The goal is equal access to information and communication, with equal meaning "at the same time," and "in the same place," and "in a form that is as usable," as the information and communication provided to any other student.
When Enda Guinan posted yesterday about Assistive Technology planning at NUI Maynooth, I thought, we all need to be asking these questions and making these plans.
Enda begins with the most important thought: "Next semester we will have TextHelp and Inspiration on every PC across the campus. As these are our most popular applications, I reckon that by mainstreaming their availability, the needs of a lot of students will be taken care of. Students with mild dyslexia for example won’t need to use the current ATC."
Years ago, at Grand Valley State University, I was asked if we wanted to develop specialized labs for our new AT applications. "No thanks," I told my boss, "I'm done with resource rooms, I want this stuff everywhere that everyone else gets to access computers." And last week, on Karen Janowski's blog, I noted that education for those with "special needs" will never get better until "regular education" gets better. "Regular education should be able to include, and foster success and independence for, perhaps 98% of students," I said, responding to her call for better supports in every school.
So Enda's step one should be everyone's step one. Every computer in your school, on your campus, should have the basic tools. Whether you install Text-Help's Read-and-Write or Freedom Scientific's WYNN is your preference, I think highly of both literacy support packages but think that your choice will largely depend on what else you are installing (Read-and-Write does more things, WYNN does fewer things with a some stronger supports). But your school needs one of these highly-supportive literacy solutions everywhere (network "concurrent use" licenses are available for both). Dyslexia and other print disabilities represent up to 80% of the "disabled" students in any school population, and weak readers who could benefit from these tools as well, may include as many as many as two-thirds of your students. In addition, word-highlighting text-to-speech systems seem to have significant positives for students with attention issues. Inspiration is another "everywhere" solution. Writing support is essential if the students currently not succeeding are to succeed, and Inspiration is a proven, inexpensive solution.
But those "cost-to-purchase" products should only be part of what is installed everywhere. Your computers must have all "that free stuff" that both builds access and teaches students (and faculty) that supportive technology is everywhere.
Start with Firefox, properly equipped, on every computer. The properly equipped means that FireVox (the blind browser support) and CLiCk-Speak (the dyslexic browser support) are installed, as are right-click dictionaries (US) and spellcheckers (UK) and g-Translate. (You can add the dictionary switcher as well.)
Then make sure the other free text-to-speech solutions are available: WordTalk, NaturalReader, MicrosoftReader (be sure to add Text-To-Speech engine, dictionaries, and RMR conversion tool for MS Word), and PowerTalk for PowerPoint. Zero Dollars, or Euros, or Pounds - but massive impacts for your students.
For screen magnification, iZoomWeb is free, effective, though it works only while you are online in Microsoft Internet Explorer. For low-dexterity keyboarding support - Click-N-Type, the world's best on-screen keyboard is also completely free.
And make sure that Ghotit is prominently displayed in your Firefox bookmark toolbar, so that dyslexic students and English-language-learners have a spellcheck system which works for them.
Another essential online support for your students are Google Accounts. With Google Accounts they will have Google Docs, and the ability (for free, including at home) for CLiCk-Speak to read back their writing to them as they edit, and the ability to collaborate on shared writing. They will also have Google Notebook, and Google Calendar, both of which support both life and academic organization.
And one more thing - those boxes of alternative keyboards and mice, and ready-to-grab headsets. (see this hardware post)
OK, that's the "everywhere" stuff, but as Enda points out, you need two other support centers. You need a place where students can experiment, learn, screw up, that's private enough to keep the costs of failure low, and thus encourage risk-taking. And that learning lab can double as a low-incidence disability support centre, with less "typical" software and hardware, like JAWS and Braille printers, Zoom-Text or MAGic, and AAC tools and switch devices.
And you need a place, and a program, of faculty training and support. Just as students need a place to safely play, experiment, and learn, so do teachers and professors. This space needs to double as a materials accessibility lab, where everything from PDF accessibility to website accessibility to captioning is as simple and easy as possible. If it is not, your delivery system will be ineffective because the teaching materials are likely to remain inaccessible.
If your school is not set up as above, you have a long summer of work ahead of you. Not having accessible ICT is the same as not having accessible entries or accessible toilet facilities. Or maybe it is worse, since the very purpose of the school is the transmission of information, and if some students are denied the fair access to that, there's no reason for those students to come to the school at all.
- Ira Socol