Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Showcase - Part IV

Fictional Narrative To Illustrate Usefulness

The tools described here (and even those left out – the myriad tools available for the cognitively disabled as well as computer users with challenges in motor skills) would be very helpful in a school setting, whether that school were to be an elementary, secondary, or post-secondary setting. The practicality of this is not as feasible, however, due to the high cost of tools such as the Braille Readers and the implementation of screen readers into labs which might contain technology older than today’s standards (and we all know that school computer labs do not always hold the most cutting-edge technology). Instead, I have chosen to showcase the accessibility tools in a distance education setting.

Distance education is catching on as a palatable, viable and popular choice for those pursuing higher education. While not as widely available in primary or secondary education, there were numbers available for schools in the U.S. offering distance education for such students. The numbers were low (in 2002-03 approximately one-third of public school districts in a given region, where the number rose in rural areas) but no such numbers could be found for more recent years or Canadian statistics. However, distance education is prevalent for post-secondary studies, on into adult education, with major universities offering asynchronous instruction for full-fledged programs, selected course studies, or even some websites of major corporations offering modular courses “for fun and instruction” (as in the case with Hewlett-Packard’s Online Learning Center found at or even Barnes and Noble’s Online University which offers everything from book clubs to courses on computers, liberal arts, and life improvement – some paid, some free for the asking).

With the increasing popularity of distance education, the disabled computer user can now learn from the comfort of one’s home with the tools s/he needs in order to take full advantage of the offerings which are available. There are multiple advantages to computer-mediated communication and distance education for the disabled user. In an article by Margaret Debenham (2002*) she quotes H. Rheingold’s 1993 study where he cites two major reasons for CMC to benefit the disabled:

o Remove the initial challenge of having to explain a handicap to able-bodied people, thus enabling disabled people to be treated as thinkers and sharers of feeling in the same way as able-bodied people are

o Enable those with disabilities to join in a conversation with no greater delay in communication than other computer users. (Rheingold 1993)

She goes onto quote Coombs’s finding that in a CMC setting, disabled users were more likely to share personal information than if they were face-to-face with able-bodied users. It can be concluded that CMC removes the emotional barriers of perceived stigma in a disabled user’s world when s/he can communicate via the computer.

Distance education also means that a disabled user would have no transportation worries to compound the educational experience. Learning from the comforts, and safety, of home would remove the need and expense to travel to a campus or community center.

As well, those disabled users who are equipped with the tools to assist computer usage could now engage in self-improvement as well as academic courses, even peer-tutoring with other disabled users. It is certain that a new computer user who is visually impaired would need guidance as to what works and what does not, what tips and tricks are “out there” in order to facilitate usage of a computer when faced with those challenges. With these tools, their ability to be integrated with all programs from utilitarian to chat-based software, the more experienced user can now become mentor to the less skilled, perhaps intimidated, user who needs that extra hand to show him/her that yes, it CAN be done – despite the challenges, and due to the assistive tools. With these hardware and software packages, web designers’ awareness of accessibility standards, and distance education opportunities, self-esteem, self-confidence, skills and renewed enthusiasm will all become benefits to the challenged user, courtesy of enhanced and technological advances. As stated at the beginning of this showcase, the computer is no longer a luxury merely for those who can afford to use it for functional purposes; the computer is a window and doorway to the world at large, with the advent of the Internet and the social elements which have become so much a part of today's computing. Education has taken a turn in that direction, embracing and addressing the social aspect of the student as well as the academic, the technology as well as the textbook. Combining all these factors - sociality, academia, technology and the will to overcome challenges - this medium can soon become the smooth path for all users to engage in all types of computer-mediated communication and learning.

*Debenham, M. 2002. Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) and Disability Support: Addressing Barriers to Study. York: TechDis (HTML version) or (PDF version).

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