Assistive Technology Comes into Focus: With the Push from Federal Legislation, Colleges and Universities Enhance Learning for the Disabled. (Special Report: Assistive Technology)

By Roach, Ronald | Black Issues in Higher Education, July 18, 2002 | Go to article overview

Assistive Technology Comes into Focus: With the Push from Federal Legislation, Colleges and Universities Enhance Learning for the Disabled. (Special Report: Assistive Technology)


Roach, Ronald, Black Issues in Higher Education


Access in higher education is usually understood as the admission, financing, and social support of students belonging to socially disadvantaged groups as they pursue postsecondary education. However, that understanding has focused largely on students from racial and ethnic minority groups and on those who hail from low-income families. As a result, attention to access for the disabled has tended to be obscured by the publicly contentious issues around race, ethnicity and class.

It is estimated that between eight to 12 percent of students in American higher education have disabilities that require special attention. The last three decades have seen colleges and universities develop resources and facilities that accommodate the needs of disabled students. Federal statutes going back to the 1970s and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act legislation have played a critical role in pushing schools to make their campuses physically accessible and to have trained personnel to work with disabled students.

Nonetheless, the decade of 1990s, with the explosion of the Internet, has ushered in demands that higher education accommodate students with what is known as assistive technology. The term, assistive technology, refers to technology that is information-and media-oriented. Higher education experts note that while American colleges and universities have aggressively enhanced courses and campus communication with Web sites, they have paid too little attention to making the technology accessible to students with disabilities.

"In higher education, access problems tend to revolve around the computer. Typically, disabled students have their mobility issues worked out. They have their communication devices. And they're able to take care of the environmental controls (in their residential setting)," says Marla Roll, director of the Assistive Technology Resource Center at Colorado State University.

"I feel like accessibility is an afterthought when it comes to technology. (Schools) don't think about technology on the front end," she says. Assistive technology professionals including Roll point to a recently enacted federal law expected to boost the use of assistive technology on campuses. In the summer of 2001, federally enforceable regulations took effect mandating that all "EIT" (electronic and information technology) developed by federal agencies and federally affiliated institutions and organizations be accessible to persons with disabilities. All of the nation's colleges and universities fall under the domain of the new standards contained in the Section 508 amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, according to a consensus of higher education experts.

Enacted in the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, the Section 508 amendments prescribe new standards for six areas of technology:

* Software applications and operating systems.

* Web-based information or applications.

* Telecommunication products.

* Video or multimedia products.

* Information appliances, such as fax machines and kiosks.

* Desktop and portable computers.

Since the 1980s, colleges and universities have gained experience with making hardware, such as computers with voice recognition technology and other special devices, available to disabled students. But institutions are less experienced with creating Web sites that can be interpreted for the disabled by special devices.

The challenge for colleges and universities is to upgrade campus Web sites and course management software systems to make them readable by the devices that disabled students use. For example, a Web site accessible to a blind student has to be designed so that equipment known as a screen reader can read and describe aloud the text and visual images on a Web page.

Campus IT specialists say the legacy of highly decentralized Web publishing in higher education presents a significant obstacle for schools attempting to make their Web sites accessible to the disabled.

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