By Stacey Shackford
Feb. 11, 2014
It doesn’t take much to ensure a class is accessible to all students. In some cases, it’s simply a matter of making class materials available online before class and uploading fully accessible PDFs or Word documents, formats that screen-reading software can read.
Neurodiversity Working Group
In addition to the physical obstacles some students face are those that are hidden, including neurological disorders that can be just as debilitating.
A new group of faculty and staff have banded together to provide resources for those working with students on the autism spectrum, to ensure an inclusive atmosphere for those students, to raise awareness about autism spectrum disorder and to empower those affected to talk about their needs.
That was the message delivered by a panel of students and staff as part of a Jan. 31 workshop organized by CIT, Facilities Services and Student Disability Services to make Cornell IT professionals aware of some of the issues faced by users with vision, hearing and other disabilities.
Demonstrations were given of assistive technology such as JAWS, which provides auditory feedback to help navigate via keystrokes, and a transcription service called CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation), as well as critiques of some of Cornell’s most-used websites.
Simple, well-organized sites with headers or submenus are easiest to navigate using JAWS, explained Mark Colasurdo ’15, a biological engineering student in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He gave class collaboration tool Blackboard high marks; scheduling site Student Center didn’t fare as well.
Colasurdo, whose vision is limited, said he can handle most of his courses without much assistance, but the biggest barrier is poor PDFs, including pages scanned as image files, which are not searchable and have to be converted into Word files.
Colasurdo said he sometimes asks professors to be as verbal as possible during their lectures and explain any graphs or other visuals they may present.
That would also be helpful for Jackie Rachaf ’14, an English and economics student in the College of Arts and Sciences who is bilaterally hard of hearing. She uses a captioning program that produces a live transcript of lectures on her laptop. It can be difficult to keep up with PowerPoints and other visual presentations at the same time, she said. Posting the presentations beforehand would give her a better chance to prepare in advance and review afterward, she said.
Captioning of videos used in class or posted to Cornell websites would also greatly improve access for deaf and hard of hearing students, as well as the general public, who may not understand the speakers or the vocabulary they use, Rachaf said.
Clare van den Blink, director of Academic Technologies, agreed that such accommodations benefit everyone. The former teacher said students with disabilities made her re-assess and change her teaching style. She tended to rely a lot on graphs, for instance, but retrained herself to explain the visuals in great detail. The effort resulted in several students coming up to her after class and thanking her because they hadn’t understood the graphs.
“There were all these unintended benefits. Ultimately, it was a better experience for all of my students,” she said. “Plus, people don’t necessarily self-disclose their conditions, so you may not know the needs of your audience.”
Stacey Shackford is staff writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.