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Engineering Universal Access for Learning

Dr. Michael Hughes has a doctorate in education, but he spends a lot of his time thinking like an architect or engineer. “Universal design usually means creating buildings that are physically accessible to everyone, with hallways wide enough for wheelchairs,” he says. “But, in promoting ‘universal design for learning,’ we have to simultaneously confront the technological, social and psychological barriers to equal education.”

Hughes is the coordinator of Bowie State University’s Office of Disability Support Services, which aids students with mobility issues, sensory problems, emotional challenges or learning disabilities. He works closely with Jeff Gittens, who is completing a doctorate in computer sciences. Bowie State is leading the charge in researching two adaptive technology applications, say Hughes and Gittens.

The first involves graphic image processing. Current optical character recognition software can help people with impaired vision by converting printed text into speech. However, if the software encounters a picture, it can only tell the user that there is a photograph or a drawing on the page. Bowie State is collaborating with researchers at the University of Illinois to combine image processing, facial recognition and natural speech to interpret and describe graphic images.

“Our goal,” says Gittens, “is to get to the point so that the computer could tell the user that the image is a picture of Barack Obama sitting at his desk rather than a photo of Dick Cheney having heart surgery.”

Hughes says Bowie also is pioneering new ground in understanding the cognitive and psychosocial issues involved in adaptive technology. “This is where our theory of universal design comes in,” he explains. “Rather than see one person as being blind and another as having dyslexia, we’ve found that it’s most useful to think of both of them as having difficulty processing visual information. Our research has found that text-to-speech software developed for people with visual impairments also is very helpful to sighted people with certain learning disabilities because it verbally reinforces the information they are reading.”

Hughes and Gittens operate in an environment where technologies such as electric wheelchairs, speech-to-text dictation and optical character recognition, which used to be cumbersome and expensive, have become widely affordable. Yet, according to Hughes, some of the most critical issues in educational access remain social rather than technological. As he says, “there is still a stigma that makes some students unwilling to disclose their learning disability.”

Hughes says there is a complex interaction between stigma, disabilities and adaptive technology. For example, some students with learning disabilities are legally entitled to have an aide accompany them to class to take notes. However, this seldom happens because it can be expensive for the school and embarrassing for the individual. Hughes sees opportunity in such a scenario, saying it would be a perfect application for the technology and philosophy of universal design.

“Today’s computers and software could make it relatively inexpensive for a college to provide in-room captioning for people with hearing problems and pictures, text, and streaming video that any student could download from the Internet,” he says.

“Technology that provides access for the disabled helps everyone else too.”

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