Distant from Education

Too often the adoption of technology can result in the exclusion of people with disabilities. The selection process for the simplest of software to the most complex usually ignores the needs of people with disabilities. There is an excellent article in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education:

More than 19,000 people have visited a new student union that Arizona State University put up last year to build a better sense of campus community.

Darrell Shandrow, a blind senior studying journalism, can’t get through the front door.

He’s stuck because the new social hub is built of bits, not bricks—a private Facebook application for Arizona State students. And, like so much technology used by colleges, the software doesn’t work with the programs that blind people depend on to navigate the Web. (Source: Colleges Lock Out Blind Students Online)

Institutions, including government agencies, need to be advocates for change. There is power in withholding adoption, or ensuring the RFP has strong language that insists on accessibility enhancements to existing packages. The experience of the California State System shows how vendors must be held to the commitment with stop-go indicators for adoption.

Officials at Cal State were troubled that the iTunes software was impossible for many disabled people to use. Blind students and faculty couldn’t use screen-reader programs with it. Closed captioning for deaf users was not properly supported. Officials approached Apple. “We got a lot of glad-handing from them” but few substantial fixes, says Deborah Kaplan, who until this year directed Cal State’s Accessible Technology Initiative.

So Cal State asked its 23 campuses not to use iTunes U in most situations until these basic issues were solved.

Over the past five years, Cal State has waged one of higher education’s most aggressive campaigns for accessible technology. It has adopted stringent standards for vendors and employees. Along with other groups, it has helped force Apple, Google, and Blackboard to improve their software or lose the ability to reach Cal State’s 430,000 students. (Source: Cal State’s Strong Push for Accessible Technology Gets Results)

Technology has lowered the bar on what a reasonable accommodation, it is now easier and cheaper to provide accessible content, yet the barriers remain.