Assistive technology more vital than ever in an online world

Serena Bettis

Struggling with technology is a common joke, but for some it can be a true barrier to learning and functioning in an online environment. 

At Colorado State University, the Assistive Technology Resource Center provides opportunities for students and employees with disabilities to thrive in the university setting. 

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“(Our role) is to meet legal mandates, ensuring that a student’s educational opportunities are equitable, and students with a disability are (equal) to those that don’t have a disability,” said Marla Roll, the ATRC director and an assistant professor in the department of occupational therapy. “Moving beyond compliance, we try to foster a technology environment that is inclusive for everybody.”

To gain access to the ATRC, students with disabilities must first consult with the Student Disability Center, according to the ATRC website. At the SDC, students will go through an accommodations process, where they will provide documentation of their disability, meet with a specialist and determine the accommodations that best fit their needs. 

In an email to The Collegian, the SDC wrote that they focus less on a student’s diagnosis and more on the barriers the student encounters. 

“If we think they could benefit from working with ATRC we will refer them at that point,” the SDC wrote. “After that, it is up to the student to reach out to the ATRC and make an appointment and begin that process.” 

The SDC wrote that if the student has to wait more than a week or two to get an appointment at the ATRC, the SDC’s Coordinator of Accessible Text can provide the student with PDF formats of their textbooks and give them information about text-to-speech features. 

Roll said that while the ATRC provides both hardware and software assistive technology for students and employees, she sees that literacy support tools that allow students to interact with content, particularly Read&Write and Kurzweil 3000, are used the most.

Moving beyond compliance, we try to foster a technology environment that is inclusive for everybody.”-Marla Roll, ATRC director

Those softwares offer services such as text-to-speech and speech-to-text, text and picture dictionaries, highlighting tools to create summaries and adjustments to the display settings on documents.

“The really powerful thing is you see (the text), and you hear it read at the same time, so kind of multimodal learning,” Roll said. “(It) can be something simple like you need more white space on the page or you need to get rid of harsh white backgrounds. … There’s just a variety of reasons reading can be challenging, and I think that’s especially true of a lot of reading online.”

ATRC administrative assistant Chelsea Hansen said that note-taking assistive technology is widely used, and the assistive technology rooms in the Morgan Library are popular as well.

Hansen said assistive technology and advocacy is important to create a bottom line of accessibility for all students. 

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“I think raising awareness wherever (students) can is a great way of doing that,” Hansen said. “It’s important to know that accessibility benefits everyone, it’s not just about people with disabilities who will benefit from universal design.”

The ATRC also offers online accessibility support, with tips on how to make Canvas pages, PowerPoints and other class documents accessible to all students.   

“The content has to be accessible for the assistive technology to work well,” Roll said. “So there’s a correlation between accessibility and effective use of those tools.”

Roll said that all PDF files in their raw form read just like an image file, so for students who are using text-to-speech software or for blind students who need to use screen readers, the content inside the PDF is inaccessible. 

To fix this, Roll explained, the ATRC can train faculty on how to do optical character recognition, which turns a PDF into readable, searchable text. 

“What I’ve seen, which I think is a positive … with this move to all online, it really elevated the topic of accessibility,” Roll said. “All of a sudden, everybody is online and (thinking), ‘Gosh, what do I do to make sure that online content is going to work for all of my students?’ … I think in the big scheme, like long-term picture, it’s going to change the way people teach and put content together because once you start doing it, it becomes part of your workflow.”

Serena Bettis can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @serenaroseb.