Distributed Computer Access for People with Disabilities in a Post-Secondary Institution

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Distributed Computer Access for People with Disabilities in a Post-Secondary Institution

(From Proceedings of the CSUN 1993 Conference on Technology and persons with Disabilities)

by Danny Hilton-Chalfen, University of California, Los Angeles
Ann Neville, University of Texas, Austin
Curtis Griesel, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
Bill Cooper, University of California, Davis


Overview of Distributed Computer Access (Danny Hilton-Chalfen)

A Library Perspective (Ann Neville)
A Computing Services Perspective (Curtis Griesel)
A Disabled Student Services Perspective (Bill Cooper)

Overview of Distributed Computer Access (Danny Hilton-Chalfen)

Computers are a ubiquitous feature of academic and employment life in the contemporary college and university setting. They are found distributed throughout the campus in the instructional computer lab, the campus library, the office environment, the home and dorm room. From this perspective, equal access to education and work is linked to computer access. Adapt the computer with voice synthesizers, large print displays and other technologies, and students, faculty and staff with disabilities can access the same computers and software as their peers. The technical problem is significant, but secondary to larger questions: How does a campus as whole address adaptive computing support? Whose responsibility is it to provide computer access support services? How should these services be integrated into the total campus academic and employment environment?

Secondly, computers are gateways to a world of information where library electronic card catalogs and on-line course schedules are among many resources now beginning to be distributed on campus computer networks. For people who cannot read print due to disability, the merger of computers and information with adaptive computer equipment opens up a world of opportunity. Again, the problem is not so much technical, as it is organizational: The campus unit that supports adaptive computing technology may not be the same unit that is setting up a Campus Wide Information System (CWIS), while other units may be responsible for the computing facilities that provide access to campus computer networks.

Thirdly, computers are compensatory tools. For students who are blind and rely on others to take class notes, a lap top computer with a voice synthesizer can enable them to take their own notes for the first time. Reading machines, spell checkers, and other computer-based systems can all be used to assist people whose disability makes it difficult to read, write, organize information, control their physical environment, or communicate. How can these computer-based compensatory tools be distributed to where they are most needed around campus? Should equipment be permanently installed in numerous locations (if so, where and how to fund it?) or should there be an equipment loaner pool?

Growing numbers of campuses have a central adaptive computing lab and support unit. This may be based in computing services, disabled student services, or library services. This central unit can be a catalyst for the coordination of campus-wide computer, information and compensatory tool accessibility. Building a dialogue between computing, library and disabled student services (at the least) is vital to a successful distributed computer access strategy in the post-secondary setting. In the following sections, authors from all three perspectives share their experiences in addressing campus-wide computer accessibility.

A Library Perspective (Ann Neville)

The ADA mandates "integrated settings." Distributed computer access has the same goal. Where students use computers, access should be provided for students with disabilities. While it might be nice to have access for everyone everywhere, the realities are: the money is not there; the technology is not there; and the need is not there. It is important to decide whether your aim is to have everything possible available "just in case" someone needs it, or whether you're going to plan to provide equipment "just in time" to meet a particular user's needs. You can indeed combine these approaches, but I would argue that it is more important to have everything set up -- selection, purchasing, training, placement plans -- so that when a student with a particular disability needs a computer in a particular place to do a specific group of tasks, the mechanism is there to do so.

Generic solutions do have a place in the overall plan for distributed access, for a variety of reasons. Anyplace where lots of students access lots of computers, such as microcomputer labs, libraries, and dormitory computer labs, it may be more important to have generic computer access in all of those places than a smaller number of computers with very specific assistive technology. On the other hand, there are situations when the adaptations should be selected to meet the particular needs of the particular students in the best ways possible. A student majoring in Spanish may need software that will read aloud in Spanish.

At the University of Texas, Austin, the planning and coordination of efforts to meet both the generic and the specific needs is becoming the responsibility of the President's Standing Committee on Students with Disabilities. As an issue or problem arises, someone in the group knows how to take action on it or knows who needs to come and talk to us about it. The committee reports to the university president, so action on our recommendations comes from the top down as well as from the bottom up.

Although the first configuration of equipment that the library got was designed and installed before the committee was formed, I worked with the person in the microcomputer center who knew about assistive equipment and programs, and provided technical expertise in installation of the equipment. I talked with the rehabilitation commission about needs and solutions and with the commission for the blind campus counselor. I talked to students, and people from the dean of students office, and both commissions talked to students. I spoke with the people working on the on-line catalog and those working with computerized databases. After I produced a proposal, the counselor for the Texas Commission for the Blind decided that his clients would be well-served by having access to library resources in the library setting, with reference and library instruction help readily available. The commission provided most of the computer equipment and software. The library provided me and some hours of staff time along with students to work in the room where the equipment is housed.

That sort of wide-ranging consultation and cooperation carried over into the committee, and work groups are currently working on proposals to the president on :

  1. Centralization of information on disability-related issues (a single well-publicized number to call for answers to questions)

  2. Coordinated planning, purchasing, maintenance and inventorying of adaptive computers, and establishment of a revolving "loaner pool" to meet the changing needs of academic departments, libraries, public auditoria and the like.

