Equity & Access to Computing Resources

Adaptive Technology table of contents

Equity & Access to Computing Resources

A monograph concerning individuals with special needs and their right to fair and equal access to information via computer.

Editor’s Introduction

The National Conference on Computing and Values (NCCV) was held on the campus of Southern Connecticut State University in August 1991. The Conference included six “tracks”: Teaching Computing and Human Values, Computer Privacy and Confidentiality, Computer Security and Crime, Ownership of Software and Intellectual Property, Equity and Access to Computing Resources, and Policy Issues in the Campus Computing Environment. Each track included a major address, three to five commentaries, some small “working groups,” and a packet of relevant readings (the “Track Pack”). A variety of supplemental “enrichment events” were also included.

This monograph contains the proceeding of the “Equity and Access to Computing Resources” track of NCCV. It includes the “track address,” four commentaries, one enrichment paper, the conference bibliography, and the “track report.” The track address is “Computer Access Equity” by Walter Maner. The commentaries include “Overcoming the Barriers to Computer Use by Individuals Who Have Disabilities” by Barbara Shiller Heinisch, “Some Reflections on Access Equity” by Charles E. M. Dunlop, “Computers as Barriers to/or Vehicles for Equity: Response to ‘Computer Access Equity’” by Marianne LaFrance and Anne Meyer, and “Acknowledging the Significance of Gender” by Ann-Marie Lancaster. The enrichment paper is “DisABILITY, Computing and the Law: What You Should Know” by Tzipporah BenAvraham.

Amy Rubin was the “Track Coordinator” for this track, and the Appendix at the end is her report on the findings and recommendations of the small working group of the track.

The National Conference on Computing and Values was a major undertaking that required significant help from many people. The Editors would like to express sincere thanks to the National Science Foundation and the Metaphilosophy Foundation for support that made the project possible. And we wish to thank the following people for their invaluable help and support: (in alphabetic order) Denice Botto, William Bowersox, Aline W. Bynum, Robert Corda, Donald Duman, Richard Fabish, James Fullmer, Ken W. Gatzke, Steven J. Gold, Edward Hoffman, Rodney Lane, Sheila Magnotti, Armen Marsoobian, John Mattia, P. Krishna Mohan, Beryl Normand, Robert O’Brien, Daniel Ort, Anthony Pinciaro, Amy Rubin, Brian Russer, Elizabeth L.B. Sabatino, Charlene Senical, J. Philip Smith, Ray Sparks, Larry Tortice, and Suzanne Tucker.

Computer Access Equity

1.0 The Call for Access Rights

By luck of a biased social lottery, the advantages of computer access accumulate and multiply in the hands of people like me: middle-aged or younger, white, upscale, male, city-dwelling, English-speaking, able-bodied, computer-literate technophiles. When I look around me, I become uncomfortable with my good fortune. Reconsidering the luck of the draw, many would say we need to create a new political right, perhaps one as fundamental as the right to free speech. They propose a right to benefit from access to information technologies – in short, an access right. Stuart Brand (1987), writing in his book The Media Lab, observes that “you may not choose to reach everyone, or be reachable by everyone, but the connection should be possible.” If people are not interconnected to information sources and to each other, participatory democracy may be at risk in the next century. Creation of an access right could fuel the social effort needed to make the new information technologies more pervasive. Proponents claim it could transform the Information Age into an Age of Access.

Ronald Doctor (1990), in a recent paper written for the Journal of the American Society for Information Science, documents four trends in information policy and practices that push us toward granting electronic rights of access:

  • Information resources and the means to deliver information are increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer companies
  • Information resources are increasingly controlled by profit-driven information brokers who find it to their corporate advantage to restrict access.
  • Rural areas are increasingly shortchanged because information technology vendors much prefer to have an affluent, urban clientele.
  • Low-income people cannot afford the technology or the training that would allow them to jump into the fast lane of emerging inter-connectivity. Put simply, they can’t get “on the grid.”

In addition,

  • Information technology supports more complex forms of corporate integration, exacerbating center-periphery problems (Gillespie and Robins, 1989).
  • Public libraries, which have the historic role of making recorded knowledge accessible, are using fee-based systems to pay for electronic access (Buckley, 1987).
  • Supreme Court decisions have reinforced class divisions by defining information rights and responsibilities in terms of one’s profession (Braman, 1989).
  • Citizens find it increasingly difficult to access government information due to lack of citizen participation in the formulation of information policy (Gray, 1987).

In their book, Information Technology: A Luddite Analysis, Frank Webster and Kevin Robins argue that such trends vest an increasing and disproportionate power in a centralized, controlling oligopoly. This does not happen, as we often hear, because “information is power.” If this were so, we would be empowered by file drawers stuffed with microfiche. In reality, information is chaos. We are barely afloat in the flood of information that surrounds us. Power comes only if we can have efficient access to relevant information (Reinecke, 1987). Power comes only if we can have the proper tools to mine mountains of data for the nuggets we need. Computerized access to electronic information delivers the promise of power because it delivers the right tools.

2.0 Structural Barriers to Access Rights

We may want everyone to have such tools, but there are formidable sociopolitical constraints that limit what we can hope to achieve. Health care access is a parallel case. Tristram Englehardt (1986), writing in The Foundations of Bioethics, identified six prominent factors that limit the right to access health care. The same constraints clearly limit information access rights:

  • Individual rights to free choice, which constrain the authority of society to compel the provision of access
  • Private property, which constrains the authority of society to appropriate and redistribute resources
  • The limited authority of the state, which has only the powers that those governed choose to give it
  • Societal or communal free choice, which may waste or misdirect scarce resources
  • The finitude of all resources, which constrains both individuals and groups from achieving worthy ambitions
  • The limits of human reason, which make it difficult to establish that a particular redistribution of social benefits and burdens should be undertaken

3.0 An Offering of Bounded Concessions

I am sobered by the serious nature of these constraints and by the acceleration of the skewed access trends I catalogued earlier. In the face of them, my initial response will be to offer some concessions.

