CODI: Cornucopia of Disability Information

Telecommunications, Education and the Handicapped

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
bitnet:      NRCGSH@RITVAX
Internet:    NRCGSH@VAXE.ISC.RIT.EDU

     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.

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
time.

     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
conferencing.

     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
         permanent basis.
              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.