The following article was published in the Summer 1993 issue
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PUTTING INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY TO WORK FOR PERSONS WITH A DISABILITY
At the University of Toronto, a study found many ways in which
information technology could be used to address the needs of persons with a
disability. The challenge was to deploy the resources and facilities of
the computing and communications division to the benefit of the disabled
population being served by the University's office for persons with special
needs. This article describes the opportunities identified and the
collaborative action plan developed to address them, as well as the
conclusions drawn from the planning project.
The University of Toronto is both the best and the worst of places
for persons with a disability to study and work. The institution is old and
sprawling. It was founded 166 years ago in 1827, and many of the older
buildings present an inhospitable physical environment for persons with
certain disabilities. The two major suburban campuses at Scarborough and
Erindale Colleges are located a distant 33 kilometers (20 miles) to the
east and west of the downtown campus, respectively. However, in addition
to an enormously rich assortment of programs, professional faculties, and
affiliations, the University also has a broad and well-developed range
of computing and communications resources in one division and an energetic
special needs office in another.
UTCC planning study
University of Toronto Computing and Communications (UTCC) is headed by
a vice president, and composed of seven departments, responsible for most
aspects of institutional information technology. The wide range of
services and programs offered includes managing the telephone system, the
backbone networks, and institutional automated systems; providing
audiovisual, video conferencing, and satellite link services; supporting
high performance and research computing; managing departmental computing
facilities under contract; supporting faculty in instructional technology;
developing administrative automated systems; and supporting microcomputer
software and hardware with training courses, software distribution, and
assistance with problems.
Until recently, UTCC had provided support to persons with a disability
on an ad hoc basis. When an interactive voice response system for student
registrations was installed in 1990, for example, systems development staff
worked with the Bell Relay Serviceto help ensure that deaf students
using TDDs (telecommunications devices for the deaf) could access the
system. A number of blind professors had also received help with
computer-based adaptive tools. While there had been awareness within UTCC
of the need to make systems and the technology accessible, and much
personal good will, accommodations- related work had not been mandated or
coordinated, and resources available within the division were largely
The vice president of computing and communications had expressed a
strong interest in the past in having UTCC provide a coordinated response
to the needs of persons with a disability. Partly in order to advise the
vice president on how to reply to requests for assistance from the Office
of Special Services to Persons with a Disability, the UTCC planning group
prepared a formal report on how the resources and services of UTCC could be
effectively deployed for the benefit of persons with a disability. The
report included recommendations on how to proceed.
The planning study was carried out in a four-month period during the
fall and winter of 1991/1992. Information on what services and facilities
were needed was obtained in interviews with staff at Special Services.
Additional insights and suggestions for potential new services or
enhancements were gained from a wide variety of other sources both within
and outside the University. EDUCOM's Project EASI (Equal Access to
Software for Information) put a wealth of publications at our disposal and
provided us with many contacts. We also spoke to representatives at a
number of other universities including the University of California at Los
Angeles, Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, and Southern Connecticut
State University to determine what they had done in the area of adaptive
information technology (IT).
The Legal Context
In Canada there is no counterpart to the strong and comprehensive U.S.
Americans with Disabilities Act; however, in Ontario, there are two pieces
of applicable legislation. One is the Canadian Charter of Human Rights and
Freedoms, which enshrines equality rights in the Canadian constitution. The
other is the Ontario Human Rights Code, a provincial code that mandates
accessibility. The Code specifies that accommodations be made for persons
with disabilities unless such accommodations would cause "undue hardship."
The University would not be eligible to claim such hardship, nor would it
likely seek this exemption. The guidelines for adhering to the Code include
the following explanation of what is required.
Accommodation of needs includes, for example, making buildings and
transportation accessible, making print information available in
alternative formats such as tape or braille, translating auditory
information into visual or providing special devices or supports so that
the person with a disability will be able to function independently, and
altering the ways in which tasks are accomplished in order to allow for a
Collaboration with Special Services
The primary source of information was the Office of Special Services
to Persons with a Disability. At the University of Toronto, this office is
headed by a director who reports to the assistant vice president of student
affairs, who in turn reports to the provost. Although Special Services,
staffed by approximately twenty people, serves all members of the
University community who have a disability, it generally gives priority to
students enrolled in credit courses.
In fact, the complete funding for this office since 1989 has been from
designated allotments from the provincial government that are intended to
improve accessibility for students. The Province of Ontario makes annual
(but not guaranteed) designated allotments of varying amounts to
institutions of higher education. During 1991/92, for example, $901,153 in
Canadian funds was allotted to the University of Toronto for this purpose.