First, I concede that there exists no basic right to computer access for all people. It is not an uncreated “natural” right, like life and liberty, which persons could claim since the dawn of civilization. Nor is it, like free public education, a de facto right established on the strength of broad social recognition. Nor is it an explicit political right created by law, or even one that has such urgency that it is likely to be created soon.

If there did exist a basic right to computer access, it would have to provide more than a simple freedom to the unrestrained use of computer resources we already access. If we are without access, we need more than forbearance from others. We need entitlements. We will want to be in a position to demand access of those who could conceivably supply or withhold it. We will want access brokers to accede to our demands whether they are inclined to do so or not. Attempts to legislate computer access rights may fail precisely because of the unacceptable burdens needed to fund such entitlements. But even if a basic right of computer access were created, it would still not be a right of equal access. If you or I were entitled to equal access, then we could demand that the level of access given to any particular person, be given also to us.

Second, I concede that there is no primary human need for computer access. Unlike food, water, shelter, and minimum health care, computers are not essential to the continuance of life itself. Of course, as society becomes more complex, it may well be that secondary needs, such as transportation and vocational education, deserve promotion to primary status. Computer access may someday deserve a similar elevation in status, but this need not concern us until computers prove to be as necessary to ordinary life as telephones. When this happens, there will remain a further problem involving the incongruence of desire and need. It seems likely that those who will most need to improve their access to computers will be least motivated to demand it. At the other extreme, those who will be most motivated to demand increased access will be least likely to need it.

Third, I concede that uniform and equal access to computers may be the wrong goal. It seems inevitable that some people will want, need and possibly deserve more computing power than can be made available to every person, across the board. Power is costly, therefore scarce, therefore cannot be distributed in usably equal shares to all people. Even if society could afford it, we would not adopt the goal of putting super-computers on every desk top. For one thing, many users would gladly trade power for simplicity.

Fourth, it is unclear what “equitable access” might entail. It probably includes access to some type of computing hardware . . . but it could entail access to the training needed to operate the hardware. It probably includes access to some type of system software . . . but it could entail access to public information utilities by means of specialized telecommunications software. It might entail access to hardware and software upgrades, if improved access were necessary to remain at parity with others in the workplace. It might include public access, or access from rural locations. It might include access to software that is language-appropriate or age-appropriate or gender-appropriate or appropriate to one’s level of cognitive function. For persons with motor or sensory restrictions, achieving equity could require access to whatever special hardware and software may be necessary for them to be as productive as anyone else. We remain vague about equity partly because we don’t know how to measure the adequacy of information access or how to define accessibility benchmarks (Heim, 1978).

Fifth, I concede that lack of computer access is not necessarily an ethical problem. Inaccessibility may result from misguided personal choices or from external circumstances that are merely unfortunate rather than unjust. Of course, it matters where one draws the line between what is unfortunate and what is unjust. If it is merely unfortunate that I lack computer access, I can still hope for remedies motivated by benevolence or compassion. But misfortune alone isn’t grounds for asking society to redistribute resources in my favor.

Finally, I concede that access issues, problems, strategies and solutions are likely to be reshaped by the evolution of computer technology. Data gloves, pen-based notebook computers, and speaker-independent voice recognition systems will create different mixes of resolved and unresolved issues. Access will become easier in some respects and more difficult in others as advantages and disadvantages are redistributed.

I now want to limit the concessions I have made by stressing several important points that I believe should not be surrendered.

  • Even if there exists no basic right to computer access for all people, we may still insist that morally relevant criteria operate when some persons are given access while others are denied.
  • Even if there exists no primary human need for computer access, we may proceed to make a strong case for a derivative need to access a basic range of practical computer services. We may define this minimum level of service and argue forcefully that this need will only grow as computer technology becomes more pervasive.
  • Even if a scarcity of resources makes universal equal access to computers an elusive goal, we may still argue for some form of equality in those situations where a distribution of computer resources has been made. In a computerized office, for example, we may demand that all workers have at least the minimum access to computer resources required for the timely performance of their job functions.

Finally and most important:

  • Although we are unclear about its positive implications, we understand the negative side of “equitable access” well enough to recognize and remedy systemic inequities. We know inequity when we see it, and that is enough to set an initial agenda for greater social justice.

