CODI: Cornucopia of Disability Information

Liberation Technology

		       Published in _EDU_ Spring 1991

			   Liberation Technology

		  Equal Access Via Computer Communication


			       Norman Coombs
			    Professor of History
		     Rochester Institute of Technology
			   One Lomb Memorial Dr.
			     Rochester NY 14623
		     Email:  NRCGSH@RITVAX.ISC.RIT.EDU


     Western Civilization has had a centuries' long romance with technology
and has often worshipped it as the "savior of mankind".  Alternately,
anti-utopians, ever since Shelly conjured up Frankenstein, have depicted it
as the destroyer of humankind and human values.  Technology is power and, as
such, can serve many purposes.  Whereas an earlier vision of the computer
predicted an Orwellian "big brother" utilizing a centralized computer system
to control society, the advent of the personal computer has turned this
power pyramid on its head.  Increasing thousands of people have a computer
on their desk with as much capability at their fingertips as once was housed
in an expensive and complicated mainframe.  Obviously, the decentralization
of power is no guarantee that the people will make good or wise use of it.

     Computer telecommunications contains the potential for removing bariers
to social access for many disadvantaged persons. Traditional means of
helping such people have usually been paternalistic in nature.  Today, more
and more of the disadvantaged are asking for empowerment so they can help
themselves.  They want the freedom to compete with the rest of society on a
more nearly even playing field.

     I am a blind professor, at the Rochester Institute of Technology and I
use a computer with a speech synthesizer.  I regularly teach a class of
students on-line with a computer conference.  Most of these students have no
physical handicap.  Some of them, however, are hearing impaired, and some
are totally deaf.  I have team taught another course at the New School for
Social Research, some 350 miles away, with a teacher who is confined to a
wheelchair and who is both blind and partially paralyzed.  On the computer
screen, our handicaps of blindness and mobility make no difference.

     One of the courses I teach on-line is in African American history.  In
that class, some of the students are White, some are Black, others are Asian
and still others are Native American.  Obviously, some of the class members
are male and others female.  All of these differences, like those of
handicaps described above, become unimportant on the computer screen.  It
isn't that these distinguishing characteristics disappear because
participants share their identities, their views and feelings freely.
However, these differences no longer block communication and community.  In
fact, conference members often feel free to make such differences one of the
topics for discussion.  A student in my Black history course said that what
he liked about conducting class discussion on the computer was that it
didn't matter whether a person was male, female, Black, White, Red, yelow,
Blind or deaf.  He appreciated that his comments were accepted for their own
worth and not judged by some prior steretype.

     The standard myth about the computer is that it is cold,
depersonalizing and intimidating, the mystical province of a few wizards.
When I began utilizing the computer to communicate with students, I had no
idea of its potential to change my life and my teaching.  First, it began by
liberating me, a blind teacher, from my dependence on other people.  As I
now have all my assignments submitted through electronic mail including
frequent take-home exams, I have very little need for human readers.  This
experience prepared me to become a member of a pilot study using computer
conferencing to replace classroom discussion for students in some continuing
education courses.  Those with a personal computer and modem could work from
home or the office.  This freed them from the time and bother of commuting
and also let them set their own schedule.  The computer conference was
available on-line 24 hours a day.

     We are using the conference system, VAX Notes produced by the Digital
Equipment Corporation.  It does facilitate a genuine group discussion
without the class having to be in the same place nor having to be connected
at the same time.  I found it easy to send frequent short personal notes to
individual students, and, in the evaluation questionnaire, the students
rated my helpfulness and availability at 4.8 out of 5 points.  I, too, felt
I had more contact with individual students than is usual in a face-to-face
classroom.  This system had immediate appeal for three groups of our
students.  Off-campus continuing education students were happy not to have
to commute.  Those who had been taking mainly television or correspondence
courses valued the easy exchange of information both between themselves and
their teacher and between themselves and other students.  The third group
turned out to be regular day students with scheduling problems.  This kind
of flex scheduling is especially valuable for those students whose schedules
are filled by laboratory courses.

     Although computer conferencing had obvious benefits for me, a blind
professor, I had failed to grasp its significance for disabled students in
general.  Only when a deaf student joined the class did I come to realize
its potential.  This young deaf woman said that this was the first time in
her life that she had conversed with one of her teachers without using an
interpreter intermediary.  She further commented that this had been her most
valuable course in her college experience because she could share in the
discussions so easily and totally.  Computer conferencing, because it avoids
commuting, can be a benefit to persons with mobility impairments.  They can
go to school while they stay at home.  The distance involved could be
anything from a few miles to all the way across the continent or across an
ocean.  Students with motor impairments can also use this system.  There are
a variety of alternate input devices to let motor impaired persons use a
computer even though they cannot handle a keyboard.

