Paper delivered in Zurich, Switzerland, Dec. 1990
International Conference on Computers for the Physically Handicapped
Telecommunications, Education and the Handicapped
The North American Perspective
Norman Coombs Ph.D.
One Lomb Memorial Dr.
Rochester Institute of Technology
Rochester NY 14623, USA
Computer telecommunication has been used at the Rochester Institute of
Technology, (RIT), to reduce barriers to learning for the physically
handicapped. I am a totally blind professor of history, and I have been using
electronic mail and computer conferencing to increase my contact with
The National Technical Institute for the Deaf, (NTID), is on our campus, and
this technology has enabled me to communicate with hearing impaired students
without a human intermediary. In those classes taught using a computer
conference instead of a face-to-face class, the deaf students, a blind
professor and non-impaired students all participate on an equal basis. Those
persons who became deaf as adults and who have good English skills but weak
sign language skills have found this format extremely useful. One young woman
said that she was able to participate fully in acollege class for the first
Electronic mail and journaling with the use of a computer have both been
found to be valuable ways to assist students with language deficits to
increase their skills. Adele Friedman has found this a very useful tool with
hearing impaired students at NTID. Students who are embarrassed to share and
communicate in a public class often participate more openly and are less
inhibited using a computer.
RIT and NTID are jointly planning a pilot project with Gallaudet
University, (a liberal arts university for the deaf in Washington, DC), which
will deliver courses using videos, movies and interactive computer
The classes will include hearing and hearing impaired students from
campuses more than 400 miles apart in the same class. One of the teachers
will be blind.
This project will transcend both physical handicaps and physical
distance. Simultaneously, it will provide a unique setting for mainstreaming.
The advantage of mainstreaming through telecommunications is that the
differences between the able-bodied and the disabled disappear.
During the summer of 1990, the New School for Social Research in New York
City is offering an online course on adaptive computer technology for the
handicapped. One teacher is blind and the other is both blind and wheelchair
bound. Telecommunications permits their teaching from their homes in different
cities. Class members are both handicapped and non-handicapped.
Several computer bulletin boards devoted to providing materials and
assistance for teachers include items related to special education. These
systems are of special value in thinly populated rural districts. Both the
state of Montana in the western United States and Saskatchewan in Western
Canada are examples of networks which give special attention to the teachers
of the handicapped.
Data telecommunication promises to reduce barriers to information for
persons with a variety of handicaps. This will increase their access to
education, research and employment in the near future. This new empowerment
will also transform their sense of self worth and self reliance.
Telecommunications, Education and the Handicapped
The North American Perspective
Norman Coombs Ph.D.
Computer telecommunication has been used at the Rochester
Institute of Technology, (RIT), to reduce barriers to learning
for the physically handicapped. I am a totally blind professor
of history, and I have been using electronic mail and computer
conferencing to increase my contact with students. Originally, I
required students to submit their written work using electronic
mail rather than using paper copy. This permitted me to do away
with most of my human readers. I use a desktop computer and a
speech synthesizer and connect with the school's mainframe with a
phone and modem. Not only did this permit me to do my work
without assistance, but I could work at times of my own choice.
Submitting work through electronic mail held some advantages for
the students as well. I now make it a habit to grade and return
the work within 24 to 48 hours. Quick feedback through
electronic mail helps students evaluate their progress better.
The National Technical Institute for the Deaf, (NTID), is on
the RIT campus, and this technology has enabled me to communicate
with hearing impaired students without a human intermediary. The
first time I used electronic mail for submission of student work,
one of the students was a deaf woman. She had a question on my
grading and so sent another message to me with her question.
After several electronic exchanges, she stated that this was the
first time in her life that she had "talked" to a professor
without using an interpreter. Both of us felt that this gave us
an immediacy that was missing in face-to-face communication.
Five years RIT introduced the use of computer conferencing
into its telecourses to provide a more interactive component.
