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 vision-impaired students 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 visual impairment. 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."

Hengst's department currently provides services for 761 students including 40 who have a visual impairment and 34 who have a hearing impairment. She said they provide computers around campus with assistive technology, interpreters and captionists, counseling and adaptive seating for students registered with the office.

A challenge Hengst said she faces is under-reporting by students. There are many students with disabilities on campus that choose not to register with her office because of a negative stigma or their desire to do it on their own.

The Department of Education predicts 11 percent of new college freshman have some type of disability, she said.

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 and regulations, gain approval from persons with disabilities through partnerships with entities such as the National Federation for the Blind and pass analyses from outside testing firms before they are placed on the market.

Finnefrock said Blackboard produces are designed to be compatible with assistive technologies. A spokesman for Blackboard said the company partners with approximately 1,500 higher education institutions in the United  States.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 shapes current laws and regulations to provide equal access for people with disabilities. More specifically, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires federal agencies make all electronic information accessible.

As for state regulations, the Texas Administrative Code adopted a policy in 1999 to require the Department of Information Resources to ensure all websites, applications, multimedia and telecommunication products are in  compliance.

"We do have the legislation, but there is no teeth to these laws," Hengst  said.

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

"(Legislators) can sign laws and create funding all we want but people must also be aware of them," said Zaffirini, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee.

Roger Levy, director of the Texas Technology Access Program (TTAP), said compliance to laws and regulations is not 100 percent.

"There has to be some sort of measure to make sure people comply," Levy said. "Unfortunately, legislation seems to be the drawing card."

The TTAP, housed at the University of Texas and funded in full by the federal government, provides assistive technologies and training for people who use them.

Levy said it's important for people with disabilities to know what resources are available.

For instance, the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (DARS) offers enhanced state funding for assistive technologies and  devices.

Rider 25 in the DARS bill pattern appropriates $1 million for these services per year in the current  biennium.

Marti Hathorn, assistive technology supervisor at the San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind, said she received a $1,000 screen reader from the Division of Blind Services when she was attending college.

A screen reader navigates coding on a web page and uses text-to-speech technology to "read" the information back to the user at up to 300 words per minute, through speakers.

Hathorn, who is blind, said other assistive technology including a screen magnifier, a closed-circuit television and a scanner for textbooks, 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 said universities and colleges have made some progress, but still face challenges.

"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."

Hengst said that at the rate technology changes, it requires all parties — including students, professors, legislators, software developers and service providers — to work together to achieve universal accessibility.

"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."


Leave a Reply

Be the First to Comment!

Notify of