2004 Conference Proceedings

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Eleanor Axelrod Technology Program Director Partners for Youth with Disabilities
95 Berkeley Street, Suite 109
Boston, MA 02116
Tel: 617.556.4075 ext. 14
Fax: 617.556.4074
Email: eaxelrod@pyd.org

Maureen Gallagher Assistant Director Partners for Youth with Disabilities
95 Berkeley Street, Suite 109
Boston, MA 02116
Tel: 617.556.4075 ext. 13
Fax: 617.556.4074
Email: mgallagher@pyd.org

Introduction & Background:
Partners for Youth with Disabilities has a 20-year history of running one-on-one and group mentoring programs for youth with disabilities, as well as parent support programs. We have had a strong focus on aiding our constituents through the transitional years from high school to college and beyond. In 2001 PYD received a federal grant from the US Dept of Commerce Technology Opportunities Program (TOP) for the creation and development of Partners Online, an e-mentoring program to serve youth and young adults with disabilities ages 14-24 throughout Massachusetts. Partners Online will serve as a replication model, so any organization wishing to start this type of e-mentoring program will receive a step-by-step guide to the process with our replication manual, thus allowing us to expand mentoring services for people with disabilities across the country.

Need for an Online Program
In a 1989 Harris Poll of 400 high school juniors participating in a mentoring program, 73% stated that their mentors helped them raise their goals and experience; 87% went directly to college after graduating from high school and 59% had improved grades. For our constituents having a role model with a similar disability helps increase self-esteem, resourcefulness, and independence. For people with disabilities, Online Mentoring has the following advantages:
* The flexibility of a online meeting transcends usual barriers to matches including time, transportation, accessibility and cost.
* Enables Partners to expand our mentoring services across the state with fewer resources.
* Enables Partners to find more high-quality mentor volunteers due to flexibility of online program.
* Enables mentors and mentees to correspond anytime and from anywhere.

The Solution: Partners Online: An Accessible Community Portal
The Partners Online project addresses the three-part issue of how to create a truly accessible online community that people with all types of disabilities can use, yet which is practical for other non-profit organizations to replicate and administer.
Our vision was to offer a safe community experience where mentor and mentee pairs could correspond via email and one-on-one chat and offer group mentoring via facilitated and open conversations in group chats and message boards. In addition, we envisioned a Parent Connection component where parents of youth with disabilities could offer one another support and guidance through their child's transitional periods. The following obstacles drove our decision to develop the Partners Online Accessible Community Portal:
* Solution had to accommodate physical, sensory and learning disabilities
* Lack of truly accessible community management solutions on the market (Bobby Compliant does not equal user-friendly)
* Stand-alone or platform dependent applications exclude many users
* Email and List Serve provide limited group mentoring opportunities are not easy to search and reference.
* Lack of security and basic program administration functions to enable monitoring and management of mixed adult/youth community.

We have already launched a 1.0 version of the Portal and have over 50 registered users from whom we are soliciting feedback for the subsequent 2.0 release in December, when our registered users will increase to 100.

Project Goals for Partners Online Program:
* Expand our reach beyond Boston and pilot a program across Massachusetts with 125 mentor pairs.
* Launch group -mentoring program with 350 unmatched youth and 500 parents
* Create a program evaluation component to better measure the impact of mentoring on youth with disabilities
* Offer a secure, accessible (Section 508 -compliant) community portal that enables people with a wide range of disabilities- physical, sensory and learning to connect and share information online.
* Identify 3 replication sites and provide technical assistance in the creation of online mentoring programs.

Why Partners Online Accessible Portal is unique:
* It is the first community portal that is designed explicitly for Section 508 compliance and full accessibility, accommodating a range of disabilities and assistive technology needs.
* Enables users to choose from a variety of different correspondence tools; mail, chat, IM and message boards since one tool or medium cannot meet everyone's needs.
* It provides the security and management features that will enable other agencies to engage youth in a safe online community, rather than limiting their services to adults.
* Built-in evaluation tools track individual and aggregate user activity on the portal that can be applied to general program evaluation.
* Groups Management feature enables organizations to simultaneously manage separate online communities for different programmatic needs.
* It is the first program to provide an enriched e-mentoring experience and track mentor exchanges, though use of the mentoring component is optional.

Discussion of Key Features and Accessibility Issues Addressed by Partners Online:
The primary obstacle to rolling out an online mentoring program was the lack of truly accessible community tools. Those identified as "Accessible" or "Bobby-compliant" were often stand-alone, platform-specific or addressed the needs of only one type of disability. Furthermore, we found that "Accessible" did not equate with "Usable." Some key usability issues that were addressed by the project:

Creation of Accessible Text-Based Chat Our chat solution has a variety of profile/preference settings to accommodate the needs of both visually impaired users, physically disabled users and users without assistive technology needs.

User-Friendly Message Board Design to address needs of Vision-Impaired Users Though some message boards are technically Bobby-compliant, they remain effectively closed to blind users. We enlisted the help of a blind programmer to help us develop an information design that would allow vision-impaired users to more quickly search and scan message board content. (Screenshot: accessible but "non-usable" vs. accessible and user-friendly)

Modified layout to address Assistive Technology Software Many of our participants use AT software in conjunction with browsers or email. These programs take up space on the monitor and minimize the amount of information that can be viewed on a web page at one time. We modified page layouts to accommodate this reduced screen real estate and to ensure key information was displayed prominently. (Screen Shot: "Accessible" from our development efforts vs. "Usable" page when used in conjunction with AT software).

Administration of Online Evaluations and Surveys Many funders request program evaluations be distributed to all participants. Approximately 60-70% of our participants had difficulty completing paper surveys independently due to their disabilities. We developed online accessible surveys for more accurate program assessment.

Key Distinctions between POL and Other Online Mentoring Programs: Scope of Human Service: Unlike other programs that might be career-based or focus on one type of disability, we serve people with a broad range of disabilities. Many of our users have visual impairments, severe learning or cognitive issues and others have severe physical disabilities that restrict their ability to speak or use their hands. Some may go to college and have successful careers; others may not due to the severity of their disability.

Mentor Matching Criteria: We match based on sex, disability type, geography and interest/personality type.

Medium: Most online programs restricted to email only or list serves and users are not permitted to exchange personal information or meet in person.

One on one mentoring mixed with Group Mentoring: Our constituents benefit by exposure to peers who have faced similar obstacles and challenges.

Participant Case Studies:

Case Study 1:
User (Mark) with CP; non-verbal, severe mobility issues. Before Partners Online he was never able to have a private conversation without parent or nurse present, which severely hampered his ability to make and communicate with friends.

Case Study 2:
Blind Jaws User and Web Developer (Rich). Prior to POL, he could not ever join in online discussions via message boards or chat due to accessibility/usability issues.

Program & Platform Replication
* It is our vision to see mentoring programs for youth with disabilities, similar to Partners Online, replicated in every state.
* PYD will distribute a detailed replication manual that details set-up costs, training curriculum, best practices & mistakes made along the way.
* PYD will provide assistance to help agencies develop an appropriate replication model based on their technology ability, constituency and resources.
* PYD will advise on ways to collaborate with other agencies and procure funds.
There is a lack of technology solution that addresses the divergent needs of users with physical, sensory and learning disabilities, or offers security and program evaluation features in one accessible portal. The innovation of an accessible community portal, like Partners Online, will enable people with divergent assistive technology needs to connect with one another, and will enable other organizations serving people with disabilities to strengthen ties with and among their own constituents.

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