17 May 2011

The Freedom Stick and "Massive Resistance"

In 1994 the United States government added the requirement to "Section 504"1 that all schools (primary, secondary, post-secondary) which receive "any federal funds" ($1.00 or more per year, in any form, including student university loans), have accessible computers available, and a system of in place for information and communications technology which would offer students with "disabilities" real time access "equivalently."

In 1996 the United States Department of Education sent the following in a letter to all U.S. schools:
    "Schools should remain cognizant of their responsibility to provide equal educational opportunity for individuals with disabilities when procuring technology systems for the use of students and staff, particularly multimedia, graphics and graphical interface (such as Windows) applications. Obviously, every computer or piece of technology equipment need not be equipped for use by persons who have disabilities. But overall, technology devices and systems of technology used by students, teachers, or other school employees should be capable of being used, or adapted for use, by individuals with disabilities. It is quite possible to unintentionally construct new barriers when acquiring educational technology systems if schools do not consider accessibility features. In many cases, decisions now being made about the selection of systems configurations, and computer hardware and software will provide the technological infrastructure to be used in schools for years to come. If every school adds consideration of accessibility to its decision-making process when acquiring technology, it will greatly increase the ability of students, teachers, and other individuals with disabilities to participate equally in the information age with their nondisabled peers.

    "Students with disabilities must have an equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from a school district's programs and activities. If computer technology is part of a public school's education program, Section 504 and Title II of the ADA require a school to provide students with disabilities with accessible computer hardware and software so that they are not excluded from the education program. In addition, the computer hardware must be placed in a location that is accessible to students with disabilities. If technology is purchased that cannot be made accessible, it will have to be retrofitted, replaced, or some other adaptation will have to be made so that students with disabilities can have an equal opportunity to participate in the education program. If equal access to an education program can be provided through other means, a particular technology may not need to be fully accessible to every student. However, technology should be readily available that can provide access for individuals with all types of disabilities. Where technology is the "sole provider" of information or services, for example, an electronic library system or a single station that provides Internet access, it must either be accessible or be able to be made accessible in order to provide students with disabilities with an equal opportunity to participate in the education program.

    "In addition, the ADA requires public elementary and a secondary school to take appropriate steps to ensure that communication with individuals with disabilities are as effective as communication with others. Communication in the context of information technology means the transfer of information through computers, including the resources of the Internet."
    - Assistant Secretary Judy Heumann, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Department of Education, Mary E. Switzer Building, 330 C Street, S.W., Washington, D.C. 202022
Why quote all this? Because it is now 15 years later, and in most schools I visit, despite the ability to do the above becoming infinitely easier and less expensive than it was when I first read this letter in 1996, there is little compliance with either the spirit or the letter of the law.

Back "in the last century" we spent a fortune equipping computers at GrandValley State University with these access technologies.3 (Really, scroll down and read the list, you'll be entertained) We did this for two reasons (not because we were wonderful people): First, it was the law, and in 1999, the law was already five years old and we realized that just about every bit of computer equipment the university owned had been purchased after the law went into effect. Second, our "disabled" students were our students. They had every right to the same educational experience as everyone else.

But GVSU was a real "outlier." In 2011 the response to these laws (Sections 504 and 508, the Americans with Disabilities Act) from most American schools has been akin to the "Massive Resistance" to racial integration in some American states during the 1960s. Schools have - by and large - "just said "no"' to disability access. 

So, over the past half decade people around the world have tried to develop ways for students to circumvent this obstructionism to inclusion and civil rights. The RSC-Scotland North+East developed the Access Apps project. Alec Couros of the University of Regina may have invented the term "Freedom Sticks" in 2007 to describe his efforts (I'm giving him credit, not lexigraphical historian being close at hand). And here in Michigan, we took Scotland's brilliant work, Americanized some of it, built a highly-accessible version of Firefox Portable to run on it, grabbed Alec's name, and put together the "MITS Freedom Stick" which you can download in zip form by clicking here (it goes on to a 4gb USB Flash Drive).

Plugging this stick into "most any" USB port on a Windows (or Linux) computer will give a student accessible browsing, a full-featured text-to-speech system, links to a wide variety of free digital text sources, a scientific calculator, open source equivalents to Inspiration, Photoshop, Camtasia, Zip, writing supports, games, simulations, and a full version of Open Office - among other things.

In other words, it makes using these computers, accessing the curriculum, communicating, possible for many students who, 17 years later, remain locked out of educational opportunity.

