Photo courtesy of Flickr user Keoni Cabral.

Mobile Apps and Online Learning Take Center Stage at City University of New York Accessibility Conference

Andrew Lucchesi, CUNY Graduate Center

Every year, as a wrap-up to the City University of New York’s Disability Awareness month, the CUNY Assistive Technology Services network (CATS) hosts its annual conference. Hailed by Frank D. Sanchez, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, as the “preeminent disability access conference on the east coast,” this event features presentations on what’s new in disability services and assistive technology work with a heavy focus on public higher education. This year’s conference, hosted in midtown Manhattan at John Jay College of Criminal Justice on May 1st, 2015, drew a range of disability service providers, assistive technology specialists, and faculty from around the New York metropolitan area.

In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the passage of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), this year’s conference took time to acknowledge the struggles and achievements of disability service providers, assistive technologists, and student activists throughout CUNY’s long history. At the same time, the conference theme of “Student Success in the Digital Age” drew attention to how the rapid digitization of higher education, as well as the proliferation of new mobile technologies, are changing the landscape of disability access in the 21st century.

Mobile apps offer new alternatives to legacy assistive technology tools

Many sessions at the conference explored the benefits of new mobile apps to help students with disabilities be more successful in their course work. In the past, students who could benefit from technological support would often be wholly dependent on disability services offices for access to specialized hardware and software designed to serve their needs. However, with the proliferation of smartphones and a recent flood of accessibility apps, students are now better able to cheaply and effectively find tools that help them keep up with the demands of college life.

Take, for example, Kurzweil 3000, a highly sophisticated assistive technology program designed for students with text-based disabilities such as dyslexia. This program combines a range of tools to enhance the reading experience, including Optical Character Recognition scanning, interactive highlighting and text annotation, and customizable text-to-voice and visual tracking read-along tools. Combined in one powerful program, Kurzweil 3000 provides an interactive and immersive reading experience to help students with text-based disabilities move more quickly through and get more meaning from what they read.

While Kurzweil 3000 offers many concrete benefits for students with text-based disabilities, it has some serious drawbacks for both disability offices and for students. One factor is price, since an individual license for the program retails for $1,395. Another factor is the complexity of the program itself. Like many legacy assistive technology tools (including the screen-reader program JAWS, used by many blind and vision impaired students), Kurzweil 3000 has a steep learning curve for new users. Both the price and the obligation to provide students with adequate training for these programs end up putting substantial strains on the resources of disability services offices.

Now, however, for a small fraction of the cost, students can download a range of less sophisticated but much more user-friendly apps that can provide many of the benefits of the legacy assistive technology programs. One standout app mentioned in multiple sessions for its assistive-technology possibilities was Voice Dream, a mobile text-to-speech reading program available in its most basic form for $9.99 (iOS only). While the basic version does not have the wide range of voices or note-taking options Kurzweil offers, it can read aloud a wide range of scanned texts and web content, even allowing users to link the app with cloud storage sites like Dropbox, potentially allowing students to organize their readings for a whole semester’s worth of classes in a single location. Like Kurzweil 3000, Voice Dream reads texts aloud at an adjustable speed while simultaneously highlighting the spoken text, both very useful functionalities for readers with text-processing disabilities. Voice Dream does not have an OCR scanning function, however, so students will need to combine it with other tools (with their own separate price tags) in order to approach the full utility of Kurzweil 3000.

The mobile assistive technology boom allows students (who often have more comfort with new mobile apps than campus assistive technology experts) to achieve new levels of independence in meeting their learning needs. Now, students themselves can own the hardware they need for assistive technology in the form of their personal mobile devices. However, while students have more options in the mobile marketplace, mobile apps still have a long way to go before they will be able to replace the specialized hardware that disability offices continue to provide, including braille embossers and closed circuit amplification systems.

Online learning poses new challenges for legally mandated access

While most of the sessions at the conference took a tool-focused approach, highlighting specific user needs and hardware/software options, there was also an important focus throughout the conference on universal design in all aspects of online teaching and learning. The phrase universal design emerges from a movement for architects and designers to plan their products, from the beginning, for the widest possible range of users. When designing physical buildings, this means using floor plans that minimize the use of stairs or other architectural features that exclude people with disabilities. As many presenters at the conference emphasized, given the rapid expansion of online teaching in higher education, it is pivotally important that faculty and administrators keep this universal-design mentality in mind when developing or purchasing online learning tools.

Andrew Cioffi of Suffolk University observed in his keynote presentation that there are serious legal implications for colleges and universities that develop new online extensions of their institutions without adequately considering whether they can be used by disabled students and faculty. While the Americans with Disabilities Act does not directly mention online spaces, a slew of court cases have seen prominent institutions charged with civil rights violations for creating online learning platforms that can’t be navigated by blind users or web video lectures that lack captions for Deaf and hearing-impaired users. For example, according to Cioffi, both MIT and Harvard have come under legal scrutiny for ADA compliance after releasing public webcast material without functional captioning. In this context, Cioffi argued that all institutions need thoughtful and consistent policies for testing the accessibility of new online platforms.

Institutions must also make sure that faculty who use technology in the classroom fully understand how to design accessible course sites and accessible content for their classes. In most cases, access issues arise when instructors do not adequately consider how blind or deaf students can access their course content. Without clearly laid-out online learning environments, blind students who use the JAWS screenreader may not be able to navigate course websites, interact with discussion forums, or otherwise engage in the work on an online or hybrid class.

Likewise, while instructors certainly mean well, few think about how including multimodal texts in their course materials, including video, audio, or static images, might exclude students with sensory impairments. Instructors must learn to caption their videos, transcribe their audio, and give meaningful textual descriptions for images, or else the new affordances of multimodal texts easily become discriminatory barriers to the full engagement of disabled students in the class. As time goes by, disability services offices will be more and more able to provide this kind of training in course accessibility to instructors.

While this conference explored a range of specific digital tools, its greatest value was in providing a snapshot of the current shifting landscape of disability access in the digitizing world of academia. Students have access to new resources for sure, but they are also facing new barriers as institutions rush forward without considering the needs of all users.

For more perspectives on disability, access, and technology, stay tuned for the upcoming special issue of JITP, “Disability as Insight, Access as the Function of Design,” edited by Sushil K. Oswal and Andrew Lucchesi, coming Fall 2015.



About the Author

Andrew Lucchesi is a doctoral candidate in the English PhD program at the CUNY Graduate Center. His dissertation explores the history of disability-access programming in public higher education and argues for writing programs to be designed with better attention to access and inclusion.

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