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Blind Student Checks Tech for College’s Accessibility

Posted to Site August 25, 2010

BARRIE – Georgian College student Matthew Campbell identifies – and removes – barriers many of can’t see.

That’s because he’s blind.

A graduate of the W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind in Brantford, the 22-year-old Parry Sound man is now enrolled in Georgian’s computer systems technician program.

In addition to his studies, he’s completing his first co-op placement as an accessibility specialist in the information technology department.

He chose Georgian because the college was already more accessible than others – but that’s only encouraging him to make it even more so.

“Georgian seemed to have a lot of information on its website about helping students with disabilities and a lot of colleges didn’t,” he said. “I had a hard
time finding a computer technician program. I found ‘help desk support’, and I don’t want to do that. I want to be the guy who runs around the building
fixing things.”

Like others in the IT business, Campbell loves technology and exploring how various devices, programs and applications can work together. He has both an Apple Mac laptop and a Windows notebook – and is awaiting the arrival of an iPhone.

His focus as an IT co-op student has been the same website that attracted him to Georgian in the first place.

“I’d like to see the college move a little quicker away from Adobe’s flash technology, which is being used to display video on a web page. Adobe has a very sad attitude when it comes to accessibility, especially for the Mac user,” he said.

“Flash is a nightmare to navigate and work with using a screen-reading program.”

Screen reading is built into Apple computers, he noted, while on Windows-based systems the accessibility tool must be purchased separately.

He has suggested the college give blind students a tour by adding better audio descriptions of the campus, rather than relying so heavily on the camera.

“If someone developed a website with descriptive labels for images, we could get an idea of what the image is showing,” he said, adding that in many cases – from email links to websites – any text on the page, rather than an icon, would give information to the visually impaired.

Graduating from the Macdonald School, Campbell has more experience with other adaptive technologies, and is working to make the college’s website work with those specialized devices as well.

He’s also excited by the possibilities of mainstream technology – and making it even more useful for those with disabilities. Applications for the iPhone
abound (not to mention the phone has a screen-reading “voice”), and he’s looking to explore how to make them work with specialized programs and devices. “I’d like to get into that, too,” he said. “There are lots of possibilities.

His supervisor, web usability analyst Monika Bernolak, said that experience is a valuable asset. “We have all kinds of reports and he’s given us numerous suggestions. We’re listening to him, to learn and improve our pages accordingly,” she said.

“He tests projects for us before they go live and lets us know how we can improve. It’s very important in light of the Accessibility for Ontarians with
Disabilities Act, which Georgian College is strongly committed to.”

Made law in 2005, the AODA sets out a series of targets to break down barriers: customer service, the built environment, employment, communication and transportation. Municipalities and public agencies must, by January, offer good customer service to all – regardless of ability or disability. Stores and others in the business of customer service have until January 2012.

Just after that, information and communication must be accessible by 2013 in the private sector. All other compliance dates have yet to be determined. The goal of the AODA is to make the province totally accessible by 2025.

“(More) companies are thinking about accessibility and how to build it into mainstream products. It’s pretty sad a lot of other (technology companies) are
not following Apple and making it accessible,” Campbell said.

“(People with disabilities) may be a minority, but we do make up market share.”

As part of his co-op placement, Campbell also has an accessibility blog, at www.georgianc.on.ca/accessibility.

In September, Campbell returns to his in-class studies. One thing he will depend on isn’t technical at all – but critically important in helping him make
his way around: his guide dog Lillibelle.

“You’d be surprised at how many people have dogs,” he said, adding he asks people not to pat the black lab while she is working.

“Ask, don’t assume, you can (pat the dog). Petting a dog that’s working is unwise, potentially dangerous,” he said, adding he’s fortunate he’s had no close
calls due to Lillibelle being distracted from her duties.

In January, in his next co-op placement, he may be back focusing on accessibility at Georgian. At least Bernolak hopes so.

“He’s been a great asset,” she said.

lwatt@simcoe.com

Reproduced from http://www.simcoe.com/news/local/article/864633–blind-student-checks-tech-for-college-s-accessibility

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