by Sheryl Burgstahler
At one time computer use in higher education was limited to scientific and technical fields of study. The introduction of the microcomputer along with inexpensive, versatile, and easy-to-use applications software has made computer technology increasingly available and useful to students and faculty. Many courses of study now require computer use. Adaptive equipment that allows students with physical disabilities to access computer applications used in post-secondary education is commercially available. This technology has the potential to neutralize handicapping conditions, making it possible for many more people with disabilities to independently and successfully pursue academic studies and careers.
Legislation mandates that students with disabilities have full access to post-secondary educational opportunities. Institutions of higher education have generally responded with ramps, elevators, special tables, tape recorders and interpreters. However, as computer access has become an integral part of most programs in higher education, a new dimension to the accessibility issue has emerged. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 are generally interpreted to mean that institutions that receive federal funds must provide computer access to disabled students when such access is required to pursue academic studies. Such programs are to be offered in the most integrated setting appropriate, taking precautions not to isolate or concentrate handicapped persons in settings away from non-handicapped participants. However, little evidence exists confirming whether colleges and universities provide disabled students access to computing services offered to non-disabled students and whether equipment that is available is placed in locations that tend to isolate disabled students.
A survey was conducted in the state of Washington to determine what computing services are being provided to disabled students on other campuses, what units are involved in selecting, purchasing and managing these services, what locations are used to provide access to computers adapted for disabled students, and what success physically disabled students have experienced in using computers.
This study addressed the following questions:
All sixty-one post-secondary institutions in Washington state were included in the sample. The list was obtained from the 1991 HEP directory of post-secondary institutions and the Washington Association of Post-secondary Educators of Disabled. If no contact name or title was found for a specific school, the questionnaire was addressed to the "Director of Disabled Student Services." Each potential respondent was mailed a letter, questionnaire, and self-addressed, stamped envelope in the spring of 1991. Schools that did not respond to the first request were sent a reminder letter, questionnaire and return envelope.
The disabilities addressed in the study were visual and mobility/orthopedic. These disability types were selected because students with such impairments are commonly found on campuses and they often require special adaptive equipment to access computers effectively. Other physical disabilities do not consistently require special accommodations. For example, a student who is deaf does not generally require adaptive equipment to use a computer, even though alternatives to sound output are desirable. The list of specific devices included in the survey instrument was generated after a thorough review of equipment that can be used to adapt typical post-secondary computer systems for use by disabled students.
Thirty-seven (61%) of the questionnaires were returned, eleven after the second request. Twenty-five (68%) of the respondents are from 2-year and twelve (32%) are from 4-year institutions. Twenty-seven (73%) are public, 10 (27%) private. Total enrollments and disabled student enrollments are shown in Figures 1 and 2.
Figure 1. Total Enrollment of Respondent Schools
Figure 2. Disabled Student Enrollment of Respondent Schools
The results of this survey answered the research questions as summarized below.
1) What computing services have institutions of higher education provided to disabled students? What types of computer adaptive equipment are available? Who is involved in selecting, funding, and managing computing services for disabled students?
As shown in Table 2, 60% of the institutions surveyed provide adaptive devices for computer access and 26% provide consulting services for adaptive equipment selection and use. Few provide a computer user/support group for disabled students, sales of adaptive computer equipment, repair of student-owned adaptive equipment, rental of adaptive computer equipment, or other services.
Table 2. Computing Services Provided for Students with Physical Disabilities Service
62% Respondents, Adaptive devices for computer access 41% Respondents, Training in the use of adaptive access equipment 26% Respondents, Computer consulting services for adaptive equipment selection and use 8% Respondents, Computer user/support group for disabled students 3% Respondents, Sales of adaptive computer equipment 3% Respondents, Repair of student-owned adaptive equipment 3% Respondents, Rental of adaptive computer equipment 5% Respondents, Other
Table 3 documents the variety of adaptive computing equipment provided to disabled students. The only adaptations provided in more than half of the schools are speech synthesis to read text displayed on the computer screen, large print monitor wheelchair access to computer labs, and adjustable-height computer tables for wheelchairs.
Table 3. Adaptive Computing Equipment Provided for Students with Disabilities Equipment
For students with visual impairments:
62% Respondents, Large print monitor 51% Respondents, Speech synthesis to read text displayed on computer screen 16% Respondents, Braille printer 14% Respondents, Braille and/or large print user guides and handouts 14% Respondents, Optical character reader 11% Respondents, Access to library on-line system on at least one system adapted for use by those with visual impairments 5% Respondents, Access to electronic bulletin boards, databases, mail and other network services from at least one system adapted for use by those with visual impairments 3% Respondents, Braille display
For students with mobility/orthopedic disabilities:
87% Respondents, Wheelchair access to computer lab 54% Respondents, Adjustable-height computer table for wheelchair 46% Respondents, Accessible on/off switch for equipment 30% Respondents, Track ball or other device to replace mouse 27% Respondents, Mini (small) keyboard or expanded (large) keyboard 19% Respondents, On-screen documentation 19% Respondents, Access to library on-line system on at least one system adapted for use by those with mobility/orthopedic disabilities 8% Respondents, Access to electronic bulletin boards, databases, mail and other network services from at least one system adapted for use by those with 16% Respondents, Keyboard guard 16% Respondents, Voice input 11% Respondents, Morse code input with special switch 11% Respondents, Scanning input with special switch 8% Respondents, mobility/orthopedic disabilities
Respondents were asked to indicate the level of involvement of campus units in providing computing services to disabled students on a scale from 1 - not involved to 5 = extremely involved. Tables 4-6 list in order of mean value, the level of involvement of various units in selecting, funding, and managing computing services for disabled students. The office of disabled student services is the unit most involved in selecting, funding, and managing the computing services for disabled students. Two-tailed paired t-tests were used to compare the differences in involvement between the disabled student services and computing services organizations. Overall, disabled student services is more involved than other units when it comes to selecting, funding, and managing computing services for disabled students.
