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November 3, 2002

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 / Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990

From: The Guardaman Online
Nov. 3, 2002

City College Reacts to these
By Chris Ulbrech

The dotted letters on Hugo Salazar�s �Braille Lite� flicker under his fingertips in constantly shifting patterns. The Braille Lite, is an electronic notebook for the blind, the size of a large paperback. It stores documents electronically, and displays them eighteen Braille letters at a time.

Salazar, 21, blind since the age of 11, is copying a homework assignment from the notebook into the desktop computer in front of him. He crosses his right hand over his left to read the Braille, then uncrosses them to type the letters into the computer. He does this repeatedly, awkwardly, like a young pianist learning a difficult piece. He taps a bar on the notebook, paging back and forth through his document. Forward. Back. The Braille dots rearrange themselves magically, as if a genie were in the box.

It is a typical afternoon at the High Tech Center in Batmale Hall, on the Phelan Campus. As Salazar slowly pecks at the keyboard, a computer-synthesized �screen reader� speaks the words back to him through the headphones he is wearing over his San Francisco Giants baseball cap and wrap-around sunglasses. As soon as he makes a mistake, he hears it. At one point he tries to save his work on a floppy, but he is unknowingly holding the disc sideways. It won�t go.

Galina Gerasimova, an instructor at the High Tech Center, takes Salazar�s hand and runs his fingers over the disk, showing him the front, back, and sides by touch. He tries again, this time with success. The Braille notebook belongs to Salazar. But the computer, the voice-synthesis software, the comfortable headphones, the counseling, and the ergonomic chair he sits in are all provided free of charge by City College.

For that Salazar has two federal laws to thank: the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, both of which require state-funded institutions to accommodate the disabled. For City College, �accommodate� means making sure that disabled students have the opportunity to do all the things other students do: get around campus, participate in lectures and labs, read textbooks, and take exams. Although this is the minimum, the services provided at Phelan Campus by the Disabled Students Programs and Services (DSPS) department exceed the minimum.

DSPS maintains a fleet of nine electric scooters on the Phelan campus for mobility-impaired students. Accommodations Specialist Muriel Parenteau says that in the eyes of the law, the scooters are an extra. But for Samnang Kaplan, a 21-year-old student studying Audio Production and Digital Media, they are practically a necessity.

At the age of three Kaplan fell down the front steps of a friend�s house and lapsed into a coma. He emerged with his motor control permanently damaged. He says that without a scooter, it would take him an hour to make the 270-yard walk between Rosenberg Library and Batmale Hall.

�[The scooter] helped me a lot,� Kaplan says. �I can�t walk too far and go uphill.�

Other disabled students find essential technologies in one of City College�s two High Tech Centers (the other is at the John Adams campus).

At first glance the High Tech Center at Phelan looks like any other computer lab, with Macs, scanners, and PCs running Office XP. Look closer, though, and you start to see subtle differences. One of the computers is equipped with a Braille keyboard. Another has a large, rectangular magnifier clipped to the monitor. Rather than the usual overhead fluorescent lights, five halogen floor sconces fill the room with a soft glow.

�We have indirect lighting so there�s no glare on the screen for the visually impaired,� says Center Director Rebecca Reilly. Signs and posters are notably absent from the walls. Reilly says they would distract students with certain learning disabilities, like Attention Deficit Disorder. Every kind of disability has to be accommodated in this one lab, from chronic back pain, to repetitive stress syndrome, to epilepsy.

Anne Regan, 27, another frequent visitor, has what specialists call an �invisible disability.� She is intelligent, outgoing, fully mobile � and severely dyslexic. She was not diagnosed until just before her junior year of high school.

�All my life I knew that something was wrong,� she says. �My mother brought me in for several eye checkups, and they all said, �She can�t learn to read. She�s just not a smart girl.�� Now she is taking a full load of classes at City College and considering a master�s degree in theatre or psychology.

DSPS arranges for Regan to get her textbooks on computer-readable CDs, so that she can listen to them with the High Tech Center�s screen reader software. When a CD text is not available, she digitizes the book herself with the lab�s �Scan and Read� software. She considers the program a tremendous help. �I�m a really, really slow reader.�

As impressed as students and administrators are with the College�s technological aids, they are even more enthusiastic about the DSPS staff.

�This place [DSPS] consists of a mass of miracle workers, who are very inventive and do a lot with very little money,� says City College Chancellor Philip Day, who has a seriously hearing-impaired son. �Quite frankly, given what we�ve got, we do a hell of a job.�

Regan seconds that assessment: �They�re really helpful. They�re super nice.�

The department�s 70 staff members run drop-in tutoring labs, loan out backrests and tape recorders, take notes for the blind, close-caption telecourses, and schlep special equipment to whatever classroom a student needs.

�If a student is blind we will have someone read the test for a student. We will braille it for him,� says DSPS professor John Wilde. �We also have students who are deaf, and we have to get interpreters for them.�

Administrators and instructors admit that there is still room for improvement. They say City College needs to provide better services for the disabled at the nine satellite campuses. Only the John Adams campus offers disabled services on a regular basis.

�We�ve now put services at the Downtown campus and at the Chinatown campus and the Mission campus,� Wilde says. �We go there one day a week, and it�s not enough.�

The Internet poses difficult challenges too. Blind students surf the Net by having the computer read Web pages out loud. But this only works when the pages are properly constructed. Most of the pages on the City College Web site are not. Alternative Media Specialist Thomas Hetherington says that the top few pages of the City College Web site are �minimally compliant.� Beyond that, things start to break down.

�There are literally thousands of Web pages on CCSF�s Web site,� he says. �Every department and every office has a Web page. A lot of faculty, and even some students have Web pages. And so many of these Web pages are not accessible.� But the students interviewed say they are very satisfied with the services they are receiving. None report experiencing discrimination first-hand. Salazar describes his teachers as �pretty cool, pretty reasonable.� Hetherington says he has no problem getting copies of classwork ahead of time, so the staff at the High Tech lab can print a copy on their Braille printer.

Regan sums up the general view: �It�s a good program. It�s a really good program.�

© The Guardaman Online