4.0 Evidence of Access Inequity

There is compelling evidence that systemic access inequities do exist. For illustration, I offer a partial list:

  • Computer training helps men advance their careers, but women need the same training just to catch up and survive (Brunet and Proulx, 1989).
  • Girls are less interested in computers and less confident in their computer skills even when they have as much experience with the technology as boys (Krendl, Broihier and Fleetwood, 1989).
  • Eleven different studies made between 1970 and 1985 show social status is a consistent predictor of adoption and use of personal computers (Dutton, Rogers and Jun, 1987).]
  • 37% of children in families with income above $50,000 have access to computers at home; only 3.4% of children in households earning less than $10,000 have the same benefit (Kominski, 1988).
  • A 1984 Census Bureau survey revealed 17% of all white children were using a computer at home but only 6% of blacks and 5% of Hispanics (Kominski, 1988).
  • Seven schools that substantially increased their computer resources found that newly-provided classroom computing experiences only created additional inequities for disadvantaged students (Chambers and Clarke, 1987).
  • A national survey of secondary school students in Canada revealed substantial inequities in access to technology (Collis, Kass and Kieren, 1989).
  • The Educational Testing Service found that parents who finished college were about twice as likely to own a computer as high school graduates, and three times as likely as those who never completed high school (Martinez and Mead, 1988).
  • According to the same study, 50% of the seventh-graders living in upscale urban areas have access to a home computer but only 20% of their rural counterparts.
  • The ratio of students to computers in special education classes is worse than in regular classes despite the fact that their computer access problems are largely solved (Fleenor, 1986).
  • There is both racial and sexual bias in computer magazine advertising and, surprisingly, the level of bias did not decrease during the 1980s (Marshall and Bannon, 1988).

5.0 Concern for Justice

It is a shame that life does not distribute benefits and burdens with even hands. We can always hope some combination of philanthropy, charity, and self-improvement will rescue those who are at a disadvantage. But apart from benevolence and self-help, should anything more be done? Not if the imbalance is merely unfortunate or transient or easily righted by individual initiative. But if the imbalance is arbitrary, if it is systemic, if a principled analysis shows it to be unjust, society may have sufficient moral grounds for taking remedial action. It is therefore important to decide whether access inequities are merely issues of outrageous fortune or issues of social justice.

A concern for justice arises when the demand for some important social benefit or advantage (e.g., replacement organs from donors) exceeds the ability of society to provide it. This unsatisfiable demand forces a recognition of scarcity. This recognition of scarcity, in turn, leads to the ethical demand that some fair procedure be invoked to reconcile the various conflicting claims on the scarce resource. A concern for justice also arises when the demand for relief from some important social burden (e.g., economic distress) exceeds the available provision of remedies, thus producing conflicting claims for assistance. If the benefits of computer access and the remedies for lack of access were inexhaustible, or if claims on the limited amount of available access never came into conflict, no issue of justice would arise. In reality, however, both benefits and remedies are finite, so the existence of access inequities raises profound issues of social justice. These issues are made even more difficult because access claims tend to clash along the entire length of social class boundaries, not just within the interpersonal zones between individuals.

Given that concerns about justice are necessarily motivated by conditions of scarcity which are then exacerbated by conflicts of interest, it follows that we could eliminate much inequity in computer access simply by addressing supply-side issues. We could work to make computer access convenient and plentiful and public and cheap. The declining cost of hardware, media and telecommunication services bolster this dream of electronic equality, but not well enough to sustain it. Although access opportunities may continue to improve with advances in technology, proprietary and profit-taking interests will ultimately prevent a supply-side-only solution from reaching all segments of society equally. So, even if access improves markedly with progress in technology, it is possible and likely that groups already advantaged by access will attract a larger share of the increased benefit. In the end, given the finitude of all resources and a steepening demand for better access, we will have to face difficult issues of distributive justice. Sooner or later, when we reach the point where we can no longer resolve equity issues simply by throwing more resources at the problem, we will have to ask and answer fundamental ethical questions.

How do we resolve conflicting claims on limited resources in such a way that we produce a fair allocation of benefits and burdens? This is the central question of distributive justice. How can we arrange structures, procedures and incentives so that people get their deserved share of benefits and burdens? In this context we ask: What kind of equity strategies are required to produce a fair redistribution of access opportunities across individuals and groups?

Two special circumstances lie at opposite ends of the current mal-distribution of access opportunities: (1) cases where individuals or groups have been unduly disadvantaged because their access benefits, if any, are less than what they deserve and (2) cases where individuals or groups have been unduly advantaged because their access benefits exceed what they deserve. The maldistribution of bad and good fortune may initially be innocent. It may be the pure result of a no-fault social lottery which leaves us with several thorny problems to resolve . . . but no one to blame for them. The first type of case creates problems of compensatory justice. Perhaps some new benefit must be provided or some existing benefit expanded in the interest of justice. The second creates problems of capitulatory justice. Perhaps some existing benefit must be surrendered or reduced in the interest of justice. (If blame could be assigned, we might also have problems of retributory justice. Perhaps then some punishment would have to be accepted in the interest of justice.) In order to formulate an equity strategy that addresses these kinds of problems, it is necessary to ask what kind of access to computer resources is deserved.

6.0 What Access Do People Deserve?

In some sense of the phrase, people deserve “fair and equal access” to computer resources. We could take this to require strict equality of access, but it is more flexible to assume that the phrase only requires similar access in similar circumstances. Persons whose situations are alike in relevant respects should have like access, and persons whose situations differ in relevant respects should have access that varies appropriately with the specific nature of their differences. If we elevate this “fair and equal” rule to the level of an intergroup principle, we can make an important statement about equity. We can say that inequity exists when access opportunities are different for groups of persons who are similar in relevant respects, or when access opportunities are similar for groups of persons who are different in relevant respects. There should be general agreement that the following characteristics are at least presumptively irrelevant: age, gender, wealth, geography, social status, race, ethnic origin and disability.

Some minimal principle of proportional dealing based on relevant characteristics has been part of theories of justice since the time of Aristotle. Perhaps it has endured as a principle because it is minimal and abstract. If we want to convert it into a principle of practical value, we will have to provide a substantive interpretation.