Most of the funds went to Special Services.
During this period, staff at Special Services served approximately 730
students with a variety of disabilities, the most common of which was a
learning disability. Special Services estimated that there were
approximately thirty employees with a disability who had sought help from
the department during the same period. According to statistics provided by
the University's Employment Equity Coordinator, a total of 322 employees
had voluntarily identified themselves as having a disability as of April
30, 1992. The low number of employees with a disability who had asked for
help was due in part to the fact that Special Services, because of the
nature of its funding, served students primarily.
A collection of computer-based assistive devices was managed by
Special Services, but at widely scattered sites across the three campuses.
Some of these devices were available for on-site use, some for loan. At
Robarts Library, for example, especially equipped computers and other
information technology devices were inside four study carrels in locked
cubicles. Unfortunately, those wishing to use the equipment needed to
arrange in advance to use a carrel, and then use it in isolation. The
equipment was constrained by the small space, and the built-in tables were
not adjustable. Moreover, there was no ongoing technical support at any of
the sites for those who might require assistance while they were using the
Special Services hired an established specialist in the field of
adaptive equipment on a contractual basis to work two days per week to
provide technical support for the equipment, and to work with individuals
needing assessments, recommendations, and training for appropriate devices.
The director of Special Services was interested in a collaborative
arrangement between her department and UTCC to provide more extensive
Special Services had used some of the designated allotment from the
province to help fund a full-time career counselor in the Career Centre who
was a specialist in services for students with a disability. Special
Services wished to investigate a similar arrangement with UTCC.
How we could put IT to work
The planning report identified how information technology could
address the needs of persons with a disability at the University. We
determined that opportunities existed for information technology to be used
in at least the following ways.
** IT could provide alternative access to institutional information
Students, faculty, and staff with a print handicap--those with visual
impairments, poor upper limb dexterity, or a learning disability--often had
difficulty using printed institutional information. This material could be
provided in alternative forms such as in ASCII files on diskettes, on a
voice-mail bulletin board system, or on an online campus-wide information
Persons with mobility impairments who could access the information
from a home computer or a public workstation would benefit from more
convenient information delivery, and those with visual impairments could
make use of microcomputer adaptive tools such as speech synthesizers and
Some of the institutional information for which alternative means of
access could be provided were:
* program calendars (catalogues),
* course, exam, and fee schedules,
* important announcements such as deadlines for dropping courses
* Career Centre job postings,
* University job postings,
* staff policies,
* admissions-related information for applicants,
* public relations information for the general public, and
* important institutional announcements.
** IT could provide enhanced access to instruction
UTCC could provide support to those faculty members who expressed a
wish to have their students receive and submit assignments online via the
communications network. This use of online facilities would enormously
benefit students with a variety of disabilities (e.g., visual, hearing, or
mobility). Needless to say, other students would benefit as well.
As part of our support for instructional technology, UTCC could help
those faculty members who wanted to develop courseware for their students
to incorporate accessibility considerations in their instructional
** IT could enhance access to institutional computing facilities and
UTCC manages several student computer labs, and assists with the
planning and implementation of new ones. Some labs were not completely
accessible to persons with a disability for a variety of reasons, including
narrow doorways, non-adjustable tables, the absence of microcomputer-based
assistive software, and poorly accessible documentation in print form. In
consultation with Special Services, UTCC could work to help enhance
existing labs where possible, and develop procedures and policies to help
ensure the accessibility of future ones.
Computer systems and hardware needed by academic and administrative
employees to fulfill their job responsibilities could pose special problems
for some persons with a disability. Employees might have difficulties with
keyboards, mice, screen displays, and audible signals issued by computers.
Moreover, adaptive technology tools based on personal computers, such as
software to provide magnified displays, could not be used with the
University's mainframe- based administrative applications.
UTCC could address many of these human-computer interface problems
within the context of delivering microcomputer-based services to University
offices. In some cases relatively simple ergonomic adjustments would not
only improve accessibility for persons with a disability, but also prevent
the development of work-related disabilities in others. The division could
also undertake a project to make appropriate mainframe-based administrative
applications compatible with microcomputer-based adaptive tools.