Table 4. Involvement in Selecting Computing Services for Disabled Students
Disabled Student Services 3.5 (Mean) 1.7 (Std. dev) Computing Services 2.5 (Mean) 1.6 (Std. dev) Disabled Students 2.3 (Mean) 1.3 (Std. dev) Faculty 2.2 (Mean) 1.4 (Std. dev) Government Agencies 2.0 (Mean) 1.3 (Std. dev)
Table 5. Provides Funding for Computing Services for Disabled Students
Disabled Student Services 2.3 (Mean) 1.3 (Std. dev) Government Agencies 2.3 (Mean) 1.3 (Std. dev) Computing Services 1.7 (Mean) 1.3 (Std. dev) Disabled Students 1.3 (Mean) 0.7 (Std. dev)
Table 6. Involvement in Management of Computing Services for Disabled Students
Disabled Student Services 2.8 (Mean) 1.6 (Std. dev) Computing Services 2.3 (Mean) 1.5 (Std. dev) Disabled Students 1.7 (Mean) 1.1 (Std. dev) Government Agencies 1.3 (Mean) 0.7 (Std. dev)
2) Is adaptive equipment located in areas where non-disabled students work or does the location selected isolate or concentrate handicapped persons in settings away from non-handicapped participants?
Thirty (81%) of the institutions that provide adapted computers for their physically disabled students do so in facilities used by other students, as shown in Figure 3. Seven (19%) provide equipment that can be used in the students' residences and seven (19%) provide equipment in special facilities for disabled students.
Figure 3. Location of Computer Adaptive Equipment Provided to Disabled Students
3) What have experiences been regarding the abilities of physically disabled students to make productive use of computers?
Respondents indicated on a scale of 1 = very low to 5 = very high what their experiences have been regarding abilities of physically disabled students to make productive use of computers. Based on the mean scores of the ratings of experiences of the respondents in their respective institutions as listed in Table 7, disabled students are generally able to make productive use of computers if adaptive equipment is provided. A paired t-test shows significant differences between the ability ratings of visually impaired (but not blind), blind, and mobility/orthopedically impaired students at a .10 level of significance.
Table 7. Abilities of Disabled Students to Make Productive Use of Computers if Adaptive Equipment is Provided
Visually Impaired/Blind 3.8/3.5 (Means) 2.15 (t value) .043 (2 tail prob.) Visually/Mobility Impaired 3.9/4.1 (Means) -1.73 (t value) .096 (2 tail prob.) Blind/Mobility Impaired 3.6/4.0 (Means) -2.42 (t value) .025 (2 tail prob.)
Programs that provide computing services to disabled students are new and many schools are just getting started in this area. However, in a survey of Washington state post-secondary institutions more than half of the respondents indicated that they provide some adaptive devices for computer access for students with disabilities and more than one-fourth provide training on the use of the adaptive equipment, and/or consulting services for adaptive equipment selection and use. To begin the process of addressing the computing needs of disabled students it is recommended that schools list the computing services that they provide to non-disabled students and then make plans to assure that such services are provided to students with disabilities as well. Since the population is relatively small and accommodation needs within this group vary greatly, established policies and procedures should allow for quick responses to the needs of specific disabled students as they enroll in the institution, and specific academic programs and classes. Appropriate staff should be assigned specific responsibilities and budget allocations should be made to support this effort.
Most of the access devices provided by responding schools are found in the same computing facilities used by all students. This result is consistent with the literature that suggests that disabled students services officers prefer integration of services to students with disabilities and with federal legislation that requires that services to students with disabilities be provided in an integrated setting.
The office of disabled student services is most involved in selection and management of computing services. It is recommended that this office work with the central computing organization on campus in order to benefit from the technical expertise and funding opportunities that it may provide. Efforts should be made to mainstream services to disabled students with the computing services offered to other students, including access to the campus and external networks.
Disabled student services directors rate moderately high the abilities of students with disabilities to make productive use of computers if adaptive equipment is provided They find mobility/orthopedically impaired students more able to make productive use of computers than visually impaired, and visually impaired more able than blind students. Perhaps the different ratings reflect different levels of experience with different types of disabilities or different levels of difficulty in overcoming various disability-related computing barriers. Training should be provided to appropriate staff to assure that they are aware of the adaptations available to provide computing access to disabled individuals with a variety of disabilities and of the resources available for assistance in this area. Schools should share information about services and organizational structures that have been successful as well as information about adaptive devices that work well with students with specific disabilities.
The computer is a powerful tool. With adaptive equipment, it can be made accessible to individuals with a wide range of physical abilities. Computer access needs of students with disabilities in higher education will continue to increase as computer use spreads into a wide range of academic courses and as the numbers of students with disabilities increases. Improved computer access for students with disabilities in higher education has the potential to provide students with educational opportunities that can improve the quality of their lives and provide opportunities to become productive members of society. Although technology exists for adapting computing on campuses, there is still much to be invented, adapted and applied. Therefore, services to disabled students must be comprehensive and flexible, ready to adjust to increased demands, to changing student needs, and to evolving technologies.
For a more complete report of the results of this survey, contact:
Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.
Computing & Communications
University of Washington
Seattle, WA 98195