrum disorders. In fact, data from AHEAD and NCES show that approximately 30 percent of students with disabilities have a learning disability and about 20 percent have ADD or ADHD.

If GPII is successful, it won't matter what kind of disability a student has — the goal is seamless accessibility for all. Based on a user's profile, for example, a kiosk or library computer would automatically know the best way to interact with a student, whether it's reading text aloud or simplifying a lengthy passage of text.

GPII can't do it alone, however: Manufacturers and developers must be part of the solution. Although GPII will create the cloud infrastructure, companies must be willing to embed identifying technology, provide accessibility options and create licensing structures for cloud-based applications. While the initiative does have industry partners, further outreach to the business community will be needed.

Universities, too, must be willing to fund pilots, said Vanderheiden. GPII components come primarily from universities, he notes, so campuses are logical rollout points. Unfortunately, most US schools have not made accessibility a priority, and researchers developing GPII initiatives often work quite separately from the special services departments that assist students with disabilities or campus IT departments. As a result, Stewart believes that European and Canadian universities are more likely than American institutions to seed this particular cloud. Schools that are interested in participating in the program should contact GPII at help@gpii.net.

A Team Effort

The rollout of an infrastructure project like the Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure takes time and requires cooperation from a wide range of players. The initiative began with work at the Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and has received funding from the European Commission's Cloud4All project, the U.S. Department of Education, the Canadian government, the Floe and Fluid projects at the Inclusive Design Research Centre of Toronto's OCAD University, and companies including IBM, Microsoft, Mozilla, and Serotek. The Raising the Floor consortium now includes more than 60 members and collaborators in Europe, Canada and the U.S. that are building and testing key components of the GPII.

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