The content is delivered through broadcast videos and through
print texts. Computer conferencing and electronic mail provided
easy and rapid contact between the teacher and students and among
the students. Class members who had their own computer would
access the school mainframe from home using a modem. Some part-
time students were able to use a computer where they worked
during lunch hour or after work to do the same thing. Others had
to travel to a computer lab on campus to access the mainframe
using a terminal. In all cases, students could do so at any time
of the day or night as the system was available at any time and
the conference system was asynchronous. This created a kind of
flex time approach to learning. The school main computing
facility is a cluster of Digital Equipment Corporation VAX
computers. The computer conference software is VAX Notes also
produced by DEC.
I was one of the first teachers to try this system. Faculty
from the fields of computer science and engineering seemed to be
locked in to thinking of the computer as a computational device
and were slow to grasp its use as a communication device. As a
Blind history professor, however, I had discovered computer
mediated communication as an educational tool. Although the use
of this system to include deaf students in class discussions had
not yet occurred to me, one of the deaf students saw the
potential and begged to be admitted to the class. Although the
students were told in the course of our discussions that I am
blind, and the woman said that she was deaf, we all quickly lost
any awareness of these differences. Computer mediated
communications let us all meet on an equal footing. Those
persons who became deaf as adults and who have good English
skills but weak sign language skills have found this format
extremely useful. One young woman said that she was able to
participate fully in a college class for the first time. Many
other hearing impaired students have not been as quick to seize
the opportunity provided by this technology. Those who have
become accustomed to depending on support services--interpreter
and notetaker--seem reticent to strike out independently. When
they have enrolled, many have been lax in participating. One
hearing student complained that the computer conference demanded
more self discipline than he had. Undoubtedly, deaf students who
have relied on support services have had less opportunity to
develop self motivation. In fact, it can be argued that they are
the very students who could benefit most from a system
encouraging their development of independence.
Electronic mail and journaling with the use of a computer
have both been found to be valuable ways to assist students with
language deficits to increase their skills. Adele Friedman, a
teacher at NTID, has found this a very useful tool for developing
reading and writing skills with hearing impaired students.
Students who are embarrassed to share and communicate in a
public class often participate more openly and are less inhibited
using a computer. They do not feel that the machine is watching
and judging them. They easily become engrossed in using the
computer or in what they are saying. It is easier to sense that
one is interacting with the computer than with a piece of paper,
and the computer becomes almost an extension of oneself. Another
interesting result is that class members who have been problem
students often become more cooperative and positive about
participating. Some students have adopted a public role in class
which they feel obliged to maintain. Using electronic mail and
journaling, they drop their public mask. Because computer
mediated communication is rapid and highly interactive, it
provides some of the immediacy of a face-to-face classroom while
including some of the benefits of working independently.
Gallaudet University in Washington DC, a liberal arts university
for the hearing impaired, has been using some of these same
features to facilitate the development of reading and writing
skills but within a different setting. Instead of using
electronic mail, the Gallaudet students work together in a
classroom in which each student has a desktop computer all of
which are networked together. The teacher can interact with the
students either in a computer mode or in a face-to-face mode.
RIT and NTID are jointly planning a pilot project with
Gallaudet University which will deliver courses using captioned
videos, movies and interactive computer conferencing. The
classes will include both hearing and hearing impaired students
from campuses more than 400 miles apart in the same class.
Separate copies of the video materials will be available on each
campus, but the class discussions and the communication with the
professor will be done over a long-distance computer network.
The pilot will include two courses, one delivered from each site.
One course will be on African American history, and the other
will be on cinema and the deaf culture. One of the teachers will
be blind. For the pilot project, each course will have a liaison
teacher at the other campus. Until the system has been tested,
we believe it is important that students have someone on their
campus whom they can reach in person to help with any unforeseen
problems. Our hope is that this will not be required on a
This project will transcend both physical handicaps and
physical distance. The technology will also permit a flex time
learning in which each student can work at his or her own pace
and time. Simultaneously, it will provide a unique setting for
mainstreaming. The advantage of mainstreaming through telecom-
munications is that the differences between the able-bodied and
the disabled disappear.