One substantive interpretation might be (1) that justice requires that all people have access to the computer resources required to do whatever they want. Since resource limitations make this impossible, we might retreat one step from naive equality and declare (2) that justice requires that all people get equal access to whatever computer resources are actually available. While this reformulation copes effectively with resource scarcity, it also provides indiscriminately equal access – equal even in cases where relevant differences would seem to require corresponding differences in access opportunities. So we might retreat from naive equality along another path, holding (3) that justice demands that all people have access to computer resources up to the level of some lifetime maximum that would be equal for all people. This version forces worst-case equality but allows access opportunities to vary short of this extreme of circumstance. It also copes with scarcity, assuming the lifetime maximum is reasonably defined. Even so, it violates our sense of justice because it won’t permit persons disadvantaged in the social lottery to have a larger lifetime limit even if that new limit is required in order to advance toward parity.

We might try clothing the principle in the mantle of utilitarianism, arguing (4) that justice demands that we maximize the net total benefits of computer access across society as a whole. This seems fair until we consider that the rule may require giving the best access opportunities to the most savvy experts since they would be the best position to exploit and extend their benefits. The decision to favor experts with access would do more to pad the utilitarian’s bottom line total than would squandering the same opportunities on novices.

Alternatively, we could try clothing the principle in egalitarianism, arguing (5) that justice demands people have access to whatever computer resources are necessary to raise themselves to parity with others. Since others presumably don’t have optimal access either, this principle does not require that everyone be well connected. It only requires that substandard access be remedied. The main attraction of this principle is the chance it gives those who are least advantaged to catch up, to get even. The problem with it is that there exist a small number of chronically ineffectual persons who would be required to consume all available computer resources in a doomed effort to reach parity with others. We can prevent resources from being sucked into this black hole by reformulating (5) to say (6) that justice demands (only) that people who can raise themselves to parity with others have access to the resources necessary to do so. One last refinement is needed to incorporate the possibility that persons may not choose to have access even when resources are made available to them. We should make allowance for this fact by saying (7) that justice requires that persons who can raise themselves to parity with others have the opportunity to access the resources necessary to do so.

This principle of justice has evolved through six refinements toward a position that is now essentially Rawlsian in spirit (Rawls, 1971). It is consistent with his belief that persons are initially advantaged and disadvantaged by caprice of nature or fluke of social circumstance. By combined the luck of a natural and a social lottery, persons acquire benefits they did not strictly earn along with burdens they do not strictly deserve. We are born with different physical, intellectual and genetic endowments; we are socialized to have different positions, roles and influence. The existence of these characteristics seems arbitrary from a moral point of view. Beyond these differences that are initially attributable to chance, however, lie fundamental equalities of personhood: our ability to experience pain and disappointment, our need to give and receive affection, our need for belonging and for autonomy, our desire for freedom and self-respect. There is something essentially and equally human about all of us that is independent of life’s lotteries. Even if we are not precisely equal in these humanizing qualities, they remain sufficient to support a claim of equal treatment that cannot be refuted by empirical arguments (Williams, 1971). This presumption of equality demands that social policy work to the greatest benefit of those who are least advantaged, hence that persons who can raise themselves to parity with others have the opportunity to access the resources necessary to do so.

Bowling Green State University


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Overcoming the Barriers to Computer Use by Individuals Who Have Disabilities


Dr. Maner refers to the right of people with disabilities to computer access. He presents reasons for the inequities that exist and offers opinions on whether or not people should be entitled to access. The issues of computer access, however, must remain secondary general issues of access for people with disabilities. While recent legislation mandates the inclusion of people with disabilities into the mainstream of society, local policy is still decided by people who grew up happily singing the words to Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer (…All of the other reindeer/used to laugh and call him names./They never let poor Rudolph/join in any reindeer games…) Millions of children are still singing these words during the Christmas holidays. To sing those words is to validate the practice of excluding people because of their differences. Of course, Rudolph uses his difference as an asset in the end; in real life, though, people with disabilities do not become the heroes. Other images from childhood have contributed to the attitudes of adults in society today. Pinocchio’s punishment for wrongdoing, for example, was a progressive physical deformity. Snow White’s situation looks different when one considers that she went off to live in the woods with seven eligible bachelors; dwarves are not perceived in the same way as men.

Access issues are influenced by the ways in which people with disabilities are perceived by others in this society. Today’s adults have grown up internalizing negative images of people with differences. They are also bombarded with examples of physical perfection every time they turn on the television or pick up a popular magazine. The mandate for inclusion of people with disabilities exists, but the spirit of inclusion is not yet evident in our society. The barriers to computer access are no doubt colored by people’s underlying attitudes toward people with differences.

In a previous paper (“Computer Access Equity for Persons with Disabilities”), Maner referred to the problems stemming from the lag between the development of technological solutions and their availability to persons with disabilities. He blames this lag for some of the access problems. Once these technological solutions have become available on the market, though, there are still many barriers to persons with disabilities receiving the technology they need.

There is a continuum, starting with the development of the technological solutions; leading to the manufacture and marketing of them; to the training of people to demonstrate and publicize the products; to people being trained to evaluate those who might use the adaptive equipment; to the acquisition of the computers and adaptations by those who need them; to training the people in the use of the equipment; to a practical application in the schools or the workplace. Each stage of the continuum presents barriers to the consumer.

The first barrier is information. Hopefully, the federal laws and regulations referred to by Dr. Maner are having an impact on the applications of technology for persons with disabilities. Because of these laws, educators and employers are beginning to develop the awareness that people with disabilities can utilize technology to eliminate some of the barriers between them and others. Educators in public schools and in institutions of higher education are still generally uninformed, however, of the existence and applications of adaptive technology. In one study, it was found that only about 50% of post secondary institutions had the equipment needed for implementing augmentative communication systems. (Horn and Shell, in Shell, Horn and Severs, 1989). Since augmentative communication is a part of the continuum of possible adaptive technology services, one can assume that a lack of such services at the university level implies that the lack is intensified in school systems.

