Angella Anderson. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
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There are plenty of reasons to make information technology equally accessible to students with disabilities.
For one, universities across the nation are being sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act because they've lagged in providing equal access to multimedia and other classroom materials.
And two years ago the state of Illinois adopted the Information Technology Accessibility Act, which specifically requires public institutions to deliver information on their websites in accessible formats, including captions for all multimedia.
But atmospheric sciences professor Eric Snodgrass has a reason that's not so litigious.
"It's just the right thing to do," he said.
Snodgrass is one of the early adapters of the effort - led by Disability Resources and Educational Services - to bring the UI in compliance with all technology-access laws. Yes, that's adapter not adopter - but only because Snodgrass hasn't adopted anything.
"It's made me think of new ways to teach," he said. "As long as the student has the right attitude and wants to learn, we can work out anything.
"But how do you tell someone about a cloud if they've never seen one?"
Michele Raupp Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
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Snodgrass has spent the past year working with DRES staff members trying to answer that question and a host of others that have popped up as often and unexpectedly as the thunderstorms he studies.
For his effort, Snodgrass last month was recognized with the Delta Sigma Omicron Distinguished Teaching Award, given by the university's disabled students organization.
Angella Anderson, a DRES disability specialist, said the largest challenge facing the university is the speed at which information-driven delivery technologies are growing and even morphing into newer technologies.
Those lightning-speed delivery changes are even more pronounced for students with disabilities. Classroom access has always lagged for them because developing new tools to "translate" the flow of data can be complicated, costly and time-consuming.
"That's always everyone's first question, 'How are we going to fund it?' " Anderson said. "It's going to be hard, but it's something we should have already been doing. Part of the problem is there isn't a policy."
The Illinois law already requires universities to apply disability-inclusive criteria when posting videos, podcasts and audio-enhanced Power Point presentations on their websites.
"Anything the university is linking out to, including YouTube and Facebook, has to be captioned," she said. "It's something departments already should be doing."
Anderson said captioning is being highlighted because it's a concept already familiar to everyone, and one of the most far-reaching and effective first-step changes for a campus playing catch-up.
"Everybody seems to agree that captioning should be done," she said. "But now there's so many issues, it's just getting overwhelming; we're not going to worry so much about existing media."
Michele Raupp, a Public Affairs project manager, has taken a lead role in helping identify and develop a captioning policy.
"We are really far behind as far as accessibility for hearing-impaired students go," she said. "This huge can of worms has suddenly been opened and we are at great risk for (disability access) complaints. It puts the entire university at risk."
Raupp formed a working group to study access issues on campus and how to reflect the urgency of it through a written-in-stone policy.
The leaders have enlisted the help of the Office of Technology and are using variety of campus resources to develop the captioning policy. A draft policy already has been shopped around to campus leadership, including the Academic Senate's IT committee. A final version is expected by next academic year.
"You want people who are going to be discordant, but in a meaningful way," she said of the various interests represented in the group.
The draft policy has broadened to include all multimedia and another working group is outlining a "best practices" and technical requirements checklist that can be followed by any unit with questions about access. The entire process is expected to teach unit leaders how to self-identify access issues and offer suggestions for fixes as well, and there are plans to create a self-assessment website in the future.
"It really became an all-encompassing policy," Raupp said. "If we're going to be a leader in accessibility, it needs to be across the board. I believe we've been resting on our laurels a little too long. We're lagging behind."
The all-encompassing nature also applies to lawsuits. When a complaint is filed, the entire university system of accessibility is called into question and available money to make needed fixes is measured by the university as a whole.
As for funding, one of the policy points suggests units make accessibility a part of their regular budget process, earmarking a percentage that will perpetually promote equal access.
"We're not going to ask the chancellor for money for this," Raupp said. "They (units) need to be more strategic in their budgeting and decision-making."
She said indications from the Illinois Department of Human Services are that, while enforcement activity will increase, "It's important to be able to show we're working on it, and that we're actively working to solve the problem. That will go a long way."
Not doing so puts the university at "huge" risk, she added.
When it comes to immediate equal-classroom access, DRES hasn't waited for the revisionary process of policy.
An overstretched DRES staff has led to a vigorous but scattershot effort to enlist classroom educators. The plea for instructor participation includes finding out which videos will be shown in their class so the library can purchase already-captioned materials when available. DRES will caption videos on an as-needed basis.
Anderson said she spends a lot of time offering assurances to instructors that the extra effort won't destroy the way they teach.
Anderson said she contacts the instructors of classes attended by DRES-registered students and works to find ways to convert print materials and to make videos accessible for the students. The best-case scenario would be instructors who formulate inclusive class plans in advance.
"If I see something in the syllabus I'll point it out and if there are any other issues, the student or instructor will let me know," she said.
Some of the more-common "fixes" include converting class presentations into simple Word documents, PDFs, DAISY, or other searchable digital formats.
"Most of the major publishers will give us an electronic copy of the book," she said. "But there are as many as a 100 publishers we deal with. Some are easier to work with than others."
Challenges fall on the copyright side of videos as well, where competing companies with competing formats are sometimes less than eager to provide an already captioned or converted work for public institutions. And, she said, there are unintended benefits of video captioning, like the ability to run keyword searches - something that could help any student.
Anderson said even finding who owns a particular copyright can be difficult and time-consuming.
To deal with the workload, Anderson's office has an academic hourly employee working on internal captioning projects, a secretary working on copyrights, conversion and scanning, and eight student workers inputting other data.
"I haven't seen my desk in a month," Anderson said. "One of the results of having a campus policy regarding captioning will be the need for increased staffing to handle the workload."
A hand up
Anderson has hopes that every instructor is as excited about the changes as Snodgrass.
"He has gone over and above," she said. "So far, there's been no one like him."
Snodgrass took the initiative to meet one on one with Anderson to determine what was needed to provide full access to his class, which this year included two blind students.
The task was made more difficult by the fact that his classroom presentation uses lots of maps and graphs to illustrate complex weather patterns.
"It was an interesting and eye-opening experience," he said. "We relied heavily on DRES to make sure we were complying."
Outside of captioning and hard-copy handouts, Snodgrass worked with the tactile graphics equipment at DRES to create raised-line, Braille-like representations of the graphic elements used in his class.
Anderson said the experience was difficult but helpful, in that DRES also is learning how to adapt to the changes even as it translates classroom materials.
"It's not an exact representation because we have to take out a lot of irrelevant, 'busy' stuff," she said. "Right now we're still tweaking some things."
For DRES, the challenge after that is to convert relief maps for a geology class.
"The faculty person is going to have to work with me closely on that," she said.
Snodgrass, currently writing a new textbook, said the classroom conversion has changed the way he looks at teaching.
"You're fighting centuries of educational practice," he said. "It's completely revamped the way I'm writing (the textbook) and some of the adjustments I've made in my teaching style ... it helps everyone learn better."
He noted, throughout history disabled people were considered un-teachable.
But he knows better.
"I would have never discovered these kids were as intelligent and as quick-learning as they are," he said. "They're so used to having to teach themselves. It was a challenge that was absolutely necessary to overcome and the whole class has benefited."