02 January 2009

2009: The Year of Universal Access

It is time to stop making - and stop accepting - excuses. It is now 2009. The tenth year of the 21st Century, and more than a dozen years after court and US Department of Ed decisions made it clear that everyone has a right to information and communications in real time and in 'equivalently effective' forms. 25 years after the Macintosh PC appeared and 15 years after "Windows95" created standard, accessible, computer platforms. All the reasons, all those "we wish we coulds" have now fully expired.

It is time to make 2009 the Year of Universal Access: in education. in employment. in communication.

Because I, and so many of us, are tired of still fighting the old fights - over and over. Because so many are still left out because people in power are lazy or intentionally uninformed. Because we will not start digging ourselves out of the huge mess we are in without the contributions of everyone who could contribute if we'd grant them their basic human rights.

Let me tell you a story:

Back in 1997 I was a student at Grand Valley State University, struggling in my fourth (or so) attempt to get a Bachelors Degree. I was also working for GVSU, for "Academic Computing/Instructional Technology" and had just shifted from being a "Tech Monkey" (pulling and terminating network cable) to being a network programmer/troubleshooter - back in the days when you had to program "PROM" (Programmable Read-Only-Memory) chips on network cards if you were going to build sophisticated connections.

As a student I was battling with those old proprietary RFBD books-on-cassette. Remember those? You could only play them on a specific, really embarrassing looking cassette players that screamed "RETARD" if you carried it. The books were usually read onto cassette by very bored minimum-wage work study students who not only routinely mispronounced everything, they literally fell asleep at times while reading.

These experiences had two lasting affects on my thinking - I despise specific text formats - even Daisy Readers - because all I wanted back then was a book-on-tape I could listen to in my car or my walkman - something "universal." And I never knock computer voices in text-to-speech, because I know that the alternative was often much worse.

For writing I was totally dependent on the kindness of professors, along with careful scheduling to avoid taking classes requiring in class writing assignments.

Then I signed up to participate in a research project for ADHD college students. And I met a wonderful person and brilliant researcher, Dr. Elizabeth Schaughency, who started to ask the right questions. Her questions lead her to ask me two things: First, she said, "There are computer software programs that read to the blind, so there might be things that will read to you." Then she said, "Tell your boss to give you an old laptop that you can use for notetaking and writing in class."

Those questions lead me to Ray Kurzweil and Jim Fruchterman, to WYNN 1.0, and to a conversation with my boss who looked at me and said, "If there's stuff out there that will help you I bet it will help a lot of other students. Take the year and see what you can find that we can bring to campus."

Remember. This was 1997. To get big monitors we needed massive CRT displays that weighed a hundred pounds. To get text-to-speech sound we needed super-premium sound cards. To run speech recognition we needed very expensive RAM upgrades. To swap keyboards without restarting the computer we needed special "hot-swap" boxes that the BigKeys keyboard people made. To even plug headsets into the front of the computer we needed special add-on boxes that we purchased from Andrea.

At the end of the year I came back with a flood of solutions: Zoom-Text, WYNN, ViaVoice, Dvortyboards and BigKeys, and all sorts of other things. "Should we build a special lab here?" my boss asked, indicating the computer center. "No," I told him, "I'm too old for a resource room, I want at least one fully accessible station everyplace we have computers." And so in every lab, on every campus, we installed adjustable tables, giant monitors, scanners, fully equipped workstations, and created boxes of "check-out-able" alternative keyboards, mice, and headsets. Then we created web and paper-based instructions for all this. Then we trained every computer lab worker. Then we met with every freshmen English faculty member, discussed "learning disabilities" with them, and explained how these new tools in their writing labs might help. Then we created an email newsletter about accessibility that went to every department chair in the university.

