2001 Conference Proceedings

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A Philosophy For Providing Adaptive Technology Services To Post-secondary Students With Disabi lities In An Integrated Setting

Joyce Kennedy, Adaptive Technology Specialist

Joyce Branaman, Director, Support for Students with Disabilities
University of Southern Maine
Portland, ME 04210



Some Universities use Adaptive Technology (AT) to accommodate the needs of their students with disabilities. But many have no ongoing budget or permanent staff to effectively support the AT they have. The University of Southern Maine (USM) is fortunate to have both, along with support from the University administration. However, as important as these are, support, money and staff alone do not insure equal or appropriate access for students with special needs. There needs to be a policy, or a philosophy if you like, to guide in decisions about how and where to use AT, so that limited resources and time will be used to their fullest advantage, the goal being to provide the most equal access possible, in the most inclusive setting possible.

This presentation will detail the development and implementation of the philosophy that guides the delivery of AT services to post-secondary students at USM, including the difficulties and challenges that have been and are being faced.  It is hoped that this discussion will assist other Universities of similar size and setting as they seek to accommodate students with disabilities through the use of AT. As we will detail, our philosophy depends heavily upon the ideas of maximum integration of services to and support for students with disabilities within mainstream delivery structures, as well as on the principles of Universal Design. We are in the process of moving past the stage of only providing accommodations upon request, into a more accessible overall computing environment. (Schwanke et. al. (1))


In 1997, at the urging of the Office of Support for Students with Disabilities (OASSD) and the Equal Opportunity Office, and with substantial startup financing from the State Chancellor's Office, the position of Adaptive Technology Specialist was created within the Computing Services Department at USM. This position would coordinate with OASSD to provide direct services to students with disabilities, as well as be a resource to the entire State University System with regards to the provision of assistive technology services in the higher education context. The position, placed within University Computing Services, includes general technical support duties in addition to its main AT focus. This placement of the position has been crucial in creating a sense of ownership for disability services within the Computing Services division. In contrast, we have informally observed that placement of AT support within non-technical departments leads to less effective collaboration with computing staff, who are extremely important to the success of any technical effort on campus.


USM has 10,000+ students with the main campus located in the largest metropolitan area in Maine. Only about 10% of the student body lives in dorms, and the average age of undergraduate students is 27.  USM is largely a non-traditional learning environment, and is becoming more so as additional courses are offered in whole or part via the Internet and a Community College is being considered. The University actually is spread among three campuses in a 40-mile radius and several satellite locations, making the delivery of services a challenge.

Until this position was created, there was virtually no AT on campus, and no such accommodations available. This situation actually made it difficult to advocate for the creation of an AT position. USM had few students with visible disabilities (i.e. blindness and mobility impairments); these are the students that are more likely to require and use assistive technology.  It was a classic case of the chicken-or-the-egg, with some saying: "How can these students come to school and hope to be successful without assistive technology?" and others saying, "Why do we need assistive technology? There are no students here who need it!"

Fortunately, the advocates prevailed and the position was created and funded. Joyce Kennedy began as the new Adaptive Technology Specialist in January 1998.


Although an informal policy was certainly in mind during the process of working out the details of the new AT Specialist position, it was not created and put on paper before the first piece of adaptive equipment was purchased. The following philosophy has evolved over the course of several years. When the administration at USM decided to create the AT Specialist position within Computing Services, it implied that students with disabilities were to be served within the existing structures of computing support on campus, and that concept has served as an underlying premise for this philosophy.

Going even further back, we view our philosophy as having its underpinning in the ADA and even in prior Civil Rights work as it applies to other special populations. Often it seems initial progress is made by creating "separate, but equal" situations for these groups and then to work towards true inclusion as a next step. Similarly, in addressing the needs of students with disabilities, academic accommodations are the legal minimum standard, but inclusion should be our ultimate goal.

Much credit goes to the collaborative work of Carl Helms and Mert Nickerson of Computing Services as well as the strong support of William Wells, Associate Provost for Technology, Information Systems and Libraries.

Students with disabilities are, first and foremost, students. They should not be segregated on the basis of their disability, any more than on the basis of any of their other physical characteristics, i.e. race, color, gender, etc.. Therefore, we will not, by design, create a separate environment for these students. Services that address their "special" needs will first of all recognize and accommodate their "general" needs, i.e. the ones that all or many students have. In other words, students with disabilities are simply a subset of students, who have a continuum of abilities and needs that must be accommodated. Compliance with the ADA will be considered a minimum standard; an academic community that is enlightened as to the value of all people should strive to meet the higher standard of true inclusion.

