Assistive Technologies Improve Access to Learning

Earlier this summer the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) marked its 20th anniversary. The landmark civil rights legislation, which protects and strengthens the rights of individuals with disabilities, has helped ensure a more inclusive educational system and society as a whole.

Meanwhile, advances in technology have allowed higher education institutions to more easily comply with the ADA by designing courses, altering their instructional techniques, and presenting material in a variety of formats so that students with disabilities can participate fully in the educational opportunities before them.

In the recent online seminar Accommodating Students with Disabilities in Online Courses, David Wood, IT access coordinator with the Dallas County Community College District, provided an overview of some of the assistive technologies available today, and offered basic guidelines on how to start to set up a course that’s accessible for students with disabilities. Some of the tools discussed include the following software programs:

Jaws Screen Reader – Designed for persons who have low vision or are blind. It allows a person to navigate the computer, Internet, email and most mainstream computer programs available on the market today. It is also compatible with some Braille keyboards.

OpenBook – Designed for persons with low vision or are blind. This program is used to scan books for audio read back via the computer speakers or headset, and provides word processing capabilities for persons requiring audio feedback.

WYNN – Designed primarily for persons with learning disabilities such as dyslexia or Attention Deficit Disorder. A person using WYNN can scan a book, which is then transferred into a digital text and read back. WYNN also is used in English as a Second Language courses as a tool for students who are learning English.

MAGic Screen Magnifier – Designed for persons with low vision but who are not blind. It allows a person to navigate the computer, Internet, email and most mainstream computer programs available on the market today. A version is also available with audio feedback.

Dragon Naturally Speaking Preferred (DNSP) – Designed primarily for persons whose physical limitations make it difficult if not impossible to use their hands to type. This program allows the user to navigate the computer, do word processing, and use many mainstream programs by voice commands through a headset with a microphone.

When evaluating these and other assistive technologies Woods suggests asking the following questions:

  • What are the computer specs required?
  • Can it be placed on a network?
  • Does it work well with other software?
  • What is the cost? Is there a software maintenance agreement (SMA)?
  • What are the licensing options?
  • Is it part of a suite of assistive technologies that work well together?