Creating an accessible technology center in a school setting requires the application of universal design for learning principles. “Universal design means that rather than design your facility for the average user, you design it for people with a broad range of abilities. Keep in mind that individuals using your lab may have learning disabilities or visual, speech, hearing, or mobility impairments. Individuals from each of these groups will need access to the facility, equipment, software, electronic resources, and printed materials.” (AccessSTEM, 2013). Acquiring, developing, and using accessible technology in an educational setting is not only ideal, it is legally required. “Section 508 requires that federal agencies develop, procure, maintain, and use IT that meets standards across six categories of electronic and information technology–desktop and portable computers, software applications and operating systems, web-based intranet and Internet information and applications, telecommunications products, video and multimedia products, and self-contained closed products (such as copiers, scanners, printers and information kiosks)” (Southeast ADA Center, 2006). The benefits designing an accessible computer lab for students will serve not only students will disabilities but essentially all students.
Designing a computer lab that is accessible will minimize the need for special accommodations for students with special needs. Students visit computer labs to access course materials, conduct research, complete assignments, use email, and participate in online classes and meetings. It is important that every student that uses the computer lab “feels welcome, can get to the facility and maneuver within it, is able to communicate effectively with support staff, is able to access printed materials and electronic resources, and can make use of equipment and software” (Burgstahler, 2012).
All students must be able to readily access the computer lab which means that physical measures must be taken in order to ensure that all persons can use the facility. This includes making sure that the lab and its services (computers, printers, scanners, etc.) are wheelchair-accessible and all materials can be reached from a seated position. It is also important that protruding objects should be minimized to keep pathways open and aisles need to be kept wide and clear for wheelchair users. At least one adjustable workstation should be provided so individuals who use wheelchairs and users of various heights and body types can access the computer comfortably. It is also important that large-print, high-contrast signs should be used throughout the lab.
Many students with disabilities use assistive technology, such as text to speech, narration or closed captioning, that helps them access computer hardware and software. Many computers have this type of assistive technology built into their system. However, when necessary features are not built into the hardware, a variety of adaptive technology solutions exist to help the user. For example, students with visual impairments who cannot read screen output may use screen reading software with a speech output system and/or a Braille printer. Individuals who are unable to use their hands or who have poor fine motor control and cannot use a mouse or keyboard may use trackballs, switches or modified keyboards for input. For the hearing impaired, telecommunication devices should be provided as well. Burgstahler (2012) states it best when she says, “The vision is simply equal access. Everyone who needs to use your lab should be able to do so comfortably.”
Sheryl Burgstahler (2012) provides a great checklist in her article, Equal Access: Universal Design of Computer Labs:
“Although a lab cannot be expected to have specialized equipment for every type of disability on hand, staff should make equipment available that they anticipate will be most often used or that is available at relatively low cost. This might include
◦ an adjustable table for each type of workstation in your lab;
◦ a wrist rest and forearm rest;
◦ a trackball;
◦ software to modify keyboard response such as sticky keys, repeat rate, and keystroke delay (that may be available in the operating system);
◦ software to enlarge screen images (that may be available in the operating system), along with a large monitor;
◦ large-print keytop labels; and
◦ web resources that adhere to accessibility standards or guidelines adopted by the lab.”
This list provides a great starting point for anyone designing an accessible computer lab. When a lab becomes more established and as the needs of students vary, additional resources will need to added to lab. These may include text-to-speech software, scanner and optical character recognition (OCR) software, hearing protectors, alternative keyboards, or speech input software (Burgstahler, 2012).
Providing this equipment and all of these accessibility features may be a costly endeavor. While some of this equipment is low-cost such as providing joysticks, trackballs and wrist rests. The other technologies can be rather expensive. For example, the Kurzweil 1000, an OCR software system is $1,000 for one. Alternative keyboards range from $200-$1200 and an adjustable workstation will cost about $1100 as well. A good website to browse the costs of available assistive technologies is Boundless Assistive Technology’s site.
AccessSTEM. (2013). How can I design a school computer lab to be accessible to all students?. Retrieved from: http://www.washington.edu/doit/Stem/articles?1091
Burgstahler, S. (2012). Equal Access: Universal Design of Computer Labs. Retrieved from: http://www.washington.edu/doit/Brochures/Technology/comp.access.html
Roblyer, M.D. and Doering, A.H. (2013). Integrating Educational Technology Into Teaching, (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
Southeast ADA Center. (2006). Accessible Information Technology Series: Providing Accessible IT in your Computer Lab. Retrieved from: http://adasoutheast.org/publications/itseries.php