  3. Expanded access to information through the mainframe, so that students with disabilities can access the course schedule, reserve readings, and other campus and academic information, as they can currently do with the on-line catalog, a few databases, and the student newspaper.

A Computing Services Perspective (Curtis Griesel)

At the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, efforts to serve the general student body with technology for disabilities date from the late 1970's. Early efforts occurred separately in Disability Services and in the Libraries. In 1988, the Computer Science department made a rather large purchase of technology as part of a building project. In 1990, most of the campuses accumulated resources were put under the auspices of the campus-wide Computer Services, and a full-time coordinator was hired. Since that time, the amount of equipment on campus has doubled to a total of $100,000, and Telecommunication Services has become active in making campus telephones accessible.

Since 1990 the Disability and Computing Development Project has explored how the information technology needs of persons with disabilities can best be met on campus. The project has made several findings:

  1. The types of information technology for people with disabilities are extremely varied, including computers, seating and positioning technologies, audio/video, telephone and personal communication technologies, academic skill and human technologies such as interpreters and readers.

  2. The technologies involved are fast-changing and highly specialized. No single department exists on campus that is capable of remaining up-to-date on all of these technologies.

  3. The Need for technology is sparse and highly distributed. The demand for such technology is relatively low, but spread across all units of all campuses.

We concluded that no single department can provide adequate information technology services for people with disabilities and have recommended an "Accommodations Team" approach with three key components:

  1. A team of existing technology experts on campus. The team provides a structure under which existing technology experts work together to provide accommodations. Participating departments may include disability services, computer services, audio-video services, health & safety services, telephone services, libraries and academic skills services. Each team member is expected to become an expert on technologies within their field; advise their own department on how their services can be more generally accessible to disabilities; advise the rest of the university on their technology specialty; provide direct customer service when needed.

  2. A central accommodations funding pool. Accommodations that are not clearly the responsibility of a single department are funded centrally. Central funding accomplishes three objectives: Remove the financial disincentive to accommodation that exists when departments must bear the cost out of their own budget; facilitate the easy transfer of accommodations between departments as demand for accommodation shifts; enable the Accommodations Team to negotiate quantity purchase discounts for specialized devices.

  3. A Customer Service Center. A Customer Service Center will fill two roles: First, to serve as a customer feed-back mechanism to the Accommodations Team, where concerns can be brought to the immediate attention of the team and, second, to serve as the dissemination point of accommodations for customers, providing "one-stop-shopping."

We have been following the Accommodation Team model since January, 1993 and are in the early stages of its implementation. We currently have a team consisting of representatives from the Libraries, Telecommunication Services, and Computer Services -- which houses a central demonstration lab. We have placed a request for central funding in our next budget cycle, starting July 1, and are eager for it to be funded. We expect future services to grow in all three areas: Involvement of more departments in the Accommodations Team, on-going central funding support, and expansion of our Customer Service Center.

A Disabled Student Services Perspective (Bill Cooper)

At the University of California at Davis, the campus DSS - disabled student services - provides most specialized computing accommodations for students with disabilities. Equipment was acquired from several sources including a start-up grant from the California Department of Rehabilitation. In practice, the principal users are students with visual impairments. They generally benefit from a broad range of sharable but expensive and cumbersome equipment. In contrast, the majority of UCD students with functional impairments require either simple, easily distributed accommodations, such as keyboard modifiers, trackballs and adjustable tables, or accommodations so individualized they generally prefer their own machines.

Like others, most students with disabilities treat computers as glorified typewriters. So why bother with institution-wide access? For one, schools have an obligation to make all their programs and instruction accessible, and two, almost all students benefit from access to on-line catalogs and references.

Acquisition, distribution, and cost of equipment are key issues. Some software-based accommodations for the keyboard and screen are simple enough for wide distribution and come packaged with certain operating systems. But the current generation of very specialized adaptive equipment, such as voice input, voice output, Braille embossers, head-pointers, etc., demands considerable human and machine customization -- too much for universal distribution. Also, equipment purchased without a clear need will likely go unused. It is usually more cost-effective to quickly arrange specialized accommodations or to interface the individual's own equipment as needed. This response model works well if technical staff are familiar with disability needs and administrators are committed to providing the necessary resources. Additionally, technology such as Optical Character Recognition (OCR) brings independence to students and can quickly pay for itself in reduced reader costs. At the moment, voice input technology is no panacea - dedicated students willing to invest the time benefit, others do not. That said, our equipment has almost paid for itself in one year through reduced transcription costs.

An obvious place for accommodations is the Library. Students who are blind or low-vision benefit especially. Large monitors, OCR systems, Braille embossers and other equipment allow direct access to on-line catalogs and printed materials for research. At Davis, the Library has generously provided a large, private room for this purpose. The separation is warranted -- embossing machines and voice computers are noisy.

Finally, where should the adaptive computer expertise lie, in disability services or computing services? There is no simple answer -- probably whatever works best organizationally. Computing services may be the better location since they have staff economies of scale and they serve the entire campus community, while the typical DSS serves just students. But the DSS usually has a better concept of what is appropriate. Most importantly, administrators must view the subject seriously and commit themselves to prompt response and necessary expenses. If all parties consult freely, then the system they develop should be efficient for the campus' needs, and will probably be the most durable.

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