IM this article to a friend!

December 28, 2004

Technology creates level playing field

From: Indianapolis Star - Indianapolis,IN,USA - Dec 28, 2004

By John J. Shaughnessy
December 28, 2004

The excitement keeps building in Richard Harris' voice when he describes the breakthroughs in technology that help students with disabilities in college.

His tone becomes almost reverent as he talks about the impact of the changes he has seen in more than three decades of assisting disabled students.

"The improvements are just light-years over the way it was 32 years ago," says Harris, the director of disabled-student development at Ball State University. "It means a great deal more independence. With independence comes dignity, and dignity is everything."

Voice-activated computers are just one of the breakthroughs in technology helping students with disabilities. Previously, someone who couldn't use a computer because of a disability would have to rely on another person to type a term paper, Harris says. With voice activation, people can sit there and do the work independently.

Or consider blind students who had to rely on someone to read to them or wait for a Braille translation to be made. Now, technology allows such students to listen to a textbook from the computer, Harris says.

"Refreshable Braille" is another breakthrough in technology.

"Everything that shows up on a computer screen can be read by a strip on the keyboard," Harris explains. "The pins on the strip rise to show in Braille what the words are on the screen."

When the sentence on the computer screen ends, the pins on the strip fall. When another sentence appears on the screen, the pins on the strip form those words in Braille again.

At Purdue University in West Lafayette, the college provides captioning on classroom televisions for deaf students. Students with learning disabilities are also given extra time to take exams -- a common practice at many colleges, including IUPUI and the University of Indianapolis. "We're also providing Braille to a blind student who's going through our aeronautical engineering program," says Marvin Schlatter, Purdue's associate dean of students. "These are individuals who are qualified to be in the academic environment and we integrate them by doing reasonable adjustments to make Purdue accessible for them."

IUPUI is also among the many Indiana colleges that have tapped into technology. The Indianapolis college has an adaptive technology lab that helps students with disabilities.

In the IUPUI lab, a blind student benefits from textbooks on tapes. Software programs increase the size of words to help the visually impaired. Students who can't use their hands can use a voice-activated computer to write.

"The state-of-the-art equipment can access the Internet, libraries, do whatever anybody can do at a computer," says Pam King, director of Adaptive Educational Services at IUPUI. "We caption videos now. If we have a movie in the courtyard, there's captioning to it so students who are deaf can enjoy it, too."

The advances in technology are the third frontier of progress for students with disabilities, Harris says.

All three frontiers are connected to the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.

"In the early years, the emphasis was on physical access -- curb ramps, elevators, building entrances, automatic doors and transportation," Harris says. "At Ball State, we have about six buses that are lift-equipped. We run a disability shuttle from 7 in the morning until midnight."

The second frontier turned to instruction in the classroom, he says.

"We did faculty in-service training, to help them talk to a student who is blind, to work through an interpreter to reach someone who's deaf," Harris says. "It all leads to independence and dignity. Those qualities are just so important."

Copyright 2004 All rights reserved