Daniel Berkowitz, Assistant Director
Office of Disability Services
As increasing numbers of students with disabilities enter postsecondary education, colleges and universities are finding themselves committing greater assets to an increasingly complex field of technology and supporting resources. Unfortunately, serving the adaptive and assistive technology needs of students with disabilities usually falls under the purview of already established disability service providers who, for the most part, may not have the knowledge, experience, or training necessary to provide the services demanded by their ever-increasing computer-savvy student populations.
In 2004, the Access Technologists in Higher Education Network (ATHEN) conducted a survey to gather and consolidate the practices, experiences, and specialized development needs of professionals supporting assistive technology and information technology accessibility on college campuses. (Survey results can be found at http://staff.washington.edu/tft/athen/index.html.) A February 2005 Chronicle of Higher Education article discussed the professional development needs of disability service providers as well as the general lack of institutional understanding and planning around technology issues as regards students with disabilities. The survey points to the need for IT officials to become better acquainted with these issues and not assume that such technology matters are the responsibility of their campuses' disability services office. Though brief, the article makes it clear that "colleges [in general] have a long way to go" to make academic resources fully available to students with disabilities.
One service area that has borne dramatic change is that of the provision of textbooks in alternate formats. Traditionally referred to as "books-on-tape" for the exclusive use of recorded audiotape as the most reasonable format, advances in computer hardware and software have all but eliminated the cassette tape as a means of providing this service. New and constantly improving Optical Character Recognition and Text-to-Speech programs, computer generated voices, and software used to generate sound files from text documents are being coupled with faster processors and high-speed scanners to create digital text that can be accessed on the computer or downloaded as MP3 files. Introduce the digital natives entering our institutions and expecting access to their course materials as easily as they download music off the web, and postsecondary institutions can expect to be overwhelmed very soon by student requests.
To illustrate this concern, in 2003 the California State University at Fullerton was cited by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) for student complaints regarding the lengthy process of providing textbooks in alternate formats. Though OCR did not find fault with the University's "method of administration for receiving requests, processing, and producing alternative format requests", they did conclude that "delays in receiving alternative media materials had a negative effect on complainant's opportunities to achieve the same educational opportunity, and "˜effective communication' as that afforded to non-disabled students." It was not the policy, but rather the amount of time required to get the books into the hands of the student that "did not provide the complainant access to alternative media educational materials in the same time frame as educational materials [were] made available to non-disabled students."
In a phone conversation with Paul Miller, Director of CSU-Fullerton Disabled Student Services (DSS), I asked about their policies and turn-around time for textbooks in alternate formats. According to Mr. Miller, prior to the suit, their typical turn-around for procuring, scanning, editing, and delivering a digital textbook in a variety of formats was well under two weeks, and in many cases much less. Given the hundreds of books students request each academic year, and the resources with which his office has to work, CSUF has an incredibly swift and efficient process. Such a process, however, is greatly dependent upon factors outside of the influence of DSS and truly points to the holistic responsibility of the institution to provide services to students with disabilities.
According to Mr. Miller, potential pitfalls in the new process under construction include the need for faculty members to provide textbook information in an appropriate and timely manner and the difficulties of creating a system to make this information available for students far enough in advance to allow materials to be converted into alternate formats in advance of the beginning of classes. Accordingly, this puts the DSS office in the unique position of dictating policy and procedure to the campus bookstore.
"The challenge", as illustrated by Miller in the 2003-2004 Annual Report of the CSUF Office of the Dean of Students, "will be implementing the settlement agreement required plan addressing this critical unfunded Federal and State mandate. A critical element in the institutional compliance with OCR's expectations is the timely and accurate availability of required and suggested instructional materials information for all courses offered by our university."
As of this writing, CSUF is in the process of testing an on-line database with which to provide students with textbook information at the moment they register for classes. A major, and as yet unresolved, point of contention is a concern that students will forego the pleasure of shopping at the campus bookstore and instead search alternate resources when making their textbook purchases. OCR has no opinion on this issue as their "primary concern and mandate is for the institution to establish a process to collect instructional material information in order to provide disabled students with appropriate course material in a timely fashion."
Ultimately, such a system may prove more improbable than problem solving. Though the majority of faculty members are assiduous when it comes to meeting such deadlines, some could argue that this resolution infringes upon academic freedom. Circumstances may arise where a professor chooses handouts over textbook, may purposely wait till a specific edition is available, or may be otherwise engaged and thus unable to supply text information in a timely manner thus making it necessary for the Department Dean to make a choice in their stead. Faculty, it seems, can no longer count upon their "right" to be late.
No matter how well the system is designed; there will likely always be situations where disability services will be regrettably unable to comply with student requests in a timely manner. In years to come, the membership of ATHEN may well look back upon the OCR-Fullerton ruling as a benchmark for our profession. Given the proactive and lengthy history of California in making education accessible to students with disabilities, in particular CSU-Fullerton's long standing and solid reputation for having a superior system of providing services (especially alternate format materials) to students with disabilities, it is disquieting to consider that if such a suit could be brought successfully against CSUF, the same could happen elsewhere and with more serious ramifications.