Introduction: Disability and Technology
According to the U. S. Department of Commerce, more than half of all Americans use the Internet in some way, but “persons with a disability are only half as likely to have access to the Internet as those without a disability… [a]nd while just under 25% of those without a disability have never used a personal computer, close to 60% of those with a disability fall into that category.” In addition “[a]mong those with a disability, people who have impaired vision… have even lower rates of Internet access and are less likely to use a computer regularly than people with hearing and mobility problems” (National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 2000, p. xv).
Cyndi Rowland, director of the Web Accessibility in Mind (WebAIM) project at Utah State University’s Center for Persons with Disabilities, calls for a “national solution” to the problem of inaccessibility, especially “if we are to abide by civil rights legislation, federal rulings, and common ethics” (Rowland, 2000, p. 10). Understanding the specific needs and concerns of students with disabilities may aid educators, information technology designers, and educational institutions to ensure that students with disabilities, particularly those who are blind or visually impaired, are not left behind in this technological “revolution.”
The Internet and the web have become an integral part of higher education, transforming the educational experiences of all students. In 1997, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the international body that oversees the protocols and operations of the Internet, created the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). WAI is responsible for promoting web functionality for people with disabilities and establishing accessibility guidelines. In this age of computer technology, many of the tools needed to enable students with disabilities to obtain equity in education and beyond already exist. For those involved in educational institutions, these tools can provide opportunities and independence, eliminating the obstacles and barriers that many of the current systems still enable.
A review of the literature related to attitudes and other barriers that people with disabilities must contend with every day at school and at work, the integration of computer technology in postsecondary education, and the needs and concerns of students with disabilities, in particular those who are blind or visually impaired, may provide some insights for future policies and guidelines regarding access and use of computer technologies for students who are blind or visually impaired.
Technology: Enhancing Modern Education
Experiences of people with visual impairments in the workplace and their use of computer technology and the Internet was the focus of a qualitative study conducted in Australia by Williamson, Albrecht, Schauder, and Bow (2001). Primarily through focus group research, the researchers presented the perceived benefits and concerns of the study’s participants. Most agreed that the Internet enabled them to participate in an information and communication format that is becoming a primary source for many people. Many also saw the Internet as enabling them to be less reliant on others and, therefore, facilitating an increase in their own privacy.
However, some were concerned about a reduction in social contact and an increase in isolationism. An additional concern was that there would be a decline in the quality of services from such entities as the government and banks because more is being done online. Training was viewed as critical to successfully using the Internet and computer technology. This, it was believed by many, was the key to achieving equality in the workplace, yet many felt it was a low priority by agencies and workplaces. Cost was also viewed as a barrier to accessing computers and the Internet.
With various Internet advances, more individuals in all sectors of the community are working from home. For visually impaired members of community the Internet has the potential to free them from the restrictions they have experienced in the past while seeking to obtain employment. “Once the challenges of access have been surmounted, [visually impaired] users can take their places in the digitalized workforce” (Williamson et al., 2001, pp. 693-4).
With computer technology becoming a part of all college students’ educational experiences, how are postsecondary schools preparing students for a computer-integrated future? To determine how the use of various technologies affect student learning, Shuell and Farber (2001) conducted a study of 728 sighted undergraduate and graduate students at a large northeastern university, where they found that, in general, students perceived the use of computer technology in their courses to be very beneficial. Students also believed that the use of communication technology brought an increase in their sense of involvement in a course.
Eighty-eight percent of the sample indicated that their use of computer technology helped them learn materials and skills, and 75 percent indicated that using computer technology improved the quality of interaction with their instructor. Students also viewed the use of dynamic computer presentations and the Internet in lectures very favorably; it kept their interest, and the students believed that it improved their learning. Students also favored electronic forums as a way to interact with their peers (e.g., email, listservs, and newsgroups) and believed that the use of these forms of computer technology increased the quality of these interactions.
Another interesting finding in this study was that students who considered themselves to be more independent tended to respond more favorably to these technologies and the learning benefits associated with them. One theme of this study was the appreciation that students had of the ability for computer technologies to enable independent learning. When serving the needs of students with disabilities, independence is a key factor to consider.
Lewis, Coursol, and Khan (2001) examined the use and effect of computer technology on student development and education. They surveyed 124 sighted undergraduate students who attended a regional public institution in the Midwest. Technology choices, which included use of email, the Internet, and multimedia, were based on technology trends in higher education.
Results indicated that the majority of students were comfortable with computer technology, using such tools as email and the Internet for both academic and social purposes. Both men and women spent about the same amount of time on email, class assignments on the computer, playing computer games, and shopping on the Internet. However, women spent significantly fewer hours surfing the Internet than men did.
Consistent with Shuell and Farber (2001), Lewis et al. (2001) also confirmed that students believe the use of email increases their frequency of communication with faculty, which, in turn, enhances the faculty-student relationship and enables faculty to be more accessible. The issue of accessibility was discussed in this report and how there is a need for higher educational institutions to address this issue, which the authors indicate to be a social problem that has significant economic and social implications. They point to the need to recognize that there are some students, including those with disabilities, who may be at a disadvantage when a course requires the retrieval of materials from the web.
