Is higher ed accessible?

BlogHer Original Post

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference, and I had the privilege of accompanying an academic mentor and friend of mine, Catherine Kudlick, a professor who is partially sighted and who is a superstar in the academic world of disability studies--you can read her insightful essay on blind boot camp to get a sense of her thoughtfulness about blindness and gender.

Cathy and I found ourselves at the conference primarily because she is chairing my university's new steering committee on electronic accessibility, a committee on which I sit and for which I chair the teaching and learning subcommittee. In hopes of learning where best to invest our resources, the campus's Information and Educational Technology division is investing a good deal of thought and energy into researching what's going on elsewhere in promoting universal access on college and university campuses.

I have to admit that, as someone whose decrease in vision can be fixed with a simple pair of glasses or contacts and as someone who is not current on the lingo in either disability studies or the various communities of people with disabilities, I was a bit nervous about attending the conference. Intensely curious and wanting to learn more, but nervous. (I soon learned that with Cathy as my very forgiving guide, I really had no need to worry. I was especially delighted when she took me to a fascinating discussion at a sci-fi literary salon for the blind.)

We spent two days at the conference, the first entirely on our feet as we explored four huge ballrooms of vendors selling technologies designed for people with disabilities ranging from dyslexia to autism to paralysis to blindness. I'm reasonably tech savvy, and knowing about all the cool mainstream technologies out there as well as believing there had to be a huge market for some of these assistive technologies, I was ready to be blown away by the awesomeness of various devices.

But: not so much with the awesomeness. The technology--and I know I'm not the first to note this, but it bears repeating--was infantilizing. It wasn't always clear to me which technologies were geared toward children and which were for adults. Pictographs looked like they came out of children's books. Devices featured high-contrast primary colors that looked more at home, in my experience, on babies' toys than on any device an adult would want to be seen with, even if the devices' primary market seemed to me to be people who were completely blind. Many of the devices for the blind seemed oversized. In addition, many vendors offered only mild variations on an unimaginative theme. As we made our way through the exhibition halls, I became increasingly jaded and--I admit--a bit sarcastic.

The next day, while having coffee with Cathy and a fabulous colleague to whom she had introduced me the night before, I couldn't help but comment. They asked me what I thought about what I'd seen and heard, and I described a series of particularly large-buttoned, plastic devices, each of which hung at the waist from a nylon shoulder strap. They looked like little accordions. I said I found the photos on the printed advertising materials particularly frustrating; to me they sent the message, "I'm blind! I can't do anything but stand on a corner and play this accordion!" To my relief, my reaction elicited knowing chuckles from my companions.

That day, we attended conference sessions by universities that had made greater strides in universal design and access than our institution has. I heard some very inspiring and interesting ideas from universities on the forefront of making learning accessible to all students.

For example, advocates of universal design at the University of Texas at Austin, have not only provided guidelines on making websites accessible regardless of whether they use HTML or rich media, but have made available a dashboard through which campus webmasters can compare their sites' accessibility with others on campus. UTA has encouraged a spirit of competition among the webmasters and has offered webmasters scholarships to AccessU, Knowbility’s annual training institute that aims to make the web empowering for all people.

San José State University also has made a concerted effort at improving the accessibility of instructional materials. The Center for Faculty Development hosts faculty in residence specializing in the accessibility of instructional materials and offers a ton of resources on making instructional materials accessible. Faculty can, for example, learn how to create a PDF that is readable by text-to-voice software.

As a teaching consultant at my university, I must admit I'm dreading the day when the university system mandates universal design. Don't get me wrong--I want the university to embrace universal design, but I'm not looking forward to working with faculty who see overhauling their learning materials as just one. more. thing. they have to do.

Thanks to Cathy's chairing of the campus's electronic accessibility committee, we're taking a different approach. With faculty, we're trying to avoid the language of mandates and compliance and liability and instead talk about opportunities and social justice. What new opportunities open up for all students when we explicitly consider students with disabilities in our course planning, and when we think less about "accommodating" those students than we do about changing the ways we teach to better challenge all students?

What such challenges may look like, I'm still trying to figure out. For example, I'm also working on a visual literacy initiative at my university. Along with another mentor of mine, Professor of Education and visual sociologist Jon Wagner, I'm now thinking about the intersection of universal design principles with the campus's recent incorporation of visual literacy into its general education requirements. Should the university be thinking about multimodal and multimedia literacies instead of focusing on literacies that rely on one sense? And shouldn't all students be developing aural literacies as well as visual ones?

There are a kajillion resources on universal design, but based on my recent research, I recommend these:

Knowbility's blog addresses technology issues as wide-ranging as Facebook's recent redesign, an accessible version of Twitter, and universal design in voting.

Glenda Sims (the goodwitch), "the self-appointed web standards evangelist and accessibility goddess" at the University of Texas at Austin--who also was one of the speakers at the conference--writes about the twin frustration and satisfaction of educating software vendors about accessibility.

Visit As Your World Changes, where the blogger is adjusting to vision loss "with class, using technology."

AccessibleWorld.org "seeks to educate the general public, the disabled community and the professionals who serve them by providing highly relevant information about new products, services, and training opportunities designed specifically to eliminate geographic and access barriers that adversely affect them."

Finally, my favorite find of this evening is Aimee Mullins's latest TED talk, in which the athlete and model talks about prosthetics as delivery mechanisms for superpowers (or super fashions) rather than as markers of disability. Definitely listen for her comments on Pamela Anderson's prosthetics and Mullins's ability to "grow" from 5'8" to 6'1". (And if you're into shoes, you'll definitely dig the prosthetics Mullins showcases during the talk.)

What are your thoughts?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox.

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