1998 Conference Proceedings

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USING TECHNOLOGY TO HELP PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES STRENGTHEN THEIR COMMUNICATION SKILLS IN THE CLASSROOM, COMMUNITY, AND MARKETPLACE

Fran Goldman
English Department
California State University Northridge
18111 Nordhoff Street
Northridge, CA 91330-8248
internet: hfdss002@csun.edu 

One by-product of the technological revolution has been the fuller inclusion of individuals with disabilities into the mainstream of society. Many individuals with disabilities are becoming visible members of the classroom, community, and economic market place.

The purpose of this presentation is to acquaint educators and employers with the value of assistive technology for individuals with disabilities. After this presentation, educators and employers will realize that assistive technology can improve the communication skills of individuals with disabilities allowing them to compete on a level playing ground in the classroom, community, and work environment.

In the Spring of 1996, over 700 students were registered with Students With Disabilities Resources at California State University, Northridge. By the Fall of 1997, that number increased to over one thousand. All enrollment projections indicate that this number will continue to increase. The latest statistics show that seventy-five to eighty percent of students registered for special services are learning disabled. In addition, the number of students with low incident disabilities has also increased. Although these figures represent the demographics at California State University, Northridge, they reflect what is occurring nationwide. California State University, Northridge is recognized internationally for its state of the art assistive technology lab and many universities and corporations have sent individuals to tour this facility, and these individuals have requested assistance in modifying their sites especially in light of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act. This presentation is in response to the many questions I have been asked by educators at the secondary and post-secondary level.

Over the past five years many students with disabilities have used high-tech electronic devices, such as, screen readers and alternative keyboards to access word processing programs and most recently email, to respond to reading, writing, and collaborative homework assignments. Recently, some instructors at California State University, Northridge have revised their curriculum to include email collaboration, allowing students with disabilities to actively participate in collaborative activities such as the editing process. This innovative approach can strengthen a student's communication and socialization skills. Furthermore, with assistive technology, students with disabilities have been able to enhance their writing skills, further their collaborative activities, and hone their inter-personal communication skills in other academic areas as evidenced by feedback from faculty and students in the Psychology, Sociology, and English departments. Again, assistive technology gives students with disabilities the tools necessary to learn new skills that increase their level of participation in school activities and increase their level of communication with instructors and peers.

As we all know, much has changed in the classroom in the past twenty years. With the advent of computer technology and the computerized classroom, many universities across the country teach writing as a process consisting of prewriting, writing, editing and rewriting. With assistive technology, students with disabilities are able to participate in this new classroom environment. In some departments students are required to write collaborative papers. This can be an email assignment. Students are also expected to participate in small peer group activities as a means of< stimulating ideas for writing. This too can be an email activity.

As a result of these activities, students broaden their intellectual and social abilities; two important prerequisites for the work environment.

As an instructor in the English Department at California State University, Northridge and a tutor of a student with multiple disabilities, I have had the opportunity to work with instructors from various departments who have limited contact with students with disabilities, and have limited knowledge of assistive technology. These instructors need to feel comfortable working with students with disabilities and implementing assistive technology techniques. The more comfortable an instructor is with students with disabilities, the easier it will be for the instructor to teach these students.

In the case of one student with multiple disabilities, we have been able to use assistive technology creatively. For example, this student used the same screen reader program that she uses to read her computer screen at home, to help her present a research paper to her psychology class. She also became part of a collaborative team whose job it was to write and present a paper on women's issues.

In response to the concerns of educators, I suggest the following recommendations:

  1. That the dissemination of information from the office that services students with disabilities be formalized. For example, the President's office should develop a procedure to ensure that all faculty members visit and become acquainted with counselors and resources available at the lab.
  2. That email be used by instructors for collaborative assignments by all students.
  3. That each department allocate funds for an accessible workstation in their respective computer labs for students with disabilities.

In preparation for the demands of the Twenty-first Century, the English Department at California State University, Northridge has obtained a grant and is in the process of installing an accessible work-station. As a member of this Department, I can assure you that this last recommendation is feasible and extremely beneficial.


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