** IT could be used as compensatory tools
Information technology could be used in many ways to compensate for
disabilities. For example, scanners could translate printed material into
speech or into word processing files; laptop computers could be used to
take notes for students or employees with a hearing (or other) impairment;
word processors and spelling checkers could be used by students with a
learning disability; and TDDs could be made available for persons unable to
use the telephone.
Although Special Services had a number of these tools for on-site use
or loan to students, the technical support and the space available for them
were highly inadequate. Moreover, the tools were primarily intended for
students: departments with staff or faculty who had a disability needed to
find their own sources of funding for adaptive devices. There were no
resources for assessing employee needs, demonstrating tools, and training
individual employees in their use. Clearly, there was a need for
much-improved facilities and support for compensatory tools.
The voice communications department within UTCC could include
assistive telephone devices (e.g., volume controls, keypads with enlarged
keys and numbers, TDDs) in the set of telephone equipment for which it
provided advice, training, and installation support. The education group
within UTCC could offer word processing courses to students with learning
disabilities, who would especially benefit from such software.
** IT could help ensure equal access to library resources
The library could be encouraged to obtain electronic versions of
publications wherever possible. These versions could be more conveniently
read by individuals with a print handicap.
UTCC could work with the library to help ensure that the catalogue and
other online library resources were accessible to all.
Identifying what could be done was easier than determining how to
proceed with an implementation plan. First of all, these initiatives would
require a great deal of coordination across the UTCC departments that had
responsibility for the affected areas.
Secondly, collaboration with other University divisions would be
necessary in order for us to be successful. We would need to work closely
with Special Services, as well as with the human resources division, the
library, and the provost's office.
Thirdly, although the University was philosophically and strategically
committed to integrated facilities for persons with a disability, the costs
and logistics involved in retrofitting existing student computing labs in
many cases would be formidable.
Finally, the University was reeling from drastic cuts in operating
funds from the government that made it difficult for us to consider
initiatives that would require hiring new staff. Instead, we were being
asked to restructure the division in order to carry out our mission with
After considering the opportunities along with the constraints,
we came up with the following action plan which was put to the vice
president of computing and communications as a set of recommendations.
That UTCC support an adaptive technology lab containing adaptive
information technology equipment and software.
The lab would be in facilities appropriate for demonstrations,
training, loans, and on-site use of the equipment and software. It would be
not only at the disposal of students, but also, with the collaboration of
the human resources division, at the disposal of faculty and staff.
There would be many potential opportunities for synergy with other
groups at the University (and the external community) including:
* academic departments at the University wishing to develop or
evaluate new adaptive tools, or to use the lab for student field work;
* the Career Centre which might wish to use the lab to demonstrate
adaptive tools to potential employers; and
* developers of information technology equipment and applications
who might need to use the lab's facilities to ensure that their
products were compatible with adaptive devices and software.
We were impressed by the model of the adaptive technology labs at the
University of California at Los Angeles and at Southern Connecticut State
University. The lab at UCLA demonstrated that an enormous impact could be
made with a very small space and a dedicated coordinator. The lab at
Southern Connecticut was of special interest because of its strong outreach
and training program for external professionals, agencies, and
The lab would allow us to work toward integrated facilities in the
long term while providing much-needed facilities and services now. It
would provide a means for demonstrating adaptive technologies that could
then ideally be placed in regular (mainstream) settings. However, in those
cases where costs or logistics made integrated adapted facilities
unfeasible, the tools would still be available for use at the lab.
That the liaison between Special Services and UTCC be formalized and
strengthened to ensure that UTCC effectively responded on an ongoing basis
to the opportunities identified in the report, and to additional ones as
To this end, it was proposed that a position be established within
UTCC to provide a focus both for liaison between UTCC and Special Services
and for support of the adaptive technology lab.
It was apparent that the large number of opportunities for putting
information technology to work for persons with a disability would, at
least initially, require strong coordination. Moreover, a permanently
proactive stance would be required to ensure that the needs of persons with
a disability were not forgotten during the introduction of new applications
of information technology. We were reminded of Gregg Vanderheiden's
While the computer is advancing handicapped individuals two steps
through the use of special programs designed for handicapped
individuals, the computer is advancing everyone else in society five
steps. Moreover, the five steps are being designed in such a way that
the handicapped individual cannot take advantage of them, thus leaving
them actually three steps behind in the net results.
What we needed was a staff person who would help ensure that
information technology enabled all members of the University to move ahead
those five steps.
