1999 Conference Proceedings

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Dee Konczal

The objective of this presentation is to share the success that Ventura College has had implementating a grant providing assistive technology in mainstream computer labs. Students with disabilities are trained and receive certification of proficiency in assistive technology at the High Tech Center. Site licenses for software plus five moveable stations, including an adjustable table, 21" monitor and scanner, were purchased. Five accessible stations are moved from lab to lab. These are installed on an as-needed basis in labs for students who have received certification. The topic of the college committing funding to the continued maintenance, installation and upgrading of assistive technology throughout the campus will be presented.

The need is clear:

...for people without disabilities, technology makes things convenient, whereas for people with disabilities, it makes things possible. That brings with it an enormous responsibility because the reverse is also true. Inaccessible technology can make things absolutely impossible for disabled people, a prospect we must surely avoid.
Judith E. Heumann, Assistant Secretary U.S. Office of Special Education and Rehabilitive Services

Technology has changed everybody's lives in the second half of the twentieth century, but it has revolutionized the lives of people with disabilities. Stephen Hawkins, brilliant physicist and author, who is unable to speak or move without assistance due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, has stated that he perceives his significant disability as mild, thanks to the use of assistive technology. Individuals who are paraplegic or blind are enabled to utilize computers just like everybody else. Those with relatively mild or "invisible" impairments, such as carpal tunnel syndrome or learning disabilities, also benefit from assistive technology, such as voice recognition and screen readers, as well as software designed to aid with editing text.

Despite the increase in opportunities created by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), almost 70 percent of working-age adults with disabilities are still unemployed or under-employed. Several national studies have shown that increased level of education is directly associated with increased employment of persons with disabilities. In a study completed at U.C. Davis, computers were cited by disabled students as one of the primary factors contributing to their academic success.

Access to technology for students with disabilities has increasingly become a moral and legal imperative. At first "accessibility" was primarily interpreted in relation to removal of architectural barriers, but today the federal government includes access to technology as a right guaranteed to all. Over the past year the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has conducted an investigation of the California Community College Syestem's compliance with their obligation to provide students with visual impairments access to print and computer-based information to determine whether there has been discrimination against blind students on the basis of their disability.

In their summary report of January 22, 1998 addressed to Chancellor Nussbasum, they stated: "Access to technology is recognized by California Community Colleges as a high priority for all students. Yet students with visual impairments currently face overwhelming barriers to such access." Although OCR specifically targeted students with visual impairments in this particular investigation, it would be safe to assume that they would expect and enforce access to information/technology for students with any disability under 504 and ADA. Chancellor Nussbaum in his reply to OCR stated:

First, let me assure you that the California Community Colleges (CCC) is deeply committed to ensuring access to its educational activities to all students , including students with disabilities. The CC Colleges have been a national leader in providing services to students with disabilities.

We are fully aware of the positive relationship between a student with a disability's education level and likelihood of entering the workforce. We also realize that under the ADA as well as Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act the colleges have a significant responsibility to assure that all of their programs and services are useable by and accessible to persons with disabilities. Therefore, while we realize that providing equal access to technology for persons with disabilities will involve a comprehensive, systemwide commitment over an extended period of time, we are committed to this outcome.

Ventura College has an excellent history of commitment to inclusion of students with disabilities, both philosophically and in actual practice. The mission statement of Ventura College is, "The staff of Ventura College is committed to excellent education and occupational training that is affordable and accessible to a widely diverse student population." The Educational Assistance Center (EAC) presently serves approximately 1300 students. Over the years, the EAC has utilized categorical funds to establish a well-equipped High Tech Center, and to provide assistive technology on an as-needed basis in mainstream labs and classrooms.

During the Fall 1997 and Spring 1998, 200 students have enrolled in the Assistive Computer Technology courses in the High Tech Center. VC's Learning Resource Center and Library both acquired assistive technology to serve students with disabilities this past year. The Student Services division committed a portion of their technology block grant from the state to equipping an accessible computer station in the Counseling Center. In addition, a portion of the VATEA budget was dedicated to the purchase of assistive technology for the use of vocational students with disabilities.

Students with disabilities are included in Ventura College's Student Equity Plan and EAC staff are represented on the Student Equity Committee. VC's Student Equity Goals are

  1. to increase access to the college by underrepresented groups,
  2. to maintain an atmosphere that supports quality instruction and promotes the retention and success of students in completing courses, degrees and certificates and
  3. to increase the transfer rate of underrepresented students.

The goals of our grant are to provide an action plan designed to address some of the barriers to the success of students with disabilities, namely access to technology, and to evaluate its success and disseminate the findings... An increase in student retention, course completion and transfer rates, as well as a survey of student satisfaction, will be included as methods for evaluation of this grant.

In their study of access to assistive technology in CC Colleges, OCR found that adaptive technology has been installed in very few "mainstream" computer labs. Some colleges favor serving students in a centralized location at the DSPS High Tech Center, but OCR found the "colleges with the highest level of proficiency in meeting the needs of blind students favored establishing highly interactive relationships between the DSPS High Tech Center and the computer technicians at outlying computer labs so that the students with the disability has the benefit of working in an environment where onsite staff is familiar with the educational software used by the student." There are other distinct benefits to providing students with disabilities access to participation in mainstream computer labs, rather than restricting them to the High Tech Center:

  1. (1) Access to the instructor's knowledge about the subject area of the lab.
  2. (2) Participation in a mainstream lab provides opportunities for networking/teambuilding, which are essential for continued successful outcomes in both the educational and occupational settings.
  3. (3) There are special lab situations that cannot be replicated in a disabled student lab. (For example, in some of our math/science courses the lecture model of instruction has been eliminated and replaced by inquiry-based learning in the computer lab. In physics classes, students solve "real world" problems based on mathematical manipulation of computers linked to remote sensors with variable inputs.) These lab-based learning situations are not merely the completion of homework assignments, but the sole means of imparting knowledge to participating students.

OCR went on in its report to recognize the financial challenges of providing assistive technology in mainstream labs. They state that it is unrealistic for colleges to rely exclusively on the DSPS office to solve the technology needs of students with disabilities in the same way (and often with the same budget!) as they did back when access might mean merely providing a notetaker or reader. OCR compared the magnitude of the task of making technology/information accessible to individuals with disabilities to that of removal of architectural barriers in existence at the time of passage of Section 504 or ADA.

This grant, in essence provides for the removal of barriers in existing technology, an overwhelmingly expensive task for any college to take on at one time, while ensuring that future college purchases of hardware and/or software will include provision of assistive technology, in keeping with Chancellor's Nussbasum's commitment on behalf of the CCC to the Office of Civil Rights.

The disabilities rights movement has kindled a change in special education from the provision of services in separate facilities and classrooms, to inclusion of students with disabilities in all mainstream activities of a school. The provision of assistive technology is central to their full participation in the academic process. Assistive technology enables individuals with disabilities to accomplish things that would have been virtually impossible a decade ago. Conversely, because technology has become so central to the academic process in higher education, the lack of assistive technology will be a significant barrier to equal access for all, the guiding hallmark of the CCC. This presentation serves to address the issue of access to technology for students with disabilities, an issue which all colleges must address!!!

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