Telecommunication technologies have the potential to open
educational access to other disability groups besides the
visually and hearing impaired. A wide variety of single switch
devices permit persons with severe muscular impairments to access
electronic data and telecommunications. The physicist, Stephen
Hawking is a well-known example of this fact. Not only do such
devices open work opportunities for the mobility impaired, but
they also reduce barriers to accessing education. Tzipporah Ben
Abriham has been teaching courses on computers and the
handicapped at Brooklyn College. She is both blind and
wheelchair bound. Telecommunications has permitted her to
interact with her students while also reducing the necessity for
her travelling to campus. During the summer of 1990, the New
School for Social Research in New York City plans to offer an
online course on adaptive computer technology for the
handicapped with her as its primary teacher. Computer mediated
communication will allow her to work from home. Students with a
computer and modem may connect from anywhere. The course is
handled by Connected Education, headed by Paul Levinson, which
operates several online courses for the New School. While
Connected Education has enrolled physically disabled students
previously, including both the visually and hearing impaired,
this will be the first time it has utilized a physically disabled
instructor. The ability to work from home using a machine as
one's assistant is a liberating and empowering experience.
Several computer bulletin boards scattered across the
continent are devoted to providing materials and assistance for
teachers. Some of these include items related to special
education. These systems are of special value in thinly
populated rural districts. In some cases these focus on gifted
special education concerns, and in other cases they aim at
serving the needs of underprivileged and handicapped persons.
Both the state of Montana in the western United States and the
province of Saskatchuan in Western Canada are examples of rural
areas with computer networks which give special attention to the
teachers of the handicapped.
Big Sky Telegraph is an online cooperative computer
conferencing system affiliated with Western Montana College and
serving rural schools and communities in that state. It strives
to fill the needs of a diverse set of interests including rural
health networking, disabled interests, women's groups, rural
economic development, global ecology and agriculture. Big Sky
Telegraph provides circuit riders who will travel across Montana
to train persons at rural schools, libraries, chambers of
commerce, and various other organizations to both receive and
provide online information. It reaches out to help the
physically disabled in at least three ways. It gives online
access to services which might not otherwise be available to such
persons. Secondly, it provides conferencing and electronic mail
facilities permitting handicapped persons who are isolated to
meet and share. Thirdly, it includes an online resource center
for special education teachers. They can exchange materials and
experiences. In Canada, the province of Saskatchuan is
developing a rural network with many of these same facilities and
aimed to fill similar needs. Such systems bring together
communities and persons who are otherwise remote. The
Saskatchuan system is presently networking some two hundred
hearing impaired persons through its electronic mail system.
Many of these individuals have felt extremely isolated both
because of their geographic location and because of their
handicap. There are several networks which are intended to
connect these regional systems. Kidsnet is located on Bitnet and
Internet and links mainly teachers. On a more grass roots level,
Fidonet and Fredmail link thousands of bulletin boards together.
Fredmail has aimed primarily at linking students and schools.
although none of these have had an emphasis on the needs of the
handicapped, they obviously can be utilized in that way.
Data telecommunication contains the promise of reducing
barriers to information for persons with a variety of handicaps.
This could increase their access to education, research and
employment in the near future. This new empowerment should also
transform their sense of self worth and self reliance. This last
feature could become the most important result of all. However,
there are at least two pitfalls which could easily undermine many
of these benefits. In spite of the ways in which computers have
enhanced the lives of some handicapped persons, there is always
the danger that new developments in hardware or software might
prevent the handicapped from continuing to use these marvelous
tools. The increasing shift from text displays to graphics poses
a difficulty for the visually impaired, but careful design could
include their needs while increasing the use of graphics.
Finally, in the United States, school funding patterns could
leave out those who could benefit most from computer use.
Funding usually goes to those schools where the most advantaged
students are enrolled. Unless a conscious decision is made to
provide the necessary equipment to schools with the greatest
need, new technology may increase the gap between the haves and
the have-nots. Instead of reducing barriers to equal education,
computers in education might raise the fences even higher.
Technology alone will not change the educational situation. It
will require a socially responsible use of that technology.