Funding for SCALE's lab was provided through a generous grant from the City of Somerville, as demonstration of its strong commitment to serving the adult learning community, and funds from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
We incorporated elements of Universal Design and accessibility into the preliminary stages of planning and design, hoping to make the lab accessible to as many perspective users as possible among SCALE students and staff . Students using wheelchairs, with hearing and/or visual impairments, with motor limitations, and with learning disabilities often need accommodations to successfully use the computer. In researching the requirements and possibilities, we spoke with our SCALE ADA Coordinator, an Assistive Technology Specialist from Boston Center for Independent Living, and various lab users. We also visited the U Mass Boston computer lab designed for students with physical disabilities and talked with the lab coordinator. U Mass sent us a videotape about lab design that included many ideas for low cost adaptions. We reviewed product information and attended presentations by Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) and Massachusetts Assistive Technology Partnership Center (MATP).
Our research showed that we could not possibly immediately accommodate everyone who entered the lab. Some users' needs have to be assessed upon entrance and solutions worked out. Nevertheless, we wanted to be accessible to as many different users as possible and be prepared and flexible enough to find a way to accommodate users with unanticipated needs. For instance, wheelchairs come in so many shapes, sizes, and heights, we couldn't be certain that every wheelchair user would be able to get the chair under the computer table. However, we provided tables at a height to accommodate most wheelchairs, enough space for maneuverability, and an adjustable rolling platform for the keyboard.
Windows comes with accessibility options that are appropriate for some students - such as the option to adjust the speed of mouse clicks and the size and contrast scheme of type. However, the feedback we received from one visually impaired computer user made it clear that these features are not always ideal. Someone has to set the accessibility options for the visually impaired user. Once the options are set, if a person cannot see the screen, s/he cannot independently use the computer. For example, even with the text enlarged, the scroll bar might still be difficult or impossible to see. In order to read with fluidity, the user must rely on assistance to scroll across and down the page. To insure independence, a voice component that reads the screen and identifies icons, menus, and navigational elements is ideal.
The following are some of the things we kept in mind during the planning of the lab and have incorporated into our design:
Workspace -- We wanted to provide users with workspace both at their computer and elsewhere in the lab, workspace that could accommodate both individual and group work. We allowed 3 feet of table space for each user at the computer. Users can move the keyboard or push back paper stands and mouse pads to open up a flat workspace of 18-36 inches.
Doorways/Passage - There should be 36-inch wide passage through doorways and around the lab to accommodate people who use wheelchairs. Also, the floor should be free of cords and other clutter.
Table Height - Tables should be at least 29 inches high.
Monitors - The larger the monitor, the better. Monitors should adjust/angle up and down to accommodate users of different heights. We have added touch screens to two workstations. For some users, the mouse -- whatever its design -- is frustrating and can be a significant barrier to successfully interacting with the computer. The touch screen allows users to select, open, and close documents and applications with a small stylus (like a pen) or their finger.
Adjustable Tables - For those using mouthsticks or large motorized wheelchairs that can not roll up close enough to the computer table to provide comfortable access to the keyboard, a small adjustable-height table or platform that can be rolled to the user seems ideal. (We have not found one of these yet!)
Keyboards - Adaptive keyboards -- Braille overlays, large key keyboards, ABC keyboards (as opposed to QWERTY), and special keyboard guides for mouth stick users and those with motor issues -- are available. Keyboards should also be able to function without a mouse and to extend far enough from the computer to be mounted on a wheelchair or an adjustable platform at the wheelchair. On-screen keyboard add-on for MS Office -- for a user who can only use a mouse or switch -- can be downloaded from the Microsoft website.
Mouse - The Trackball Mouse and Wheel Mouse are both useful for users with motor limitations. We have provided users with several mouse options, including designs appropriate for left-handed users and those with limited dexterity. For people with repetitive stress conditions/injuries, such as Carpal Tunnel syndrome, the touch screen and various mouse options, including a vertical mouse, are now available.
Volume/Headphones - In a lab setting with multiple users, headphones allow for preferred volume settings and minimal distraction to both the user and those nearby. We've found headphones useful when working with deaf and hard of hearing students as well as students who have trouble focusing. A jack-splitter allows two users at the same computer to share the headphone jack.
Software - Windows accessibility options can help students with using the mouse, seeing the screen more easily, and hearing various onscreen items identified out loud. Voice Recognition software (such as Dragon Dictate) can be adapted to each individual user. Text reading and text enlarging software can assist those with visual or reading impairments. We have added eReader, Scan and Read, Write Outloud, Intellitalk, and CoWriter, as well as the free software ReadPlease to some workstations. These products have been helpful to non-native speakers, low-level readers, and students with low vision and/or reading impairments. Software is also available to augment the enlarging capabilities of Windows for the visually impaired computer user. We have added a program called Word Talk to all our lab machines so that students can hear their writing, in MS Word, read back to them to assist with editing. Ginger at gingersoftware.com provides a great free editing tool that works with almost any text-based application, including email. Ginger is much more thorough and keen than MS Office spell/grammar check. It catches spelling mistakes, but also finds malapropisms, frequently confused homophones, and other errors.
Our wish to accommodate all computer users necessitates an on-going commitment. We continue to gather information and investigate new products, listen to feedback from users and those who work with disabled clients, and seek to break down barriers as they're identified.
For more information on technology access, visit these links:
ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act Technical Assistance Center)
ATA (Alliance for Technology Access)
CAST (Center for Special Technologies)