Center retools to find accessible solutions for remote learning

Staff of the ATRC

The staff of the Assistive Technology Resource Center

When Colorado State University shifted to remote learning in late March due to the coronavirus pandemic, it meant that students started spending more time at home, looking at their computer screens, instead of in classrooms with their instructors. And for some students with disabilities, that caused problems.

Luckily, the Assistive Technology Resource Center was there to help.

“I was taking 21 credit hours this semester, and with a brain injury, the move to remote learning was not going well,” says Nicole Mishler, a junior health and exercise science major. “I’m not supposed to look at screens very much.”

Mishler gets headaches and nausea if she reads text on a computer for too long. Staff at the Student Disability Center referred her to the ATRC in the Department of Occupational Therapy, and staff was ready to help.

The SDC refers many students who seek support related to a disability to the ATRC for assessment and training on assistive technology. Such tools can provide an equitable learning experience for students with barriers to learning on computers and other devices.

The center is composed of a director, two occupational therapy services providers, a full-time IT support and accessibility consultant, OT graduate students who gain experience with assistive technology as part of occupational therapy practice, and other support staff.

When the move to online instruction occurred, the ATRC quickly retooled to provide the same level of assessment, training and support in a remote fashion through Microsoft Teams.

Student using smart pen

Customized solutions

Mishler, who wants to become an occupational therapist, says ATRC Student Service Coordinator Shannon Lavey lined up different options for software that changes the color of web pages that have white backgrounds, since those can be the most difficult for her to read. The ATRC also provided Mishler with a speech-to-text program that allows her to spend less time typing (and staring at a screen). There’s also a Chrome browser extension that she’s now using to have online text read to her.

Before she got these tools, Mishler says, she would often skip over words when reading tests and assignments on the computer.

“Sometimes I would just make up my own questions,” she says with a laugh. “Shannon is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. She was adamant about addressing each specific problem I had with at least two or three options. It’s not one-size-fits-all; the Assistive Technology Resource Center really tries to tailor solutions toward you.”

Other students agree.

“She was like the world’s best problem-solver,” says Hannah Hughes, a fourth-year psychology major and a student veteran who has a disability. “If something wasn’t working, she didn’t give up. She was so supportive, and wanted me to thrive. The center wants to identify what’s going to work best for your body and needs.”

Note-taking and typing were Hughes’ biggest challenges, due to a connective tissue disorder. Thanks to the ATRC, she’s now hooked up with a smart pen, speech recognition software and a digital note-taking app. She also has an ergonomic keyboard and mouse, which are big improvements over her laptop’s cramped keyboard and trackpad.

For another student client of the ATRC, a senior biological science major who asked to remain anonymous, English is her second language, and she has anxiety as well as attention deficit disorder. She says she has benefitted from several tools that the center has provided.

“It’s good for students to know that if they need help with the online transition — whether it’s staring at the computer for longer hours or needing to improve their typing or time management — there are resources out there for them,” she says.

Student using text to speech app

Students can use text-to-speech apps and color adjustment tools on their smartphones.

Common challenges

Lavey explains that the ATRC has dealt with a variety of accessibility issues over the past six weeks, involving everything from PDF and PowerPoint files to online proctoring programs. The ATRC has asked faculty to be sure their course materials are accessible – for example, ensuring that PDF files are searchable and aren’t images (using a process called optical character recognition). This allows the assistive technology to interact with the readings. And they have advised faculty to simply be accommodating and flexible.

The ATRC has been advocating for an inclusive technological climate at CSU for many years, so it was ready to assist with issues of accessibility created by the sudden move to online instruction. The ATRC helped created content to assist faculty with the accessibility aspects of their courses on the Keep Teaching website and a place for students to report accessibility barriers on the Keep Learning site.

The ATRC has also created a host of resources and tutorials for faculty to learn how to create inclusive and accessible course content at accessibility.colostate.edu.

“Even if you don’t think you have a student with a disability, you may have someone in a course who has a barrier,” Lavey says.

Read&Write text-to-speech tool

Read&Write literacy software makes websites and documents more accessible.

Blue light and ergonomics

Among the most common problems the ATRC has seen are difficulties with staring at a computer screen for longer periods of time. In addition to the software packages mentioned by Mishler, there are glasses and computer settings that can reduce the amount of blue light hitting students’ eyes. The ATRC has also seen an uptick in ergonomic problems as students took learning home, sometimes with less-than-ideal workspaces and equipment. She says many assistive technology vendors have offered free access to their products and technology through the end of the semester. The ATRC has been mailing items to students, or even leaving them at the front desk of their residence halls, to respect social distancing.

“Our staff has been so great about being resourceful and getting these accommodations to our students,” Lavey says. “We have a great team.”

“There were so many resources I didn’t know about,” Hughes concludes. “Now I’m thriving in all of these domains. A lot of students don’t worry about access, but for some, there are barriers. Now we can just focus on being students, and not on the barriers.”

Ergonomic keyboard and mouse

An ergonomic keyboard and mouse can improve a home workstation.