Accessibility Features Built into Computing Devices Support Teaching, Learning & Research

access(large)Pictured above: Josh Pearson, UMass Amherst Class of 2015, using his phone with a braille typing application.

UMass Amherst is dedicated to increasing access to quality education, and making university resources available to all members of the university community is an important part of that mission. Technology increases access to teaching, learning, and research for all members of the campus community, regardless of ability.

Increasing Access through Collaboration

In August and October 2014, UMass Amherst IT held workshops detailing the accessibility features built into popular technology products. Over 150 students, faculty, and staff from UMass Amherst, other UMass campuses, and the Five Colleges learned about ways to incorporate these features into their own teaching, learning, and research and to support the diverse needs of their students and colleagues. UMass Amherst IT staff and representatives from Apple highlighted accessibility features built into many computers and mobile devices, which often make the purchase of specialized software applications unnecessary.

One Student’s Experience with Accessible Technology

During the accessibility workshops, UMass Amherst senior Josh Pearson shared his experience navigating campus life as a blind student. He explained that in his time at UMass Amherst, assistive technologies such as screen readers and a braille typing app for smartphones have changed quickly and allowed him to be more mobile on campus. As a first year student, he carried multiple devices and many backup batteries to make it through his classes, his student job at Disability Services, and his radio show at WMUA, the campus radio station, but now equipped with a laptop or smartphone, he is able to generate his work with ease.

Pearson remarked that the university’s focus on accessibility is essential to him, saying, “The forward-thinkingness of a university that is dedicated to its students’ successes in working with access technology […] allows me to make my vision a reality.”

Universal Design Principles Improve Technology for those with and without Disabilities

Accessible technologies have increasingly moved from individualized accommodations where assistive technologies are based on each student or staff member’s needs, towards the social model of disability, where work and learning environments are designed for users with a diversity of needs and abilities.¹ Amended in 1998, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires U.S. federal government agencies to purchase only accessible electronic information technology. This has driven technology vendors to adopt universal design principles, which make products more accessible to individuals with varying abilities. Universal design principles make technologies accessible to individuals with disabilities, but can also benefit individuals who would not usually need accommodations. While features like dictation or text reading software may be essential for individuals with varying disabilities, they can improve productivity for individuals of all abilities by enabling efficient, hands-free speech transcription, text reading, screen navigation, and more.

Accessibility Resources at UMass Amherst

UMass Amherst has a number of resources available for students, faculty, staff, and guests who require accessible technology. The Assistive Technology Center, located in the Learning Commons on the lower level of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library is open to members of the university community with ADA-defined disabilities. The Assistive Technology Center offers specialized hardware, software, workstations, and other assistive technologies.

IT Computer Classrooms manages wheelchair-accessible workstations and software and hardware to accommodate varying disabilities. Telecommunications offers nine TTY machines (also known as TDD or TT devices), which are available to individuals with hearing or speech disabilities to communicate using text-like messages through telephone lines.

IT team member Rob Eveleigh supports the Assistive Technology Center and sees the impact of accessible technologies on the campus community every day, “our work in the Assistive Technologies Center (ATC), and also beyond, exhibit our strong commitment to harnessing the extraordinary promise that accessible technologies hold for all students, staff, faculty, and guests at UMass, regardless of ability.”

For more information on the Assistive Technology Center, see: https://www.it.umass.edu/assistive-technologies.

¹ Fichten, C.S., Asuncion, J., Scapin, R. “Digital Technology, learning, and postsecondary students with disabilities: Where we’ve been and where we’re going,” Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 27(4) (2014), 369-379.

CONTACT: Email UMass Amherst IT Communications (it-communications@umass.edu).

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