Monthly Archives: June 2013

June 25, 2013

Providing Accessible Materials for Disabled Students

At the University of California at Berkeley, progress is being made to fully accommodate the print needs of disabled students. This progress is the result of a legal settlement  between the school and 3 students with disabilities, who were represented by Disability Rights Advocates, a non-profit advocacy group.

The case was presented after the students brought forth their grievances with the university. They claimed that not enough was being done at Berkeley to convert textbooks and reading materials into alternative media accessible to students who are unable to turn pages, have a mental disabillity, or lack the visual acuity to read traditional books. Accessible media includes braille, text-to-speech capabilities, e-readers, and large format text.

According to Rebecca Williford, the attorney for Disability Rights Advocates, Berkeley was failing to provide adequate course materials for print disabled students. Some students were waiting months for accessible materials, in the meantime depending upon friends and family to assist with reading assignments in an effort to stay on top of their work. Says Williford, “There’s got to be baseline of access provided so they can literally do their homework.”

The settlement agreement agreed upon between Berkeley and Disability Rights Advocates provides that baseline of access. Among the requirements for accessiblity at Berkeley, professors will now be required to submit their reading lists no less than 7 weeks in advance of the start of classes or face punishment. Additionally, the university will be hiring new staff and relocating some existing staff to work in the Disabled Student’s Program. Before the settlement, the program was woefully understaffed with just one employee. “You can understand how the system was melting under the burden of it all,” said Paul Hippolitus, the program’s director. “The settlement agreement gave us a chance to attend to that issue.” As a result of the additional staffing, the Disabled Student’s Program will be able to provide accessible materials within days of a student request, instead of months.

With regards to the settlement, “It’s very well-written and the issues that it identifies have been thematically recurrent issues at a lot of universities and through lower-level complaints through the Office for Civil Rights out of the Department of Education – so, as a model, it is significant and people should pay attention to it,” said L. Scott Lissner, president of the national Association on Higher Education and Disability and ADA coordinator at Ohio State University.

The results of the settlement represent a big win for disabled students and their advocates, but it also represents a large expenditure by the university. In order to fulfill the requirements of the settlement, Berkeley has invested tens of thousands of dollars in one-time and ongoing maintenance of the Disabled Students Program. This leads us to another facet of the accessibility debate put forth by an Inside Higher Ed commenter, “While this is a step in the right direction, it’s only a tiny one. The major burden of textbook accessibility should be placed on the publishers. It’s an enormous waste to have every campus make textbooks accessible, unless it’s a text unique to that campus.”

This very issue of placing the onus on publishers rather than distributors was recently discussed at an event sponsored by the National Federation for the Blind, “Inclusive Publishing and eBook Distribution: Access for People with Print Disabilities.” According to their presentation materials, less than 5% of books published in the United States are considered accessible. This creates a “book famine” for blind, visually impaired, physically impaired, and mentally disabled people. The NFB advocates for publishers to comply with inclusion legislation in providing accessible, affordable, and easy-to-use materials for all consumers, not just those who are able-bodied.

Providing Accessible Materials for Students with Disabilities

With all of the recent advancements in print technology – e-readers and the like – publishers are well positioned to provide universally accessible materials at a low cost. Because e-book technology is relatively new, it is also possible to build the accessible business models and infrastructure from the ground up instead of retrofitting needs to old business practices. In the higher education context, textbook publishers who jump at this opportunity will be able to offer significant cost advantages to the universities that partner with them.

Disabled student’s needs must be addressed at every stage of the higher education process, not only in the classroom. To ensure that your school’s admissions process is compliant with disability laws, we recommend AMP graduate admissions software from ZAP Solutions. The AMP development team takes great care to follow Section 508 compliance guidelines by implementing the following standard practices and tools into their custom admissions systems:

  • Automatic ALT tags for files, links, and graphics where necessary
  • Page linearization
  • Text equivalents for visual elements
  • Control reading order of Flash content
  • Caption audio content
  • Make looping elements inaccessible
  • Allow users to control motion
  • Ensure keyboard access to all controls
  • Expose structure of complex Flash movies
  • Expose state of controls

What is your school doing to provide accessible materials for disabled students?

June 11, 2013

Minerva Project

Minerva ProjectThe Minerva Project, the brainchild of former technology CEO Ben Nelson, has lofty goals in the world of higher education. Nelson, along with an assembly of prominent scholars – including a Nobel prizewinner and a former Harvard president – plan on opening a revolutionary for-profit online school to compete with the Ivies.

Stephen Kosslyn, the dean of the project, says “I see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—to start from scratch and create something new.” He also noted that “”too many legacy systems” make it nearly impossible for schools to rethink their structure. The Minerva team isn’t impressed by the recent proliferation of MOOCs (massive open online courses). Although MOOCs represent a paradigm shift in the world of higher education, Kosslyn says they are “just an extension of the way things are already done,” with students that are disengaged from talking-head instructors.

The business model for the school is unlike anything seen before. All courses will be online seminars with a small student-to-teacher ratio (25:1 or less). Students will cohabitate in a dorm-like setting, but teachers could be instructing them from anywhere in the world. Students will begin their education in San Francisco and will also have the opportunity to live globally with their peers, with up to 7 international campuses.

The Minerva Academy will begin enrolling students for 2015 school year. “We hope to start with 200 to 300 students,” Mr. Nelson said. “They will have the same qualifications, grades, extracurricular activities that Ivy League universities look for, and an intellectual hunger and thirst. And they will come and sit for an interview.” As a for-profit institution, students will not be eligible for financial aid. Minerva officials have a goal to keep tuition (relatively) low, aiming at half the typical Ivy League tuition.

In the past several decades, schools and teachers alike have been retro-fitting their methods to accommodate new technology and communication channels. The Minerva Academy will be the first institution to be built upon a technological foundation, ushering in a new way to think about the classroom.