There appears to be a discrepancy between the potential offered by computers in educational settings and the ways in which they are actually being used. (Behrmann, 1988) The presence of computers in a school does not necessarily mean that they are being used appropriately, or to the best advantage for the students. The fact that most states in this country do not yet require basic computer literacy as a requirement of teacher certification is endemic to the problem. Teachers need to be able to teach students basic computer technology as well as modifications for special applications. Students need to learn to be users of information, to enable them to tap the power of the computer, and not just recipients of information. (Geisert & Futrell, 1990).

People who have overcome the barrier of ignorance and seek information on adaptive technology solutions find that the delivery systems lack standardization and can be difficult to locate. Once a person is able to locate the information, the process of assessment and evaluation entails considerable time and resources. Sometimes the time lapse between initial assessment and receipt of the necessary adaptations is so great that the adaptive devices or solutions may no longer be appropriate. This is especially true for individuals who have progressive, debilitating conditions. It is also frustratingly true for persons whose adaptive devices are being funded by state agencies. The state agencies themselves lack standardization in the delivery of services and equipment. In the state of Connecticut, for example, the agency serving people with blindness and low vision purchases and owns adaptive equipment, loaning it to those who need it for as long as it is needed; the state rehabilitation agency, on the other hand, purchases the equipment and gives it to the client. This leads to questions such as: What happens to the client with a progressive illness whose adaptive technology needs are constantly changing? Will that person be provided with new accommodations? What happens to a client of the agency serving those with blindness and low vision if the client moves out of state? Why is there no means for sharing unused or under-used equipment with others who could use it? (Some states – Pennsylvania and Maine are examples – have begun developing equipment libraries to loan equipment to those in need. States exploring this concept need to consider the the question of whose job it is to do this.)

Another barrier exists in the design and manufacture of the computers themselves. Certain devices are so specific to the needs of a small population of users that there is no market for competition. Hence, competing products have not been developed and those who need a device are at the mercy of a manufacturer, who often prices the product out of reach of the average consumer. Although the prices have recently been reduced, the Kurzweil personal readers now manufactured by Xerox are an example of this. These machines “read” printed matter and convert it to voice output.

Early study into making computers accessible to people with disabilities recognized the need for transparency, or the ability of the various parts of the computer and adaptations to work together smoothly without the need for artificial aids. (Bowe, 1987) The Macintosh computer was the first to incorporate access features into the design of the basic computer. The design engineers obviously realized the need for transparency, and created software options under the name of Easy Access to allow people with disabilities to use features of the Macintosh to help them compensate for their disabilities. This software was introduced as part of the System update released in 1987. One feature of Easy Access allows single-handed typing of any command meant to have several keys pressed simultaneously. Another feature allows those who have difficulty manipulating a mouse to use the numeric keypad to duplicate mouse functions. Easy Access works with any program and completely bypasses the need to use the mouse or type with two hands. (Valiulis, 1988) In addition, CloseView is a utility program supplied with the system software which offers enlargement of characters on the screen. While IBM computers do not come with access modifications built into the computers, IBM will send the Access DOS program free of charge to anyone requesting it. This program provides all of the modifications previously described.

Dr. Maner has accurately described the problems resulting from input or output barriers to computer use. With these in mind, there are various ways to educate consumers and help them to overcome these barriers to facilitate computer use. The issues in the delivery of services are numerous and complicated. There is no standardized delivery system. Many consumers hire private consultants who are knowledgeable about adaptations and can suggest possible solutions. Others travel to conferences and expos to see exhibits of the adaptive technology. Another model for the delivery of services is to assemble as many adaptations as possible into an adaptive technology laboratory so that a consumer can try various solutions to find the combination that works best.

Making choices for the establishment of an adaptive technology lab at a university presents challenges and cause for closely defining objectives. Each stage in the development of the service delivery program reflects choices: Will the program serve children or adults? Which disability populations will be served? With limited resources, which adaptive devices will be purchased? How is staff selected and trained? How are services offered to the greater community as well as that of the university? (Heinisch, 1991)

The obvious benefit of such a lab is the independence achieved by students with disabilities as they learn new skills. Shell, Horn, and Severs (1988, 1989) found that presenting students with technology tools resulted in students achieving better grades and dropping fewer courses. There are some problems, however. If, indeed, students are being taught to work independently once they have learned the necessary adaptations, the issue becomes one of segregation for these students. Because the campus word processing labs do not have the adaptations needed by the students with disabilities, they cannot work in a mainstream setting, and must continue working in the adaptive technology lab. In fact, the training on the adaptation and the training in word processing or other computer skills are two separate issues. Once the system has been made accessible, training people with disabilities is the same as training anyone else. (Guisbond, 1991.) The issue then becomes one of convincing those in other areas of the campus that disability issues should be their concern, too. It is true that of all electronic office equipment, microcomputers have the greatest potential for assisting employees with disabilities. (U.S. Government, 1988.) The social barriers, however, still exist and must be overcome.