So I encourage you to download our Freedom Stick or one from RSC-Scotland N+E and give your students the freedom to learn, the freedom to be independent, despite your school's intent to prevent that.

But I have to give a warning... we used to say "any Windows computer," but recently we have discovered that some schools have teamed up with McAfee software to create a system which vandalizes (destroys) these drives when they are plugged into a computer. Now why any school would want to install malware designed to damage the property of others is beyond me, but I have to warm you that this stuff is out there. So before you give this tool to your students you may want to check with both your system administrators and your school district's/division/LEA administration, to make sure McAfee "virus protection" is either removed or adjusted.

And one more note: Easiest way to dupe these drive (that I have found) is by using this little free tool from Germany - USB Image Tool. It allows you to create an image of your flash drive and reproduce it quickly and accurately.

- Ira Socol

1 - Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as amended.
2 - This letter was included in the "Assistive Technology/Accessible Workstation Campus Plan: Grand Valley State University" of March 31, 1999, which I wrote.
3 - Grand Valley State University "Basic" Accessibility Stations 1999.
333 mhz desktops                                           $1,050.00 each
128 mb RAM                                                  $   210.00 each
8.4 gb hard drives (basic)                                $   175.00 each
18 gb hard drives (advanced)                         $   420.00 each
64 bit sound cards                                           $     95.00 each
32x CD-ROMs                                               $     80.00 each
17 inch monitors                                             $   226.00 each
cable extensions for mouse, keyboard, mic, and headphones to allow easy front access
both trackball and mouse available
Logitech marble fx trackball         $     70.00 each
Ergonomic Scroll-Mouse              $     20.00 each
alternate keyboards available
BigKeysPlus “abc” keyboard       $   169.00 each
BigKeysPlus “qw” keyboard        $   169.00 each
BigKeysMac “ABC” keyboard    available summer 99  
2 keyboard adapter                       $     35.00 each
BigKeys keyguard                                    $     95.00 each
ORCCA keyguard/keyboard        $   140.00 each
noise reduction headsets
CyberAcoustics Headsets             $     20.00 each
noise reduction headsets               $     26.00 each
Spec. Noise reduction headsets    $     90.00 each
CyberAcoustics “CyberHat”        $     20.00 each
Netscape Communicator
Norton Anti-Virus
TN 3270
Zoom-Text Xtra Level 2 screen magnifier/reader (site license)
Site License for 39 stations
Unlimited License                    $7,750.00
recommended so program could be installed on instructor stations campus wide, allowing screen magnification                              
WYNN Reader (site license)
Site License for 24 basic stations
25 user WYNN reader                  $7,000.00
IBM ViaVoice98 (site license)
Single User
ViaVoice Executive                      $   149.00
39 users @ single price                 $4,291.00
Triangle Accessible Calculator Software (shareware)
Texas Instruments Graph-Link Software
With cables                                   $     40.00 each                      
Mathematica for Students                              $   140.00 each


Anonymous said...

WOW, this is a great idea but I don't understand why you have accuse every school in existance of keeping people "locked out of educational opportunity" and accusing school's of trying to prevent students from having access to technology. Our school does way more than this list of free software does and they payed a lot of money for it. I'm sure some schools are resistant but please don't make such broad assumptions about school's trying to prevent access and intentionally "vandalizing" software just to prevent someone with disabilities from having the same access. That is simply irresponsible, inaccurate and doesn't reflect the actions or attitude of my university at all.

irasocol said...

When you post anonymously no one has any way of confirming what you are saying, which is unfortunate.

There are indeed schools which "do more," and universities which, "do more." I have even named one of those. Sadly, many universities which claim to "do more" do so in humiliating and restricting ways, requiring diagnosis, special IDs, or even restricting such equipment to one or two "special" lab locations. Very few that I have found have this software and hardware "everywhere" other students access technology.

I'm not sure what has so upset you, anonymous, but I assure you that I have seen the vandalizing "virus protection" systems in action. Do these schools "intend" to limit the rights of the "disabled"? Probably not. But they don't consider those rights important enough to consider them when they take actions.

And that kind of "not caring" is a serious threat to human rights.

- Ira Socol

Jessica Traylor said...

I appreciate you posting this information. Unfortunately, I too have seen students denied access to simple software that would make their lives much easier.

Patent Attorney said...

Thanks for the heads up about the USB image tool, safe to say that it's changed my life!