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Accessibility for Distance Learning: Assistive Technology

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) established that no qualified individual should be excluded from public programs on the sole basis of a disability. Distance learning programs have been incorporated in this mandate, and offer opportunities for individuals with a wide range of abilities and disabilities. In recent years, specialized hardware and software products have been developed to provide accessibility to computing and networking technology necessary for distance learning. These various products are what are known as assistive technology.


What Assistive Technology Offers

Because distance learning often requires online education, access to computing and networking technology is crucial to distance learning success. However, these also benefit instructors who require assistive devices. The following is an overview of some types of assistive technology available for the purpose of accessibility within distance learning programs.

Text-to-Speech Software
Text-to-speech software is available for students or instructors who are blind. This form of assistive technology works by reading whatever text appears on the screen using a synthesized voice. However, this software cannot interpret graphics unless text accompanies these images. Other media such as Braille handouts, electronic text, tactile drawings and audio technology can help assist with any visual barriers.

Braille Embossers
These assistive devices convert computer generated text into Braille output which can then be printed. Refreshable Braille displays are also available, which use small pins to form Braille characters, which are then refreshed to continue reading the following line of text.

Enlarged Screen Images
Software is also available to help students and instructors with other visual impairments. These enable users to enlarge screen images; however, this does pose a barrier since only parts of the screen may be viewed at one time, which may lead to confusion when navigating through websites.

Audiotape Readings
Recorded books or audiotape readings can offer assistance for students with specific learning disabilities that affect reading, writing and information processing. In addition, students can use speech output and screen enlargement systems.

Alternative Input Devices
There are different types of keyboard or pointing devices available. These include the following:


  • alternative keyboards with larger or smaller keys, alternative key configurations or keyboards that can be used with one hand
  • electronic pointing devices which may be controlled through ultrasound, eye movements, nerve signals or brain waves
  • sip-and-puff systems that are controlled by inhaling or exhaling
  • touch screens

Class Discussion
In addition, there are many alternatives that may be offered for students in distance learning programs when it comes to communicating with the class. Many distance learning programs offer class discussions through e-mail or online chat rooms.


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