We debated the relative merits of situating the staff person within
UTCC or within Special Services. We found that at other institutions we
investigated, having a staff person located within the computing and
communications group was considered of crucial importance to the success of
the program. Moreover, Special Services had successfully used a similar
model in funding a career counselor within the Career Centre who was a
specialist in student services for persons with a disability. We decided
that the strong commitment we wanted to give to this program could be
better served by a model that placed a full-time adaptive technology
specialist within the UTCC organization.
We were concerned that the provincial grants given to Special Services
could not be relied upon for the long term. However, to get the program
moving as soon as possible, we were prepared to at least establish the
position with the help of such funding. If the funds were discontinued, and
the UTCC staff position had proved valuable, we hoped that a way would be
found to continue it.
That a campus-wide online information system be investigated.
The system would post information of benefit to all students, but with
information posted in a pilot stage of the project favoring those with a
disability. In later stages, the system could be extended to include
information useful to all employees, to applicants, and to the general
public. Such a system would require collaboration with many groups in
addition to Special Services, including the library, provost's office,
human resources division, the providers of the information, and students.
As a result of the recommendations in the planning report, a number of
developments were set in motion.
** Adaptive technology support was explicitly included in the mandate of a
In the fall of 1992, the division reorganized in response to budget
cuts and a need, with reduced resources, to take a more focused approach to
the services we offered. The planning report had convinced the vice
president that support for adaptive technologies should indeed be part of
our mandate. A new department, Instructional and Research Computing, formed
from existing units, was given explicit responsibility for this new service
as part of its overall role.
** Detailed planning for an adaptive technology lab commenced
A task force was set up to develop a proposal for an adaptive
technology lab. The task force was chaired by the director of Special
Services, and was composed of representatives from the provost's office,
the human resources division, and UTCC. An appropriate site was identified
in Robarts Library, and the library became a new and welcome collaborator
in the undertaking. A proposal to renovate the library's space for a lab
received approval in principle from the University's Accommodations and
Facilities Directorate in early 1993. This approval meant that the
renovation of an appropriate space will be on the list of projects for
which funds will be allocated as they become available during 1994/95.
Plans are also under way to collect within the lab not only those
tools already owned by Special Services, but also new ones that will be
provided by gifts-in-kind or through donations. UTCC has a working
relationship with several vendors of information technology equipment, and
is actively seeking contributions for the lab from many of them.
** A job description for a staff member working within UTCC and responsible
for adaptive technology support was developed and posted
The position will be funded in part by Special Services using a
portion of the annual provincial government's allotment intended to improve
accessibility for students. Additional support is being sought. The
adaptive technology specialist will work from within the instructional and
research computing department of UTCC. The incumbent will have direct
access to the expertise and resources of the division, and will be in an
excellent position to influence their deployment.
The job description for the UTCC position was developed in tandem with
a new job description for an adaptive technology coordinator who will work
out of Special Services. The UTCC position is full-time, the Special
Services position 50 percent of full-time. Both are contractual positions
(at least for the initial development stage) for the same term, and were
advertised at the same time in April of 1993. We expect that the job
descriptions will evolve as the incumbents work together to carry out their
The Special Services adaptive technology coordinator will be the first
point of contact for those at the University needing
information-technology-based adaptive services. The responsibilities of the
UTCC adaptive technology specialist will include the coordination of UTCC
services for persons with disabilities, making equipment and software
available, demonstrating it, and training persons on it. Both incumbents
will be involved in the support of the adaptive technology lab. The UTCC
specialist will also help develop UTCC and University-wide guidelines
related to access to information technology resources, and generally help
to ensure through a variety of means that persons with a disability can use
information technology to move ahead the five steps to which Vanderheiden
The recommendation to investigate a campus-wide information system has
not yet been acted upon. Once the UTCC adaptive technology specialist is
appointed, we expect to further look into this recommendation. In the
meantime, the division is directing its efforts to extending and improving
the campus backbone networks to facilitate the many services that depend
on, or are enhanced by, networking.
Although we are now just positioning ourselves to better serve persons
with a disability through information technology, we believe that we are
moving ahead in the right direction. What were some of the lessons that we
First, collaboration was the key. Both UTCC and Special Services had
facilities and expertise that could not independently address the problems
that existed. Together, and with the further support of the human resources
division, the provost's office, and the library, we could properly do so.
Second, we learned that there was a great deal indeed that could be
done using information technology, in many cases within the existing
framework of computing and communications service delivery. For example,
we were already supporting instructional technology, voice communications,
and microcomputer hardware and software. With improved awareness of the
problems and the possibilities, we could enrich those services to include
the needs of all.
