2002 Conference Proceedings

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ELECTRONIC CURBCUTS: CREATING UNIVERSAL LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS

Camille M. Yates, Ph.D.
Coordinator, Assistive Technology
Institute for Disability Studies
University of Southern Mississippi
Box 5163
Hattiesburg, Mississippi 39406-5163
(601)266-5728
Email: Camille.Yates@usm.edu 

Glenn Bond
Institute for Disability Studies
University of Southern Mississippi
Box 5163
Hattiesburg, Mississippi 39406-5163
(601)266-6622
W.Glenn.Bond@usm.edu

Everyone wants to "do the right thing" but where do we begin? We all agree that assistive technology is needed to provide a contemporary, accessible learning and work environment, but beginning the process can be overwhelming. This is one university's adventure in creating a universal educational environment, providing computer lab accessibility to software and information, overcoming hurdles of funding, faculty and student resistance, and older curricular models.

The outcome of this journey is the concept of the universal design workstation, adaptable for a variety of disabilities and housed in an accessible location. The full spectrum of assistive technology solutions is present in the workstation. Components can be removed if not necessary in the current environment and added later as needs change. The concept of the universal design workstation was initially conceived for the post-secondary setting but has been found to be suitable for a variety of other settings: secondary schools, literacy groups, businesses. As we move ever closer to a real universal design situation enabling inclusion and usability for all, assistive technology allows individuals to function in the mainstream.

Assistive technology and web accessibility are timely topics in the post-secondary setting as well as work and other environments for several reasons. The number of students with disabilities attending post-secondary institutions is increasing yearly. The completely computer driven medium of online courses has the potential to be a boon for the population of students with disabilities and those without. With technology's impact on industry and education, it is now impossible to complete a college curriculum without attending at least one course with one or more Internet components. Today's students need to be proficient in Internet based computer tasks such as email, online research, and web based syllabi, as well as everyday computer tasks we take for granted like report composition. If a student has a disability, this can become even more critical. Equal access to curricula, information, and services, not just physical access, are mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act and sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

The concept of the universal design workstation began with the basic idea of providing access for the widest variety of disabilities in the most accessible facility on campus, the main library. From there it was determined what would be the best hardware and software to accomplish this goal. Then a search for the components was initiated, being careful to look at the compatibility of all components with each other, as this had been a serious issue in the past. The full spectrum of assistive technology solutions is present in the workstation. Components can be removed if not necessary in the current environment and added later as needs change.

The good news is that technology is also providing the answer to creating universal learning and work environments. Screen readers, voice recognition, screen magnifiers, scan and read software, along with a host of other choices in hardware and software allow access to computer tasks such as word processing, web surfing, and email for persons with motor, sensory, perceptive, and cognitive disabilities. Assistive devices and the computers compatible with them are becoming more mainstream, reliable and robust. Costs for these technologies are plummeting.

Persons with disabilities are benefitting from the ability to perform tasks like reading or composing a report which persons without disabilities take for granted, and they are doing it with amazing proficiency. Technological solutions for universal learning and work environments and legislative mandates offer unlimited possibilities for success in the academic and work worlds.

The first attempt at a universal workstation was implemented on a 300 MHz Pentium II PC with 64 MB of ram. It was necessary to use Windows 95 because most of the software available in early 1999 was not compatible with Windows 98 or Windows NT 4.0. In addition, many individual titles were not compatible with each other. The solution was to boot multiple installations of Windows 95 so that titles that conflicted with each other could reside on separate partitions. This solution accommodated the needs of variety of disabilities, but did not address the security concerns of an open 24/7 university computer lab.

With the advent of Windows NT compatible software versions, a workable, replicable version of a universal workstation became possible. Windows NT, with a backup strategy, addresses the security concerns of the open computer lab, and all software titles can reside on the same partition. Choices span multiple categories of disability accommodation and user capability.

There is software to assist persons with learning or cognitive disabilities, visual impairments, or motor impairments. Some solutions are better for experienced computer users, and some for novices. Additionally, there are adjustable height desktops and monitor stands at every station. Each station has a large monitor and a scanner for scan and read programs. In addition there is a color closed-circuit television and a Braille embosser.

The ever-increasing use of the Internet as an integral part of accomplishing coursework has necessitated advancements in several areas of assistive technology related to the Internet. Several software vendors have met the challenge with vastly increased Internet related features in the newer versions of their software. In addition, overall advances in operating systems, processors, system architecture, and assistive software have increased workstation capabilities greatly. As a result of the above-mentioned advances, better speech synthesis, voice recognition, optical character recognition, Internet content handling, and screen navigation have now enabled a new level of software performance. Advances in processor speed and design, lower prices for memory, quarter speed internal cache, and 133MHz bus speed has both enabled some of these advances, and helped other features work better. Finally, assistive software's increased compatibility with Windows NT has enabled the creation of a tamper-resistant, yet accessible workstation.

Software can do much to empower properly trained students. Training is one of the most important components in an Assistive Technology program. Without proper training students who encounter greater than average academic difficulties are even more likely to become frustrated and abandon tools which could otherwise benefit them greatly.

Adapted hardware for the universal design workstation will either stand alone to provide a service or complement one or more pieces of software. Hardware should include a large monitor with sufficient pitch rating, resolution capability, and color depth necessary to represent enlarged screen content. With a large monitor, the user can see a larger portion of the desktop at one time and ensure that enlarged fonts and icons will not become grainy or pixilated. An adjustable monitor stand is an inexpensive way to decrease the footprint of the large monitor on the desktop and can be adjusted to accommodate ergonomic needs. When combined with the adjustable desktop, the keyboard and monitor can be placed optimally for users with limited mobility or who tire easily.

A scanner is the heart of scan and read technology and must be compatible with all of the software with which it is expected to work. Properly used, a scanner can also seriously reduce the workload for a student who is incapable of typing quickly or who cannot type for long periods without fatigue.

CCTVs provide magnification of anything that can be placed on the platform and are useful for maps, handouts, business cards, and many other applications. Connecting a color CCTV to the computer providing split screen viewing of both CCTV and computer applications, extends the capabilities of both for the visually impaired. Braille embossers enable the conversion of text to Braille output for users.

While the above software and hardware will not guarantee an answer to every disability accommodation request, the universal design workstation will accommodate a wide spectrum of needs for students with disabilities. In a public environment, security is an issue. Any tampering with Windows settings compromises the capability of the hardware and software. Newer versions of assistive software are compatible with Windows NT. More can be done to disable the effects of tampering on a Windows NT system because Windows NT was designed with security issues in mind. With proper precautions, maintenance of universal design workstations will be significantly reduced. Students with disabilities will be much more satisfied with the dependability and consistency of service offered.

As we move ever closer to a real universal design situation enabling inclusion and usability for all, assistive technology allows individuals to function in the mainstream. This is the ultimate goal of universal design.


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