Monday, August 13, 2012

Access to High Tech A Challenge for Students with Disabilities

Anyone with an inbox has been there: navigating through cluttered emails, sifting through spam and newsletters, searching for a certain message. Few could manage with their eyes closed.

Necessary technologies such as email can pose a barrier for students with vision disabilities at Texas colleges and universities. For students with vision, hearing, learning or physical disabilities, keeping up with fast-changing Internet programs and new classroom protocol is a catch-up game made possible only with assistive technologies.

Screen readers, magnifiers and textbook scanners improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities and decrease dependence, but they’re being outpaced by popular innovations such as learning management systems, student email and directories, and massive amounts of new online information.

“There has been this monumental shift toward using the Internet and online content in the classroom,” said Rudy Becerra, an advocate for people with disabilities. “The problem is some of that is inaccessible for some students.”

Learning management and student information systems are standard on most campuses across the state. Colleges and universities typically require students to have Internet access to register for classes and to monitor transcripts and grades. Some even administer quizzes and tests online.

Dianne Hengst, director of disability services at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said most professors there supplement in-class material with online content, usually through Blackboard, a popular learning management system that allows users to interact with other students, view additional content such as online videos or text and submit homework or test assignments.

She said accessibility problems are not exclusive to students with vision disabilities. Technology poses different types of accessibility problems to students with hearing, mobility, learning and cognitive disabilities.

For example, a YouTube video assigned by a professor might not include closed captioning, which would cause a barrier for a student with a hearing impairment, she said.

“It is a matter of civil rights and basic inclusion,” Hengst said. “The highest unemployed population in the world is the disabled, so it is important to provide everyone with the same opportunity to be successful.”

Sandi Patton, director of disability services for the Lone Star College system, said its campuses in the Houston area also use Blackboard to supplement in-class material. She said accessibility to technologies, such as Blackboard, has progressed, but it is important for software designers to “build for accessibility” from the beginning rather than attempting to repair the product after its release.

Jessica Finnefrock, senior vice president of product development at Blackboard, said its products must meet industry standards, gain approval from people with disabilities through partnerships with entities such as the National Federation for the Blind, and pass analyses from outside testing companies before they are placed on the market.

Finnefrock said products designed by Blackboard, which partners with about 1,500 higher-education institutions in the United States, are designed to be compatible with assistive technologies such as screen readers.

Marti Hathorn, assistive technology supervisor at the San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind, said assistive technology such as screen magnifiers, screen readers, closed-circuit television and textbook scanners allowed her to be independent in college. She earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration from UTSA in 2008.

“(People with disabilities) don’t want to be segregated. We don’t want our own computer lab,” Hathorn said. “I didn’t want to be left out of anything or cut corners. I wasn’t (in school) to get by, I wanted to do better than everyone else.”

Hathorn, who is blind, said raising awareness is one of the most vital aspects to increasing universal accessibility.

“When computer usage first took off, accessibility wasn’t even brought to the table,” Hathorn said. “Now it is starting to be a priority and is part of the discussion, and more people with disabilities are speaking up.”

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said awareness for everyone involved in higher education — from regents and administrators to students and instructors — is key.

Zaffirini, chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said there is no law specifically directed at technology access for students with disabilities but that resources provided by the government are plentiful.
For example, the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services offers enhanced state funding for assistive technologies and devices: $1 million per year in the current biennium.

Hathorn said she received a $1,000 screen reader from the Division of Blind Services when she was attending college.

The Texas Technology Access Program, housed at the University of Texas and funded fully by the federal government, provides demonstrations of assistive technologies to people who use them.

Roger Levy, director of the TTAP, said the rate that technology changes requires all parties, including students, professors, legislators, software developers and service providers, to work together to achieve universal accessibility.

Hengst, of UTSA, said each link in the chain of accessibility is interdependent upon the rest.

“My head spins when I think about where technology will be in 20 years,” Hengst said. “We have a lot of challenges ahead of us, but I think it will be very exciting.”