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Finding the Right IT Tools for Persons with Disabilities
August 10, 2011
Robyn Fizz, IS&T
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IS&T’s Assistive Technology Information Center (ATIC) helps community members with disabilities use information technology (IT) optimally as they study and work. As another academic year comes into view, ATIC staff are out in front, testing IT tools for those who have various disabilities or temporary injuries, such as visual or hearing impairments, dyslexia, or repetitive strain injuries.

Mary Ziegler, IT Manager of Accessibility and Usability, notes that ATIC performs three key functions:

  • Matching assistive technology to the needs of individuals through consultations and demos. Technologies range from speech recognition and screen reading software to alternative keyboards and pointing devices.
  • Helping to make academic courses accessible. With MIT’s emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math, making formulas, graphs, diagrams and other visual course materials accessible is one of ATIC’s greatest challenges.
  • Providing a technology-enabled workspace for students with disabilities. Room 7-143 is a 24-hour/7-day-a-week workspace for students who’ve been granted access as an accommodation for a disability-related need.

For each of these functions, ATIC has promising initiatives under way.

IVEO and VoiceOver
Technology keeps changing and that’s as true for assistive technology as any other. Ziegler and her colleagues have recently been exploring two software tools, IVEO and VoiceOver.

The IVEO Learning System, from ViewPlus, combines three modalities – touch, sound, and sight – using a special tablet connected to a computer. Tactile pictures are coded electronically, then placed on the IVEO tablet. When a user touches the picture at specific points, a computer voice reads the associated text labels and descriptions. (For a video demonstration, see IVEO’s website.)

ATIC staff are using the IVEO system to create graphics of core concepts in two required undergraduate courses, Physics 8.01L and Biology 7.012.

VoiceOver is a full-featured screen reader that comes with Mac OS X. ATIC’s testing of this tool underscores one of their roles: to assess how well an assistive technology meets the needs of incoming students. ATIC staff found that while VoiceOver is effective for checking email and surfing the Web on a Mac, it does not work well with many applications required for MIT coursework.

Accessible Curriculum
Each semester, ATIC works with MIT faculty and teaching assistants to review lecture and study materials, helping them develop accessible materials or, in some cases, creating those materials. As part of that effort, ATIC has been reviewing materials on Stellar, the MIT Course Management System, and creating parallel course sites as needed.

According to Ziegler, “The framework on Stellar is very accessible, but sometimes the materials are not. As faculty engage with ATIC earlier in the process, the need to convert materials to an accessible format is reduced. Our goal is to have all Stellar course sites equally accessible to all.”

Beyond Building 7
While the ATIC space in Building 7 is open around the clock, Ziegler understands the benefits of having accessible workstations at several sites on campus. In a collaborative effort with the MIT Libraries and Student Disabilities Services, ATIC has deployed a workstation in Dewey Library, with workstations in Hayden and Barker Libraries expected to be ready for the fall semester. These pilot workstations will provide the same user experience and much of the same software found on ATIC’s Building 7 computers. While only available during the libraries’ open hours, these pilot workstations will give students with disabilities additional options for study.

ATIC is also investigating ways to more easily distribute software, where vendor licenses make that possible. And as mobile devices become more accessible, students are asking ATIC to explore solutions in that realm as well.

Finding new ways to provide distributed and mobile solutions may be important to ATIC’s success in the future, as the number of students at MIT with disabilities continues to grow. Ziegler sees this growth as an expected and healthy trend: “We have a generation of students who have grown up under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). As K-12 schools do a better job of making math and technology accessible, and as student aspirations and expectations for equal opportunity are nurtured, more tech-enabled students will be coming to MIT.”