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Blog // Connect Michigan

Accessibility Technology & Online Learning

By Wil Payton

For the disabled – an on-ramp to e-learning

Guest Contributor: John Herzog,  FCC Disability Rights Office

Internet access provides some significant benefits and formidable challenges for disabled students and workers. The Internet can serve as a skills development pathway because it provides the level of convenience and flexibility necessary for disabled individuals to remotely reach educational and occupational goals.

There can, however, be barriers to this access road. Visual or learning impairments can make reading text on a screen a challenging task. Individuals with hearing issues rely on closed-captioning to hear Web video and other audio content. Networks, content developers, and service providers need to be aware of these barriers in order to fully factor the disabled into this communications equation. But most importantly, individuals need to be aware of the hardware and software options available for making the Internet fully accessible to those with special needs.

One office that acts as an advocate for persons with disabilities is the Disability Rights Office (DRO). The DRO, a part of the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, provides expert advice and assistance, as required, to other government bureaus and offices, consumers, industry, and others on issues relevant to persons with disabilities.

Accessibility is defined as the degree to which a product, service, or environment is available to as many people as possible. John Herzog, a DRO staff member (who happens to be disabled) provided input on a brief Q & A about his experiences with accessibility technology:

Q: How do you view broadband technology in terms of educational alternatives and workforce development for the disabled?

A: Absolutely critical. When I was in college I had to access all of my books on the Internet. Basically my college had a text conversion center where you would take your books in to be scanned and they would put them on a website with a secure password. I would log into the website to gain access. Braille is not available anymore because of the bulk.

Q: Are there any accessibility technologies that might not be common knowledge to the general public?

A: Mvda software comes to mind. It is a free open source screen reader that provides access to Microsoft Office applications. Screen readers are software programs that allow blind or visually impaired users to read the text that is displayed on the computer screen with a speech synthesizer. A screen reader is the interface between the computer’s operating system, its applications, and the user. The user sends commands by pressing different combinations of keys on the computer keyboard to instruct the speech synthesizer what to say and to speak automatically when changes occur on the computer screen.

Q: Any advice on choosing accessibility technologies in general?

A: Whenever possible, try to stick with mainstream technology as opposed to solutions made specifically for the blind.  There are mainstream products, like the Mac or the iPhone, that either have built-in screen readers or support braille displays. There are products that target the specific needs of the blind. The problem is that these solutions are sometimes two and three times more expensive than a mainstream solution and they are often updated less frequently and have fewer features.

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