Adaptive technology must be integrated into all areas of education, starting with the public schools. Each special education student’s Individual Education Program (IEP) should reflect the training goals for computer use and for necessary computer adaptations. Computer use by these students should not be a goal in itself, but should be a tool used to achieve more important goals. (Male, 1988). At the university level, faculty members in teacher training programs must overcome their reticence to incorporate computer goals into all their programs, and especially into special education programs. Access considerations must be built into all aspects of university programming. University faculty should be experimenting with adaptive technology, and using their talents to research new applications. In the workplace, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that adaptive technology can allow the worker with a disability to perform productively and competitively. The challenge is to eliminate the barriers that keep people with disabilities from achieving their goals.

Southern Connecticut State University


Behrman, M. M., (1988), Integrating Computers into the Curriculum, Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company.

Bowe, F. (1987), “Making Computers Accessible to Disabled People,” Technology Review, 90:1, 52 – 59, 72.

Heinisch, B. (1991), “Issues in Establishing an Adaptive Technology Lab in a University Setting,” Technology and Disability, 1:2.

Geisert, P.G. & Futrell, M.K., (1990), Teachers, Computers and Curriculum, Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Guisbond, L., (1991), “Business as Usual for the Disabled,” Computerworld, 25:6, 87.

Male, M., (1988), Special Magic: Computers, Classroom Strategies and Exceptional Students, Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.

Maner, W., (1991), “Computer Access Equity for Persons with Disabilities,” Unpublished paper.

Shell, D.F., Horn, C.A. & Severs, M.K., (1988), “Effects of a Computer-Based Educational Center on Disabled Students’ Academic Performance,” Journal of College Student Development, 29, 432 – 440.

Shell, D.F., Horn, C.A. & Severs, M.K., (1989), “Computer-Based Compensatory Augmentative Communications Technology for Physically Disabled, Visually-Impaired, and Speech Impaired Students,” Journal of Special Education Technology, X:1, 29 – 42.

Valiulis, Dave, (1988), “Open Door Policy,” MacUser, February 1988. 257 – 261.

US Government, (1988), FIRMR Bulletin 56, Washington, D.C.: General Services Administration.

Some Reflections on Access Equity

Design and Usability – A General Perspective

Dr. Maner’s track address has aptly enumerated a number of areas in which computer access for persons who are disabled has been needlessly restricted. Others could be added. For example, the increasingly popular Graphical User Interfaces may not admit of transparent interpretation to persons with learning disabilities, and these interfaces are substantially incompatible with various current adaptive technologies, e.g. speech synthesis [7: 416]. Furthermore, as Maner observes, designed-in barriers in personal computer systems parallel the thoughtless creation of physical barriers in architecture and transportation. It does seem as though we are replaying an unfortunate history.

But I’m afraid that the analogy between electronic and architectural barriers represents only the tip of a massive iceberg. The type of problem identified by Maner seems almost to be endemic to the process leading from product development to end user. Too often, it appears that products reflect the preconceptions and abilities of those at the producing end, while remaining out of touch with users. For example, a recent article in on the topic of women in computing points out “that, in an experimental setting, teachers instructed to design software for students tended to build programs that have the characteristics that boys prefer, and few characteristics that girls prefer – even when they are aware of these differences” [10: 57, emphasis added] And, to move out of the computer realm for a moment, consider the variety of everyday objects whose usability is severely compromised by thoughtless design. How many of you know how to put a call on “hold” on your office telephone? Did you turn the shower faucets the right way on the first try in your dorm or motel room? Have you recently pushed on a door that required to be pulled in order to open? And, of course, there are abundant stories about microwave ovens and VCRs that are unusable by anyone who is older than a teenager. (For a large and informative catalogue of examples, see [9].)

What is the explanation of this sad state of affairs? A revealing answer is contained in a letter written by a design engineer to the cognitive psychologist, Donald Norman:

Most designers live in a world where the gulf of evaluation is infinite. True, we often know the product too well to envision how people will use it, yet we are separated from the end users by multiple layers of corporate bureaucracy, marketing, customer services, etc. These people believe they know what customers want and feedback from the real world is limited by filters they impose. If you accept the problem definition (product requirements) from these outside sources without personal investigation you will design an inferior product regardless of your best intentions. If this initial hurdle is overcome you are only halfway home. The best design ideas are often ruined by the development-manufacturing process that takes place when they leave the design studio. What this really points out is that the process by which we design is flawed, probably more so than our conception of how to create quality designs. [9: 158]

My purpose here is not to divert attention from the issue of computer access for individuals who are disabled, but to point out that there appears to be a problem that is systemic to product development. Too often, those who create products have little or no expertise in designing for people, and – notably in the design of computer systems – professional designers are seldom brought in to assist [9: 177]. Needed is not only an increased sensitivity on the part of product designers, manufacturers, and marketing people, but also the active involvement and employment of persons with disabilities in the creation and development of those goods. The ubiquity of marginally usable products on the market, however, suggests that this obvious remedy represents a formidable challenge.

Technology in a Social Context

Recently in RISKS-FORUM Digest there was a lively debate on the topic of voting by telephone. The system under discussion would involve a voice-response system, in which a synthetic voice guides the caller through a voting menu. Why have such a system? Lots of reasons were advanced, but one of them was that telephone-voting might increase voter turnout. This is an empirical question, and one sure to be investigated. Whatever the outcome, however, the point of interest here is the idea of applying a technological solution to what seems at bottom to be a social and political problem. Too often, technological proposals are separated from the social contexts in which they should be viewed.

Assistive technology can provide dramatic new routes of access for individuals who are disabled – access to employment, social contact, political processes, the procurement of goods and services, and self-expression. At the same time, the assistive technologies themselves are embedded in social structures that must also be made appropriately responsive.