Specifically regarding technology:

In the context of technology, students need access to computing tools, support services and training assistance. Students with disabilities also need basic physical access to computing as well as an institutional attitude of inclusion. These needs will be met in the most inclusive manner possible, with students with disabilities utilizing computing services and other technology alongside and in the same manner as other students where practicable, thereby avoiding the necessity for "special accommodations" whenever possible. The needs of all students, including those with disabilities, will be taken into consideration when planning computing services or other technology (i.e. by utilizing Universal Design principles).

Practical Outcomes

Surveying the higher-education landscape with regard to AT-based accommodations, one quickly discovers that many:

While the provision of separate equipment and services for students with disabilities has been a traditional model, USM has chosen to integrate these supports into the general academic computing services. This has been, in part, an outgrowth of the “library” paradigm under which general computing services are delivered via one central department, rather than each campus entity supporting its own labs.

At USM, the decision to integrate services has led to some very different outcomes than those listed above:

  1. Computers with AT are located within the general computing labs and classrooms and are commonly supported.
  2. AT is to be installed on several general-use computers in order to increase integration and accessibility.
  3. AT that is built into Operating Systems has been installed and/or activated.
  4. Principles of Universal Design are promoted in general computing service delivery decisions.
  5. Departments which utilize or deliver technology are encouraged and supported in efforts to integrate AT.
  6. All departments are encouraged to share ownership of the goal of equal access for students with disabilities.
  7. By example and training, campus personnel are continually encouraged to think about accessibility of technical services.

The following sections describe each of these outcomes in more detail:

1. AT Located in Main Computing Areas

Specialized AT is located on a single computer in each major computing lab and in one computer classroom on each campus; however, these "special" computers are located in the same space as the rest. As a concession to individual privacy and noise issues surrounding the use of voice recognition technology, the AT computer are located slightly apart from the others. This arrangement is in line with the integration aspect of the philosophy in the following ways:

2. Integrated Access to AT

The reality of an initially low number of users at USM led to placement of only one AT computer in each lab. Future plans include the addition of speech output software to several computers in the main lab area so that students who are blind or visually impaired or who have learning disabilities may be accommodated in the most inclusive setting. A fortunate crossing of technologies has led the general lab to include sound cards and headphone jack extensions to all the general use computers, so that the inclusion of voice-output software will be simple.

3. Built-In AT

While students with disabilities sometimes need formal accommodations and highly specialized technology, often a student simply has an impairment, temporary or permanent, that can be accommodated with low- or no- tech solutions or with technology that is built into the Operating System.

4. Universal Design

Although our main focus is students with disabilities, it has become apparent that the most equitable treatment of students with disabilities often leads to improved access for other students who may not have a disability, but who have a "difference". They may be shorter or taller than the norm (whatever that is) or left-handed, or wear bifocals. In the process of advocating for students with disabilities, there is often opportunity to advocate for principles of Universal Design, which benefits everyone.

5. Integrated Computing Services to Students with Disabilities

It has been necessary to resist the systemic tendency to create separate delivery "pipelines" for services, especially when it comes to services that are normally delivered in an open-access manner, such as phone support for off-campus students, library services and services delivered via the Internet. There are 2 major reasons why this tendency should and has been resisted and services delivered via existing "pipelines":

As with all aspects of life at a public University, there is limited staffing and budgeting for AT services. Each unit that delivers technology-related or technology-utilizing services to students makes should endeavor to make those services as broadly available as possible. As a consequence, the number of occasions in which a student will need special accommodations that require extra attention, time, and money, are kept to a minimum. (1. Schwante, et. Al)

If students with disabilities find that computing services are readily accessible as-is, their independence and dignity are enhanced, and the entire community benefits from their fully integrated involvement in college life.

6. Shared Ownership of AT Services for Students with Disabilities

Another natural tendency is for members of the University to identify one person or one group as being responsible for students with disabilities and , in doing so, to avoid taking ownership of their needs as they do for other students. When requests are fielded concerning accommodation of students with disabilities in one of the specialized labs, the libraries, or in other settings, it is often apparent that the requesting entities would like the necessary AT to be done for them, with no involvement (or budget allotment) on their part. Instead, each department or division is strongly encouraged to do its own accommodating of students with disabilities, including planning for them before they create new services or spaces that use technology. Those staff that specialize in accommodations (i.e. the AT specialist and the OASSD office) are available as resources to the entire campus, stepping in with training and assistance as necessary.

