3 models for enhancing the tech aspects of accessibility
Fifteen years ago, college students with disabilities had to trek to a special lab on campus that offered computers equipped with assistive technology software. Now, such accommodations can often be accessed through cloud-based services using any computer.
As assistive technology—including software and devices—has become more widely available on campus, disability services teams have developed stronger partnerships with IT specialists to keep up with the growing number of tools and apps that can accommodate students with disabilities. IT staff on many campuses are not only selecting the resources to purchase, but also installing the software and training students how to use it.
“Disabilities services and information technology need to talk to each other and be aware of their long-term planning, or we’ll end up with the right hand not knowing what the left is doing and then access will fall off the map,” says L. Scott Lissner, Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator and 504 compliance officer at The Ohio State University. “Having those collaborations is critical to sustaining this over time,” adds Lissner, who is also chair of the public policy committee for AHEAD, the Association on Higher Education And Disability.
Here are a few models that disability services offices may put in place to establish closer partnerships with campus technology administrators and increase their own tech expertise.
1. Forming a task force with IT
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Accessibility Resource Center and University IT Services created a group five years ago to encourage collaboration.
“We needed to have better communication between the two of us, so technologically we could know what we needed in the classroom for accessibility,” says Shannon Aylesworth, the center’s adaptive technology specialist.
Examples of assistive technology resources for students
Video magnifier: Enlarges printed or handwritten information on a whiteboard so it is viewable on a student laptop
Smart glass technology: Allows a visually-impaired person, wearing glasses with camera and earphones attached, to be guided around campus by a person off-site
Remote captioning: Provides captioning for lectures and video in real time by a note taker who works off-site
Accessibility platform for learning management systems: Scans content posted by a professor on an LMS and makes PDFs accessible through text-to-speech software
Note-taking software: Records lectures and turns the audio into color-coded visual blocks to highlight specific aspects of the class, such as exams or PowerPoint presentations
The initiative’s success prompted Aylesworth to form a systemwide group to work on issues involving disability services and IT. Launched in spring 2019, the group will meet twice a year and support the staff who focus on accessibility at all 26 University of Wisconsin campuses.
The task force model works at smaller colleges as well. Augsburg University in Minneapolis, for example, just launched a committee to work on technology accessibility. “I think it reinforces the idea that having access is everybody’s job,” says Kathy McGillivray, director of the university’s Center for Learning and Accessible Student Services. “It’s not just the disability resource office.”
Marist College in New York has several committees that address accommodations for students with disabilities, including one that is reviewing accessibility across campus and the training offered on assistive technology.
“When we’re evaluating tools to push out campuswide, we are definitely looking to make sure they will be accessible to all students,” says Julin Sharp, assistant vice president for information technology and a speaker at UB Tech® 2019.
As technology has infiltrated every aspect of campus life—think digital washing machines and pizza vending machines—disability services offices have also partnered with IT staff within student affairs.
The University of Connecticut, for example, has two joint committees that address accessibility: one for academics and one for student affairs. The student affairs committee focuses on residential and campus accommodations issues.
“The more that access is automatically embedded in these offices, the easier it is to have the accommodations set up,” says Alyssa Marinaccio, assistive technology coordinator for the university’s Center for Students with Disabilities.
2. Hiring an assistive technology specialist
Some disability services offices have their own assistive technology specialists. Adelphi University in New York, for instance, rolled out several new digital tools for students with disabilities after adding a specialist to the team in fall 2018.
The first platform the assistive technology specialist, Liam Owens, introduced was for recording lectures and turning the audio into color-coded visual blocks to highlight specific aspects of the class, such as PowerPoint presentations or discussions about final exams. It replaced peer note takers who used to provide copies of lecture notes within 24 hours of a class.
Owens led 25 workshops during the first two weeks of the fall semester to teach students how to use the software.
His role in training students is critical to creating accommodations that work on campus, says Brian Flatley, associate director of the Student Access Office. “If you don’t teach the students how to properly use the technology, it’s a waste of money and a waste of time.”
Assistive technology specialists also customize individual accommodations for students with special needs. At Adelphi, Owens helped a nursing student who had a hearing impairment by purchasing a Bluetooth-enabled stethoscope that transfers the audio of a heartbeat to an earpiece she wears during her clinical work, Flatley says.
Disability services centers that employ assistive technology specialists may still need to rely on IT departments to introduce new apps and tools. When Augsburg University purchased a Braille-reader printer for its library two years ago, IT staff installed it and trained students on how to use it.
“My job is to look into the right type of software for a student based on their needs, but I may not have all the technology expertise to provide that software,” says Lauren Dusek, the assistive technology and accommodations specialist at Augsburg.
3. Providing accessibility liaisons across campus
Students with disabilities aren’t the only ones on campus who may need accommodations. Faculty, staff and visitors with special needs may also require help accessing a variety of services.
One way to monitor how a college is meeting everyone’s needs is to appoint access coordinators in every major division, from the library to dining services. These liaisons can assess how their division is doing on physical and digital accessibility.
Ohio State, for example, has an access coordinator in each department with a major budget line. The coordinators, says Lissner, “reach out to the local purchasing person for the division or college so we can ensure new digital services and IT are built or bought with accessibility in mind.”
Feedback from the coordinators is sent to a collaborative unit that includes disability services, ADA and IT.
That partnership also funds a digital access center on campus. The center evaluates standards and procedures for purchasing and implementing digital platforms, and provides training and technical assistance.
Integrating disability and IT services through collaboration ultimately provides better accommodations for students with disabilities. “They get a much more seamless experience of accessibility,” says Lissner.
Such partnerships can also more effectively solve problems that students with disabilities encounter. At UW-Milwaukee, staff from disability services and IT decided to purchase a video magnifier for a visually impaired student who couldn’t see a professor calculating math problems on a whiteboard. The device enlarges the professor’s writing so that it can be viewed on a laptop, says Kevin Jahnke, manager of classroom services for University IT Services.
“Trying to resolve a specific problem, we brainstormed and came up with that idea,” he adds. “I’m not sure that would have been solved easily if we hadn’t been working together.”
Sherrie Negrea is an Ithaca, New York-based writer and frequent contributor to UB.