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By Dr. Elizabeth Hinkle-Turner, Student Computing Services Manager
I have been the manager of the adaptive technology lab (part of the Academic Computing Services General Access Lab) for over two years and during this time have encountered firsthand the successes and difficulties utilizing technology experienced by UNT community members with disabilities on this campus. The lab is associated closely with the outstanding staff of the Office of Disability Accommodation and with their advice and assistance, we have been able to greatly increase the amount and scope of accessible technologies for students. Because of my active role in adaptive technology on the UNT campus, it was with great interest that I attended the presentation by the PBS Adult Learning Service of Untangling the Web. This presentation was promoted extensively through GroupWise and other announcement venues and especially emphasized by the Center for Distributed Learning which sponsored the broadcast. I had attended or viewed through video streaming the other events in the PBS series and felt that I would gain some valuable information through this program also.
I was initially surprised and quite disappointed at the attendance for the event. Audience members included myself, one other CITC colleague, almost the entire staff of the Office of Disability Accommodation and a couple of professors. Fortunately, the program - while disappointingly not providing any concrete examples of how to create accessible online learning sites - did bring up a number of good ideas and 'points to ponder' and these can be reviewed via video streaming for those who missed the live presentation.
Audience materials for the presentation cited a number of useful and practical Web references regarding issues of online learning accessibility and several of these references are annotated and listed below. However, what I would like to focus on here are some progressive concepts that were discussed during the broadcast. A notion put forth by many in the area of disability accommodation and cited in the broadcast is the idea of Universal Design. Universal Design is an approach where all design of environments, objects, and tools makes them accessible to everyone regardless of age, capabilities, or situation. It is governed by the philosophy that all people, young and old, and in excellent or difficult conditions, should be served well. Universal Design benefits everyone.
To test the concept of Universal Design, think about access ramps and how they accommodate your life. How many times have you walked up an access ramp rather than the stairs? We may not be in wheelchairs but we all have days when we are tired or our knees hurt because of a strenuous workout in the SRC. That ramp sure is a welcome relief from the onerous stair steps! Additionally, how would we move equipment around campus via carts if we did not have ramps to accommodate us? Those required ramps for all buildings, initially put into place for persons in wheelchairs, now have become a virtual 'necessity' for most of us.
In a personal example, a few years ago I decided to put all of my teaching materials for my twentieth century music course online (a trend that is being established by most professors on this campus). My initial idea was to enable the students - none of whom were music majors - to review the class lecture notes ahead of time especially since many difficult names (yeah, YOU try to spell "Gyorgy Ligeti" if you've never heard of him!) and concepts ("modes of limited transpositions" - hunh? Does Madonna use those?) were discussed during the lectures. It soon became quite obvious that though I had the right idea about accommodating the students' lack of musical skills and experiences, I had completely missed the boat as far as practicality and accessibility were concerned! It only took a couple of complaints of 'we can't see the text from the computer projector from the back row of the auditorium!' for me to realize that my text was way too small. Also, after going to several General Access Lab Manager meetings where we were bemoaning the huge amounts of printing that students were doing for classes, I blushingly realized that my lovely online postings with their photographs, diagrams and other visual gee-gaws were hogging a whole lot of toner unnecessarily. The result was that I prepared large-text, detailed, and image-heavy classroom presentations and scaled-down, printer-and-lab-and-phone-modem (and ADA!) friendly versions for students' home use. Improving universally helped everyone in the class regardless of their circumstances.
John Slatin of the University of Texas in his essay The Imagination Gap makes some excellent points for consideration. First, he explains that "A Web resource that is effective and aesthetically rich for people with disabilities is likely to be effective and aesthetically rich for other people too. The reverse is not true, as attested by the current state of the Web..." He also states, "....practicing accessibility means closing the imagination gap that separates most people from people with disabilities." Slatin gives some excellent exercises for closing this gap. Some of these exercises include going without using a mouse for an entire week so one can become intimately familiar with all the keyboard strokes that need to be memorized by someone who cannot use such a convenient device, downloading a demo version of JAWS screen reading software and trying to navigate one's favorite Websites with eyes closed and using just this tool, and "typing" a paper using Dragon Naturally Speaking voice recognition software. In short what such exercises and tasks demonstrate is how clumsily and badly so many of our online tools and resources are designed and how much effort all of us regardless of our abilities must invest in navigating the world of the internet.
A clear case for Universal Design in architecture, equipment and materials placement, interior construction, and Web tools is easily made. What is NOT so easy is figuring out how to do this and also finding the time to do it. Slatin and others, however, rightly state that making universal design part of the initial conception and implementation of a project actually saves time and effort in the future. By making items accessible from 'the get-go', a whole variety of anticipated and unanticipated issues are resolved from the outset (just as proper and thorough documentation of software obviates the need for users to waste their time and others' time asking and answering questions and making mistakes). There are several tools available for those who wish to creatively anticipate the online issues of their user base. UNT has a Web accessibility policy which clearly outlines the requirements of all university-related Website (presumably including WebCT courses and any online course notes). Additionally, The University of Maryland University College Accessibility in Distance Education is an extensive Website including advice and examples of how to specifically design course materials including Websites, PowerPoint slides, and Flash movies for maximum accessibility. Free test sites for the evaluation of the accessibility of online resources include Bobby (www.cast.org/bobby) and A-Prompt (aprompt.snow.utoronto.ca).
The concept of Universal Design is not a fad or some sort of newfangled idea; it has actually been around for quite some time. Most importantly, Universal Design is not simply 'accessibility" or "affirmative action" disguised under another name: it is an integration of universally usable technical elements into a project from the outset; making such a project better for everyone. Thinking in terms of universal design removes a great deal of the stigma and frustration that can be attached to adding accessible 'fixes' to an already-completed project in the future. I remember when the internet became a 'necessity' on all areas of campus during my days as a graduate student at the University of Illinois. What a terrible mess was caused while retro-fitting many of the old buildings with ThinNet wiring (we are talking A LONG time ago here!)! All sorts of repainting and asbestos abatement had to occur and I recall that several walls simply collapsed during the process! Everyone was amazed when the new Beckman engineering building was constructed with all the wiring built in and we could actually even plug our (really heavy and expensive) laptops right into the internet on the library tables in the Beckman Library!
This example also illustrates that it is simply impossible to anticipate all the needs of every soul when designing something be it a building, a chair, or an online course. In my area we are constantly finding electronic resources that are not accessible to persons with disabilities and quite frankly are difficult to navigate and negotiate by just about anyone! However, the ideal remains a worthy one for which to strive. Try taking some time to consider how 'adaptive' and 'accessible' design has benefited you and help to continue to expand its implementation in the future!
Resources for Universal Design