For instance, communications devices provide a solution to the unemployment of persons who are disabled only if discriminatory practices on the part of employers are eliminated. Yet, according to a 1985 survey [11: 8]:

  • 47% of non-working or part-time employees with disabilities reported that employers would not recognize that they are capable of performing full-time jobs
  • 35% of working-age persons with disabilities reported that employers made accommodations for their disabilities; 61% said that no accommodations were made.

Or consider someone with highly restricted motor movements, who is also unable to speak. An input device sensitive, say, to eye motions, and coupled to a computer with a telephone dialer and voice synthesizer can afford impressive new avenues of communication. Now it becomes possible to order a pizza for home delivery-provided that the person on the other end of the line doesn’t hang up the phone at the first sound of a synthesized voice.

Again, while social contact may be enhanced by computer-driven communication devices, those same devices may open up new possibilities of isolation. Oliver Sacks, in his book, Seeing Voices, reports that, despite immense improvements in life afforded deaf people by TDDs (telecommunication devices for the deaf; formerly teletypewriters, or TTYs), these devices

have a negative side, too. Before they were widely available, fifteen years ago, deaf people went to great lengths to meet each other-they would constantly visit each other’s homes, and would go regularly to their local deaf club. These were the only chances to talk with other deaf people; this constant visiting or meeting at clubs formed vital links which bound the deaf community into a close physical whole. Now, with TTYs (in Japan, faxes are used), there is much less actual visiting among the deaf; deaf clubs are starting to be deserted and empty; and a new, worrying tenuity has set in. It may be that TTYs (and closed captions or signed programs on television) give deaf people the sense of being together in an electronic village-but an electronic village is not a real one, and the downfall of visiting and going to clubs is not readily reversed. [13: 155n]

As a final example, consider some of the benefits that can accrue when people meet and communicate electronically over a computer bulletin board. Long distance relationships can be struck up and maintained, and physical characteristics that might have effectively prevented an initial face-to-face contact are now effectively eliminated. But these benefits also carry certain risks. Lindsay Van Gelder [14] reports how a male New York psychiatrist managed to masquerade for two years as a neurologically impaired woman while participating in a women’s special interest discussion group on CompuServe – engaging in wholesale deception, and violating the trust and confidence of women with whom he interacted.

Obviously, discrimination, isolation, and deception all precede assistive computer technology. Technological development may afford them new modes of expression, but they are at bottom social issues, not technological issues at all. The moral, I hope, is clear. Assistive technology is just that: assistive. Social attitudes and practices need adjustment as well. In this territory there is no technological panacea.

Some Limitations of Linguistic Reform

How, then, is the required adjustment to be accomplished? One way is through legal remedy. Various pieces of legislation, such as those mentioned by Dr. Maner, are important steps. Maner also recommends what he calls “moral semantics” as a vehicle for combating prejudice. As he put it, “If we stop to put our vocabulary in good order our behavior may begin to follow suit.” Specifically, he distinguishes between a “disability,” or objectively specifiable medical condition, and a “handicap” which is an obstacle relative to the pursuit of some social goal.

Insofar as this is a proposal to register our social sensibilities in word as well as deed, I applaud the suggestion. It may also help us in articulating a clear goal of social policy; namely, the removal of handicapping conditions. Having acknowledged these positive aspects of Maner’s proposal, however, I would like also to register several caveats.

First, there is the danger of substituting language for action. Maner hopes that behavioral changes may follow linguistic changes. But an alternative possibility is that we will simply change our manner of speaking and stop with that, deceiving ourselves with “correct” language that fails to be reflected in our deeds. If that happens, we will have created a dangerous illusion of progress where none has occurred.

Second, there is the question whether linguistic reform has the sort of power that Maner hopes for it. The linguist, Robin Lakoff, is dubious about that point. She argues that the introduction of new terminology will do little to address problems of prejudice, because the real cause lies much deeper, woven into a social fabric [6: 29 – 30]. At the same time, given the right social climate, there may be a complementary interplay between deliberate linguistic reform and social change. Although Lakoff makes this point in the context of race relations, I think its application to our topic will be clear enough:

Although blacks are not yet fully accorded equal status with whites in this society, nevertheless black, a term coined to elicit racial pride and sense of unity, seems to have been widely adopted both by blacks and whites, both in formal use and in the media, and increasingly in colloquial conversation. Does this constitute a counter example to my claim here? I think not, but rather an element of hope. My point is that linguistic and social change go hand in hand: One cannot, purely by changing language use, change social status. The word black, in its current sense, was not heard until the late 1960s or even 1970, to any significant extent. I think if its use had been proposed much earlier, it would have failed in acceptance. I think the reason people other than blacks can understand and sympathize with black racial pride is that they were made aware of the depths of their prejudice during the civil rights struggles of the early 1960s. It took nearly ten years from the beginning of this struggle for the use of black to achieve wide acceptance, and it is still often used a bit self-consciously, as though italicized. But since great headway was made first in the social sphere, linguistic progress could be made on that basis; and now this linguistic progress, it is hoped, will lead to new social progress in turn. . . . social change must precede lexical change. [6: 41 – 42]

