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Perspectives: Mis-Adventures in Alt Format

ATHEN E-Journal #3 (2007)

Ron Stewart
ATHEN President

In this column I would like to take a step in a different direction from my previous writings on this topic, a step to the side or even backwards perhaps. If we are truly going to make progress we need to consider how our interests fit into the larger spectrum of current educational and curricular reform. A continual challenge is to keep in perspective our relationship to the larger educational communities in which we exist. Developing a total picture of how Alt Format fits into the broader discussion of curricular reform and modernization will help insure that we do not continue to live on the margins of the educational mainstream.

These issues are similar to the challenges the entire educational community is wrestling with. It is incumbent on us to be full partners in the larger conversation about teaching and learning in the information age. It would be my premise that a truly effective and accessible curriculum is not really an issue of disability but is a critical component to an effective education. In fact, many of the current challenges we face in regards to print access would disappear if the concepts of “Universal Design for Learning” were more effectively integrated into today’s educational environment and demands for curricular reform.

The following are challenges and dilemmas that have surfaced for me in the last couple years specifically in regards to Alt Format provision, but they could also easily be restated in regards to Distance Learning, or any form of Technology Mediated Instruction. These issues merit our consideration and discussion if we are to ever reach our goal of having “Access” fully integrated into the mainstream IT environments of our educational communities, and as a result into the classrooms and curricula of the future.

Challenge 1
How does the provision of Alt Format fit into other emerging models for data management and delivery?

A variety of technology trends are currently in progress on all of our campuses. Library digitization, portal systems for curricular delivery, student records management and institutional records management are converging. The movement to online delivery of instruction, and a more flexible and needs-driven curricula are all major forces for change on most campuses. All of these innovations are based on the same core technologies, but no synergy or linkage exists between these often competitive campus efforts.

If linkages could be developed between complimentary systems, such as learning resource digitization and accessible information access, we could project a decrease in redundancy and the need for retrofitting of the resources developed. We need to ask ourselves, how do we merge or incorporate these agents of change into our interests in making the curriculum itself more accessible and usable by a greater number of students? What complementary values exist between these other systemic changes and our own needs to provide for an accessible and inclusive learning space?

Challenge 2
How do we build systemic capacity to meet the projected needs for Alt Format and Accessible Curricular Materials?

Current trends of demand and production of Alt Format materials are increasing at an astonishing rate. Production volumes for derivative materials are doubling on a yearly or half-yearly basis in many of the well-established programs I have examined. Growth from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of pages produced, in less than three years time, is more the norm than the exception.

This growth is not sustainable with the current disability services orientation to Alt Format provision. It is also wasteful and duplicative when we look across the spectrum of the educational community. A particular text may easily be done dozens of times due to a lack of any systemic approach to provision. The typical Disability Services office does not have the personnel, resources, or technical competence to deliver on this level of volume. The question must be asked: is there a more appropriate agent to handle the conversion and delivery of electronic content on a given campus or system of campuses?

To sustain these rates of growth a production mentality must be adopted that looks not only at local student need, but also looks to the development of regional and national solutions to meet an expanding demand for curricular access. This regionalization also needs to incorporate other systems, perhaps school-to-work and K-12 education, into a comprehensive system of accessible curricular provision.

Challenge 3
How do we align the divergent Alt Format efforts occurring on an international basis so that they minimize redundancies and duplicative efforts?

As we examine the international playing field we have a variety of efforts going on to provide individuals with print-related disabilities access to curriculum-related materials, but also for work and leisure reading. The national libraries for the blind and dyslexic, various educational systems, non-governmental organizations, and even for-profit entities are all trying to meet the demand in their given sphere of influence, often with great variance in the quality and cost of the materials produced. This results in a current system that is for the most part ineffective, and totally unable to meet the current demand for print access, not to even begin to speak of projected need with more individuals with disabilities entering education and the aging of the population in most western countries. Additionally, the growing global orientation to information access makes the problem almost seem insurmountable.

For us to move forward in an effective and efficient way we need to develop cooperative partnerships, collaborative models, and non-competitive associations to meet the current level of need. A plan for the development and incorporation of emerging technologies in a holistic and self-sustaining model is incumbent. These emerging systems must be based on flexibility and economies of scale if we are ever going to get in front of the issues of materials access. To not do so, is to continue down the road of ever-increasing disparity between user demand and system provision that we currently find ourselves in.

Challenge 4
How do we move beyond the current focus on Blind and Visual disabilities to a more holistic model of access for the gamut of print disabilities?

Historically the focus in the discussion of materials access and Alt Format provision have been on those individuals who are Blind or have other forms of Visual Impairment. The actual need for access is much greater than that, even if you only include those who fall under current legislative definitions of disability.

By some estimates, up to 75% of the population who would be classified as print disabled are not served under current service modalities and in many instances are not even eligible for these services if their needs could be met. This does not even begin to include the vast majority of people who would benefit from alternative forms of access, such as non-native language populations, individuals requiring remedial educational services, or who for a variety of reasons do not find standard print to be a viable means of information access.

The current existing and evolving technologies being utilized to provide access to those with print disabilities could also be used to greatly increase the level of information access and general literacy in other populations if they were readily available.

Challenge 5
How do we develop the level of technological literacy in students with print disabilities that will be necessary for them to benefit from the technological evolutions that are occurring in curricular access?

One of the most perplexing challenges facing those who work with individuals with disabilities is a general lack of familiarity and often a total lack of exposure to technologies that could provide access. In many anecdotal reports, less than 10% of the incoming students to higher education have ever had any realistic exposure to the access technologies they will need to be successful in adult education and in the world of work.

It is a widely held belief that a basic level of technological literacy is incumbent for any individual to be successful. We add to a general lack of technological literacy the student with a disability without any meaningful exposure to access technologies, and further exacerbate the issues of social marginalization, not to mention the impact this situation has on the unacceptable rates of unemployment and underemployment of the disabled.

To be a successful participant in the world of education and work an individual with a disability must have an understanding of their unique needs and abilities, and of the impact of their particular area of disability on the learning and work environment. They must also possess a proficient level of technological literacy both in access and information technologies to be effective in the educational and the work environment.

Challenge 6
How do we involve all of the curricular decision makers in the process of providing fully accessible materials?

In almost all systems that are providing access to the curriculum for individuals with print-related disabilities, the actual makers of the curricular decisions are absent. Decisions about accommodation and the production of alternate formats are generally being made in a Disability Services program and regularly do not include the teachers and faculty members who actually designed the curriculum that is needing to be accommodated or transformed.

This method of access often times results in the retrofit of existing materials, or the creation of alternative access methods that are not as efficient or well received in the general classroom environment. For a truly effective model to be developed the original curriculum decisions should be made in a context of understanding the needs of all learners, and in particular those learners who do not have visual orientation to the teaching and learning process. Secondly this model of collaborative decision making could result in more pressure being brought to focus on the creators of commercial curricular materials so that they would be available for purchase in multiple formats that better met the needs of all of the community of learners.

Resources introduced in this column: Universal Design for Learning