Shared Ownership has three positive outcomes:

  1. The interactions between departments remain along natural and already established lines. For example, Computing Technology offers consultation services to other entities such as the libraries and the specialty labs, but does not maintain those computers. When they require consultation around disability access issues, the AT specialist (a member of Computing Technology) can provide that resource.
  2. Budgetary considerations are simplified. The budget for AT is used to create access in the computing services provided directly by Computing Technology, and also for equipment and software that is very expensive, very specialized and used infrequently (i.e. a Braille printer, a puff-paper raised graphics copier, a Braille display). These items can be loaned out to other entities as needed. More widely used AT that is less expensive (i.e. voice recognition software, scan and read systems) is purchased by the department that is providing the accommodation. For example, in 1998-99, the University of Maine System used money obtained via a bond issue to finance the creation of Assistive Technology workstations for each library on each campus, with assistance from the Adaptive Technology Specialist. Library staff was then trained to provide support to Library patrons who use these computers. This was an excellent example of an accommodation being created within the service-delivering entity.
  3. Universal Design principles, when implemented from the start, more effectively take all students into account and create access for students with disabilities. The most visible and I believe crucial example of this at the moment is the Internet, especially on-line courses and forms. If these are designed well and accessibly, they provide an open door to many students who are significantly impaired in terms of participating in person on campus. If they are designed inaccessibly, they represent the cyber-equivalent of an entrance without a ramp. (

7. Ongoing Education

USM is a large and diverse community; because of academic independence and even competition among its parts, there is often no central point at which plans are reviewed for accessibility considerations. Therefore, education and awareness-building in the community of technology-access issues and of Universal Design are critical in creating an inclusive computing environment. We have seen much progress among our coworkers in Computing Services in this regard, to the point where they sometimes see access issues and seek to address them without any input from me.

It has been an ongoing effort to heighten awareness among staff and faculty about the critical issue of web site accessibility. This issue has an impact on many facets of a student's experience, as more and more information and services are being offered via the web. As this medium grows in size and scope, it will be increasingly difficult and expensive to retrofit. Fortunately, we are joined by many other voices from diverse sources, so that this concern is gaining acknowledgment in a wider and wider circle. One of our short-term goals is to see a written and updated standard for the University web sites that will receive support from our administration.


Every University is different in terms of its starting point, its resources and its politics. USM has been fortunate to have leadership that has seen and promoted the importance of being completely accessible to all students. This has, we believe, simply been an extension of several years of work creating a climate of inclusion for all students. On any campus, a climate of inclusion is the foundation to build on.

But, even given this positive climate, there are systemic barriers to access. Money and staff need to be committed so that the campus community can have a focal point for its extension of the inclusiveness to students with disabilities. There needs to be some one or some group that can act as both a resource and a champion of technological access for students with disabilities. In the case of the University of Southern Maine, this was accomplished with the creation of a new position within Computing Services, where it has access to the support and the "ear" of many of the technological movers and shakers on campus as well as the built-in resources in that department. If the position had been placed elsewhere, there would have been significant issues around being an outsider looking in.

With staff in place, the work on enhancing and maintaining technological inclusion continues. Utilizing existing structures such as general computing labs and support services has allowed us to put much more in place for students with disabilities than if we had attempted to create separate structures. Money and time are used economically as the entire campus increasingly includes students with disabilities in its services and plans. And best of all, students are finding access in the most inclusive way, with other students, doing the same work, in the same place. In other words, they are "Equal, but not Separate".


1. "Applying A3 Accessibility Model in Education Through Occupational Therapy and Engineering" ; Presented at RESNA 2000, Orlando, FL., Todd D. Schwanke, M.S.E., A.T.P., Roger O. Smith Ph.D., OT, FAOTA, and Kasi Cunningham, OTS, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

2. "Accessibility of the Internet in Postsecondary Education: Meeting the Challenge", Presented at WebNet 2000 World Conference on The WWW and Internet, San Antonio, TX., Cyndi Rowland, Ph.D., Center for Persons with Disabilities. http://www.webaim.org/articles/whitepaper.htm

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