Finally, we found that we needed patience and persistence.
Collaboration across divisional lines in a complex university environment
such as that at the University of Toronto, while enormously beneficial,
takes time. We needed to allow time for negotiations, even with willing
participants, and time for all the necessary ingredients--space, funds,
staff, and policies--to be assembled.
We had much in our favor. We had a vice president who was highly
committed to providing improved support to persons with a disability. We
had a collegial and cooperative working relationship with the other
stakeholders in the initiative. We had special government funding to help
smooth the way. And we had a great deal of enthusiasm and personal good
will for a project for which the time had obviously come.
For further reading:
Berliss, Jane. Checklists for Implementing Accessibility in Computer
Laboratories at Colleges and Universities. Madison, Wisc.: University of
Biderman, Beverly. Report on Technology-Based Services to Persons with
Disabilities, University of Toronto, 1992. Available to CAUSE members
through the CAUSE Exchange Library as CSD-0647 (29 pages, $5.80 to cover
reproduction and handling). Send e-mail to orders@CAUSE.colorado.edu or
Computers and Students with Disabilities: New Challenges for Higher
Education. EDUCOM's Project EASI, 1991. Available through the CAUSE
Exchange Library as CSD-0642 (41 pages, $8.20 to cover reproduction and
handling). Call 303-449-4430 or e-mail orders@CAUSE.colorado.edu. Or
contact Project EASI for this and other reports, kits, and publications on
computers and disabilities in higher education. The Project EASI electronic
mail addresses are EASI@educom (BITNET) or EASI@educom.edu (Internet).
Heinsich, Barbara Shiller. "Establishing an Adaptive Technology Laboratory
in a University Setting." Technology and Disability 1:1 (1992): 47-54.
Number of Students Receiving Services from the Office of Special
Services to Persons with a Disability (1991/92)
Nature of Disability: Students Served:
Learning Disability 334
Visual Impairment 44
Hearing Impairment and Deafness 46
Mobility Impairment 90
Medical Impairment 96
Functional Impairment 79
Speech Impairment 3
Head Injury 26
Total Number of Students: 730*
*The discrepancy between the Total and the Total Number of Students is due
to some students being counted more than once if they had more than one
disability and/or were served at more than one campus.
University of Toronto student David Condie, on the left, works on an
assignment with his intervenor (interpreter) Dawn White. David, who is
profoundly deaf and legally blind, is the winner of an award for
academic achievement under severe hardship. The University has
provided him with a computer adapted with a speech recognition system,
screen magnifying software, and a large monitor.
1 The University of Toronto, in the province of Ontario, is Canada's
largest university, with 53,000 students and 11,000 faculty and staff. It
is publicly funded, and manages operating and research budgets totaling
$564 million and $210 million in Canadian funds, respectively. The library
at the University of Toronto is rated among the top six research libraries
in North America.
2 The University boasts sixty-six doctoral programs, fourteen professional
faculties, and affiliations with thirteen teaching hospitals. At the
University's department of rehabilitation engineering, for example,
individuals from the disciplines of rehabilitation medicine, engineering,
and computer science collaborate on many projects for the benefit of
physically disabled persons. Members of the University community also work
with the world famous Hugh MacMillan Rehabilitation Centre in Toronto in
such areas as robotics, prosthetics, cognitive development, and computer
3 The Bell Relay is a service offered by Bell Canada to relay calls between
TDD users and voice phone users.
4 Guidelines for Assessing Accommodation Requirements for Persons with
Disabilities (Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Ontario Human Rights Commission,
1989), p. 3.
5 Since the UTCC report was published, a task force sponsored by the human
resources division to examine accommodations for employees with
disabilities has recommended that compensatory tools be paid for out of a
central pool of funds for this purpose. The task force also endorsed human
resources' support for the adaptive technology lab that had been
recommended in the UTCC report.
6 Gregg Vanderheiden, as quoted in Computers and Students with
Disabilities: New Challenges for Higher Education, a report of EDUCOM's
Project EASI, 1991, p. 5.
Beverly Biderman is an applications planning analyst at the University of
Toronto. She has been with the planning and education department of
Computing and Communications at the University since November 1990. Prior
to that she had worked in the admissions office as well as the systems
development group. She has worked and published in the computing field for
the past twenty years, and holds a degree in sociology from York University
in Toronto. Adaptive information technology holds a special interest for
her as she herself is hearing impaired.