In 1998 this was all quite difficult. I made hundreds of phone calls, thousands of pre-Google web searches, bought scores of products and tested them myself, sat through dozens of meetings with reluctant administrators. Not many obvious traces of our efforts - create@gvsu - remain, but the access - to a large extent does. Hundreds of students with disabilities have succeeded at GVSU in the decade which has passed, often, to a significant extent, because the right tools were available. But it was expensive. It required much "original" research." It took a massive amount of effort. And it required my luck at having, "the best boss ever."

So, again, here's why 2009 must be our year of universal access.

Because now, it is really quite easy. Now the information is all out there, free and available (though if you want to pay me, or anyone else, for a bit for advice, I'm sure we can make a deal). Now Windows Vista comes with Speech Recognition. Now a $60 scanner will convert text to digital form and free text-to-speech solutions will read it. Now you can download an entire suite of AccessApps for free. Now Adobe Acrobat Reader 8 reads to you for free. Now all kinds of free software turns mobile phones into access tools. Now, if you need to buy the "expensive stuff" you'll pay less - in actual dollars (or Euros) - for fabulous software and hardware than we had to pay a decade ago.

So, again, there are no excuses. No excuses for inaccessible web sites. No excuses for school computers without text-to-speech, speech recognition, screen magnification, and text-converting scanners. No excuses for computer environments anywhere without choices of keyboards and mice (including on-screen - including scanning switch-access - keyboards). No excuses for employers, or schools, requiring "keyboarding" on specific keyboards. No excuses for teachers or employers who will not text their students or workers - allowing media conversion for messages. No excuses for rules against - or network blocks on - important access tools, whether those be web sites or installed software or mobile phones. Security can no longer be an excuse to deprive people of their civil rights. Of course we are long past excuses for physical barriers, including adjustable computer desks.

So I'm asking you to act in 2009. To act every time you see an inaccessible school or public computer. To act every time you notice a rule which blocks access (no phones in school, for example). To act every time you see any government agency or public institution (banks? schools?) fail to provide alternative ways to access content. To act every time you see a barrier.

Act: Say something. Complain. Follow up. Lecture. Demand answers. Get in "their" faces. Be clear: "The time for excuses is past." "The time for "I didn't knows' is long past."

Universal Access is not a pipe dream. It is a real thing which now is there for the taking, if in 2009 we will simply start demanding that we take it.

- Ira Socol


Paul Hamilton said...

Thanks for the story. The historical context is helpful. Thanks, too, for the explicit practical suggestions. I think you may need to make this the 15th post that you'd "really like everyone to read". I know that I would really like EVERYONE to read it! --Paul

atruger said...

I just forwarded this to all of my admin, assistive tech team and my tech coordinator! I was very motivated and energized to take action from this thought provoking post. Thanks so much for all of your time and dedication.


Christine Southard said...

Great post Ira. Universal access should include access to sports too. I've been teaching at the Adaptive Sports Foundation for many years where we provide sports instruction to individuals of all ages with physical and cognitive disabilities.

Lisa Parisi said...

Another great post. I had a conversation with my 13 year old this week. "Do you know who the classified students are in your class?" I asked. "Yes." And she starts listing them. "How do you know?" "They get to use calculators and computers, they get extra test time, they get asked constantly if they understand what is going on." "Do you ever get to use any of those? Do your teachers ask you if you understand?" "Only when they ask the whole class. If I don't raise my hand, they don't ask."

My frustration is over the fact that 1. she knew all the classified students as if they had labels on them and 2. she was not able to use any extra tools, whether she needs them or not.

Christine and I work constantly make sure that tools are available for everyone so no one feels isolated and everyone gets what they need. And, as you said, it is not so difficult to do so today. So what is the hold up?

Brian Wojcik said...

Ira - excellent post. The historical and personal nature of the post provides an excellent context to illustrate the rationale for the banner that so many of us carry. Thank you, sincerely, for sharing. I am going to add this to my class reading list for my undergrads.

Lisa - I share your frustration. When do we move away from labels and move towards just meeting students' individual needs? I admire the work both you and Christine are doing.

Gaell said...

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