Today, over 36 million Americans are classified as disabled—that’s roughly 12 percent of the total population in the U.S. Yet, surprisingly, approximately 95 percent of all students with disabilities between the ages six and twenty-one are still able to receive a conventional education, according to a 2008 report from the Institute of Education Sciences.
You may be wondering how all of this happens, since disabilities can present serious impediments to formal education—including hearing impairments, visual impairments, orthopedic impairments, and more. Who makes it possible for 95 percent of these young people to have access to the same learning materials as you and I?
At Penn State, the Adaptive Technology and Services (AT&S) team that I coordinate in University Libraries opens an important door of opportunity for students who may not otherwise have had equal access to a traditional education. These students, who possess just as much potential as their classmates, require specialized tools to help them achieve their educational goals. With the help of information technology, my team ensures that any Penn State student who has a disability can receive a top-notch education.
In order to provide our many services to the growing number of students at the University, the Classroom and Lab Computing department (CLC) provides us with the materials we need to enable students with disabilities to use information technology productively. While each of Penn State’s campuses has its own disability team, my team is responsible for fulfilling each and every transcription request from all 20 University locations. In the fall semester of 2010, this meant transcribing over 65,000 pages of text! Our team also serves as a source for different departments at University Park who need assistive technology for their meetings or workshops.
From working with students and peer institutions to promoting disability awareness across the University at large, Penn State’s AT&S team does it all.
Working with Students
Students truly are our world in AT&S. Our work in this office involves watching our students’ full academic cycle, from their first day on campus to their graduation day. In fact, we feel we have succeeded each time one of our students graduates at Penn State, knowing that our hard work has helped them achieve a life-changing objective. Along the way, we learn just as much from the students as they do from the materials we convert for them—which is one of the reasons why working with them is a favorite part of my job. Not only do I learn how to keep up with current technology directly from students, but they help to keep me young with their exuberance, energy, and sense of fun.
Our office in the new Knowledge Commons at Pattee Library offers students the use of computers, assistive technology, and quiet study rooms, as well as troubleshooting services provided by my team. While typically during my workday I see only a handful of students come in, many more students work at night to take advantage of our round-the-clock schedule.
When students with disabilities need to take exams, they can use the special testing center we provide for students who need to use assistive technology equipment or need extended test time.
Communicating with Others
In addition to interacting with the students, my job requires me to communicate with others outside the office on a daily basis. For example, AT&S receives digital books directly from publishers, that my team transcribes into alternative formats. I also spend time communicating with other universities via email and telephone in order to find out what sort of disability services tactics they are employing to determine whether their strategies could offer benefits to Penn State.
Working with Documents
A large part of what we do at the AT&S office involves transcribing documents into more easily accessible formats. Each member of the staff spends time working hands-on to process alternative formats including Braille, MP3, and PDF.
To do this, we use several different technology devices and programs. For example, different types of Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software can be employed to convert graphical characters into text through specialized programs like “OmniPage.” This text can then be read aloud to students using synthesized speech technology. Students often use screen reading programs, such as Kurzweil 3000. They may also use a program called ZoomText, that magnifies the text screen. Both programs are capable of reading text aloud with the integration of other programs.
We also have several scanners and a Braille printer. The scanners create digital images of print material to be processed by the computer, which are then manipulated so that individuals with vision impairments can access them. When connected to a computer, the Braille printer enables us to print Braille material directly from our office.
Over one in four of today’s 20-year-olds will become disabled before they retire. Although disability is an issue that is not frequently discussed, it is essential we make the University community more aware of disability needs. To bring the issue to light, awareness outreach is a large part of what we do in our office. To help achieve this, we collaborate with other Penn State campus’ disability offices to hold workshops and presentations on disabilities.
Recently these efforts resulted in the well-known animal science professor, Temple Grandin, visiting Penn State in October 2011. Grandin, who herself is autistic, and delivered her “Groundbreaking Research into Animal Behavior and Autism” presentation to an audience of Penn State community members at Schwab Auditorium. Work like hers promotes a view of individuals with disabilities that focuses on understanding the different ways of experiencing the world rather than the disadvantages.
In a world where technology is advancing so rapidly, what does the future hold for assistive technology?
Recently, my team moved to a newer, larger office space located in the library’s Knowledge Commons. This space offers students more quiet study rooms, as well as additional open working space that will overlap with my team’s workspace, making communication and troubleshooting even easier than before.
It was during this relocation that I came across some of the older technology we once used, such as a four-track cassette recorder used for recording information for the blind. It made me smile to touch such a reminder of how quickly things have changed. And the evolution continues, with perhaps the largest change in our time being the invention of electronic books.
One might think that electronic books would be easier for us to process and convert, but the reality is that they are just as tricky as hard copy material. For these reasons, I deeply value my relationship with accessibility professionals at other schools, such as the University of Georgia and the University of Illinois, and the willingness of this community to share their practices and procedures in order to ensure that we stay current with the best technology available. It’s all part of our mission here at the Adaptive Technology and Services lab: doing all we can to enable our students to do all they can. ■