     Like others who use computer communications, I discovered that it
liberates more than the physically disabled.  Students became free to share
more of themselves than in a classroom, and shy students found themselves
less inhibited.  Once students got over any initial computer phobia, many
shy students found it easier to share this way.  Where there is no stage
then there is no stage fright.  While some educators prefer to keep the
teaching process academic and objective, others are convinced that students
learn more and better when they become emotionally engaged in the process.
I was surprised and pleased to find my classes sharing experiences about
their families and themselves.  In a discussion on welfare, one woman in her
twenties confessed to being on welfare and described her feelings about it.
In a Black history course, students described personal experiences as
victims of racism.  White students admitted to having been taught to be
prejudiced and asked for help and understanding.  Black students shared that
they had prejudices about various shades of color within their own
community.  As a teacher, I often felt that I was treading on privileged
ground.  These were experiences I had never had in the 29 previous years of
my teaching career.  The students, themselves, became aware of what they
were doing and usually began to discuss their interaction as one of the
class topics.  They appreciated that they were sharing in an unusual way and
thanked me for creating the opportunity for them.

     Freedom to speak one's mind is a two-edged sword.  Computer
communications is infamous for people making thoughtless and irresponsible
attacks on one another, often known as "flaming".  In my experience,
happily, there has been almost none of this.  First, the teacher has the
opportunity to set ground rules and, more importantly, an emotional and
professional atmosphere.  Second, a computer conference is different than
electronic mail.  Once a mass mailing has been sent, it is irretrievable.
While the contents of a computer conference are posted publicly for all its
member to see, a message can be removed.  On very rare occasions I have
removed a posting before it was read by most of the class.  Usually, I
prefer to leave controversial material on the conference and utilize it as a
group learning experience.  Actually, most students seemed intuitively aware
of the potential for misunderstanding and, before criticizing someone, they
frequently asked questions to be sure that they understood what had be meant
by the previous author.

     Am I suggesting that computer conferencing and allied technologies will
become the "savior" of American higher education?  Not really!  It is only
one teaching methodology among many.  Most students would not choose to
pursue their entire college degree using computer communication.  However,
it will have a growing significance in special situations.  First, it's
asynchronous format is a way to solve scheduling conflicts.  Second, it
permits students living in remote locations the opportunity to get a quality
education from a reputable institution.  Third, when moderated carefully, it
provides a safe setting for students to share their feelings on
controversial topics.  This can be helpful in courses related to sensitive
social issues.  The teacher can continue to focus on academic content while
the class may explore its relevance to their personal lives.

     Finally, I am personally excited about the ability of computer
networking to provide more equal access to education and information for
many persons with physical disabilities.  In the fall of 1991, The Rochester
Institute of Technology and Gallaudet University in Washington will conduct
an experiment involving two courses: one taught from Rochester and the other
from Washington, DC.  Students from both campuses will be enrolled in both
classes.  While some use will be made of videos and movies, class
discussions and meetings between a student and a teacher will all be done
with computer telecommunications using Internet as the connecting link.
Some students will be hearing impaired, and one teacher will be blind.  In
the future, such systems could include learners from anywhere with an
Internet access.

     Computer communications has other important implications for both the
print handicapped and those with motor impairments.  Library catalogs can
already be accessed from a personal computer and a modem.  Soon, growing
numbers of reference works will be available on-line also.  While the
copyright problems are complex, it seems inevitable that large amounts of
text material from periodicals and books will also be accessible on a
computer network.  I still have vivid memories of the first time I connected
my computer to a library catalog and found my book was really there.  It was
only a year ago that I had my first personal, unassisted, access to an
encyclopedia.  Not only is this technology liberating to those of us who
have physical impairments, but in turn, it will help to make us more
productive members of society.

     Not all handicapped persons rush to join the computer world.  Many have
become dependent on human support systems.  Some of the hearing impaired
students in my classes were very slow to become involved.  Sometimes,
independence is frightening, and handicapped students may need special
assistance to get started.  One such student complained that such a computer
course would be good for someone who had more self discipline than he had.
Another problem is cost.  While the personal computer has decentralized
power and is seen as a democratizing force in society, it works mainly for
the middle class.  Unless there is a deliberate policy to the contrary, such
technology will leave the under class further behind.

     Visually impaired computer users, at present, have one growing worry.
They fear that graphic interfaces and touch screens may take away all that
the computer has promised to them.  Recenly passed federal legislation has
tried to guarantee that future computer hardware and software be accessible
to all the physically disabled.  However, there is no real mechanism to
enforce this.  Besides, voluntary awareness and cooperation by computer
providers is a far better approach to the problem.  Educom has established
EASI to work within the academic community for software access, and it is
having an important impact on voluntary compliance.  Others believe that
adaptive software and hardware can be produced which can adequately
interpret graphic interfaces for the visually impaired.

     Physical disabilities serve as an isolating factor in life.  They also
create a tremendous sense of powerlessness.  Computer communications,
however, serves to bring the world into one's home and puts amazing power at
one's fingertips.  Not only can this empowerment liberate the handicapped to
compete in society more equally, but the sense of power changes how one
feels about oneself.