The use of computer technology has become an accepted and expected component of every student’s postsecondary educational experience. To better understand the use and effectiveness of these technologies, all of the studies used in this paper that focused on computer technology in higher education examined one or more aspects of the integration of these technologies into the educational system. The Arant (1996) study focused on the use of the Internet and the World Wide Web in higher education.
Employing both qualitative and quantitative methods (phone interviews and a survey), it concluded that, while using online components to traditional courses did not support the apparent belief that online education saved time and money, it did change the way in which courses were taught, with additional online portions being incorporated into courses. For students who are visually impaired or blind, this could result in additional barriers.
Computer Technology and Visually Impaired Students
In an extensive two-year study in Canada, Fichten, Barile, and Asuncion (1999) investigated the computer, information, learning, and adaptive technology needs and concerns of Canadian postsecondary students with disabilities. Of the findings from this study, computers were found to be critical to the success of students with disabilities, and the vast majority of students, regardless of gender, age, program of study, or type of disability, could and did use computer technologies to help them succeed. An important development that emerged from this study was that students often “cross-used” technologies. For example, while students with visual impairments are expected to use screen reader software, students with learning disabilities also used this software.
The students in this study considered computers as “electronic curb cuts,” enabling technologies that allow students with disabilities to better prepare for and participate in the information-based economy of tomorrow. Fichten, et al. (1999) urged postsecondary education institutions to design for accessibility and to consider the needs of students with disabilities before making purchases. What the authors describe as “troubling” is “the absence, in many cases, of planning for access” for students with disabilities by postsecondary institutions (Fichten et al., p. 179).
As some technological barriers fall, others are slowly erected as new technologies continue to become part of a student’s educational experiences. One suggestion the authors had for government funding bodies to help raise awareness of these issues was to take accessibility issues into consideration when reviewing grant applications and to create incentives for businesses to develop and market technologies that are accessible to all students. The authors wrote: The enormous potential of computers to remove barriers to students with disabilities and concerns over barriers posed by limitations in access were central issues noted by respondents in all categories in all phases of the research (p. 180).
Shaw and Giacquinta (2000) used a questionnaire that was very carefully developed, field tested, and revised several times before being used for this study. The sample consisted of 412 sighted graduate students. This study was very well thought out and documented. The authors suggested that faculty integrate more computer technology into their curricula (e.g., with the use of such tools as Blackboard, WebCT, and course web pages). They did not, however, take into consideration the ramifications of that suggestion as it applies to students who are blind or visually impaired. Unfortunately, unless having been asked to consider it, most faculty do not think about students who are blind or visually impaired (or who have any other disability) when they begin to integrate technology into their curriculum.
Shuell and Farber (2001) piloted a questionnaire and discussed it within two focus groups before using it for the study. Their sample was composed of 728 sighted undergraduate and graduate students. Both qualitative and quantitative data showed a link between active, participatory learning and the positive perception of students regarding technology as a learning tool; they also confirmed that the use of technology made the classes seem more personal to the students.
However, the authors caution that the apparent relationship found in their study between a positive perception of computer technology by students and students’ actual learning is still unclear. Lewis et al. (2001) used an author-constructed survey, which they described as “a self-report, forced-choice survey.” One of the problems with this study is that a self-report is subject to response bias, although the results of this study were consistent with the others regarding a positive perception and use of computer technology by students in postsecondary institutions. Both Shuell et al. and Lewis et al. recommended that future research focus on the impact of technology on student learning. Lewis et al. also recommended the need to examine the use of technology among specific groups, such as students who are Hispanic, African American, and commuters.
Given the state of existing literature in the area of postsecondary students who are blind or visually impaired, combined with the overwhelming integration of computer technology into the academic environment, there is still a need for a more substantive exploration into how postsecondary institutions are supporting and serving the best interests of these students. Disability scholars Susan R. Jones and Julie Smart point out the relationship between individuals who have a disability and how society views people with disabilities. They assert that disability is a universal issue, and yet there is no single disability experience.
With a focus on the prejudices, discrimination and stigma experienced by people with disabilities and their responses to their disabilities, Jones (1996) and Smart (2001) define disability as a socially constructed phenomenon that combines the experiences of those living with a disability together with their environments. Goggin and Newell (2003) further state that “in the name of inclusion” society builds disability into digital technologies, arguing that disability has been constructed in the technological world of computing and computer networks and that there is a need to critically analyze the ways in which it is constructed within contemporary society.
Arant, Jr., M. D. (1996, August). Going online to teach journalism and mass communication. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED399596)
Fichten, C, Barile, M., & Asuncion, J. V. (1999). Learning technologies:Students with disabilities inpostsecondary education [Montreal: Final Report to the Office of Learning Technologies]. Adaptech Project,Dawson College. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED433625)
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