My final caveat involves the danger of what I’ll dub “Linguistic Correctness,” a term chosen to echo the currently debated topic of “Political Correctness” (for a survey of some recent literature, see [1: 50 – 56]). While acknowledging that attention to how we speak can help sharpen our own sensibilities, and those of others, it seems to me that an extended emphasis of this point can become counterproductive. Potential allies may come to feel uncomfortable in expressing an opinion for fear of expressing themselves in a way that is deemed “Linguistically Incorrect,” just as voices have been silenced on some university campuses because the speakers were branded “Politically Incorrect.” How might this happen? Well, Dr. Maner distinguishes between “disability” and “handicap,” and urges us to “put the person first” by using the phrase “individuals who are disabled” instead of “disabled individuals” or, worse, “the handicapped.” All of this strikes me as sensible, and I have tried to follow his recommendation here. At the same time, I have heard others object to any use of the term “disabled,” recommending “differently abled” instead. Yet, we just heard a sensitive commentator recommend the phrase “individuals who are disabled.” Where does all this stop? Surely we don’t want to carry on to the levels of linguistic absurdity that have cropped up in other quarters: e.g., a professor at Washington University holds “ovulars” rather than “seminars” [15: 36], and it has even been suggested that “himicanes” be substituted for “hurricanes,” on the grounds that the familiar term reflects badly on women [6: 46]. I do not for a moment claim that Maner’s suggestions are in this category. My concern is that a suggestion that begins innocently enough, with the goal of eradicating stereotypes, can (if unchecked) point the way to wrangling and intimidation, focusing attention away from the truly substantive issues. Meanwhile, spectators drop in, tune out, and turn off.

Access as Empowerment

Arguments for providing assistive technology to persons with disabilities could be made from a variety of directions. For example, as Dr. Maner has mentioned, there are severe economic repercussions issuing from a failure to provide employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. He also points to a moral imperative, which I would like to amplify here.

Although there may be no fundamental or inherent right to computer access, I agree with Maner that, for people with disabilities, the right to assistive technology is part and parcel of human rights that are fundamental: the right to control one’s own life; the right to self-expression; the right to participate in democratic institutions; the right to develop one’s human potential [see also 4: 29]. Granting computer access does not mean granting a right. The relevant rights are already there. Thus, granting access to persons who are disabled amounts to providing them with a vehicle for the exercise of their essential human rights. For them, especially, access is empowerment.

Rights, of course, involve responsibilities. So, if someone has a right to assistive technology, there must exist a correlative responsibility to provide it. Frequently, discussions of responsibility take a rather narrow perspective, focusing on “excusing conditions,” or the circumstances under which a person is not responsible. John Ladd, however, has developed what he calls a “comprehensive concept of moral responsibility” [5]. It particularly emphasizes the promotion of the welfare of others, and unlike narrower conceptions, it is non-exclusive. In other words, if I am responsible for promoting the welfare of others, it doesn’t follow that you are not. If we look at responsibility from this positive, broad perspective, I think we gain a useful basis for the claim that there exists a social responsibility to provide assistive technology to persons with disabilities. Obviously, this claim is subject to a number of constraints, e.g., scarcity of resources, high costs, and differing political philosophies. But these are matters of implementation, and some of the discussion at this conference has pointed out ways of dealing with them.

I have suggested that access may be viewed as empowerment – empowerment to exercise one’s basic human rights. One of those rights is the right to self-expression. I want to close my discussion with a passage from the Irish writer, Christopher Nolan. This comes from his autobiography titled Under the Eye of the Clock, published when he was 21 years old. Nolan suffered oxygen deprivation at birth, has never been able to speak, and possesses very little voluntary motor coordination. His initial verbal communication was not accomplished by computer, but through a mouthstick with which he laboriously pecked out letters on a typewriter while his mother’s hands cradled his head. With a word processor and an adaptive interface, written communication is a little easier now. Even so, the effort required is extreme, and Nolan’s description reminds us the promise and limitations of assistive technology, and the courage of those who use it:

Despite all hope, Joseph lay in his bed at night worrying and wondering. He was mesmerized by the promise within technology. Old sufferings would never again be silently lamented by speechless man, now great men were busy wrangling popular theses around yelling joy in brain-damaged man’s budding rescue. Joseph thought about his research. The freedom to move muscles voluntarily was denied him; he asked movement but all he ever got was busy, jerky, muffled movement. Hands that could involuntarily give knockout blows to anyone or anything near, became stiff and hesitant on being given a brain command. Similarly, when he tried to give a sideway flick of his chin to the switch for his computer, he found the effort exaggerated to mountainous proportions, so much so that his whole body had to gear itself in readiness to give what should have been but a slight flick of his head. Then as if that war was not great enough, he still found another cruel threat confronting him. He couldn’t even determine the precise moment at which to attempt the flick of his head. He was used to fouling-up his moment of anticipation when about to receive communion; he could wildly open his mouth when the priest entered his room or he could open it while the priest was saying the preparatory prayers, but by the time he needed to open his mouth to receive the host, his moment had passed and only sad desperation remained. So busy thinking was he that he jumped with fright, he nearly forgot his success at switching on and switching off his radio. But battles latent waited. He had to teach his muscles how to cram power into just one local movement and he had to try to find a way to anticipate the moment when he must nominate his ‘go’ signal. Seeing his needs didn’t mean he could solve his dilemma, but he dreamt nonetheless. [8: 85 – 6]

We’re here today because we want to encourage and share that dream.

University of Michigan at Flint


[1] Cordes, Helen, “Oh no! I’m PC!,” The Utne Reader (July / August, 1991), pp. 50 – 56.

[2] Dunlop, Charles and Rob Kling, Computerization and Controversy: Value Conflicts and Social Choices, Boston: Academic Press (1991).

[3] Gould, Carol, ed., The Information Web: Ethical and Social Implications of Computer Networking, Boulder, San Francisco, & London: Westview Press (1989).

[4] Gould, Carol C., “Network Ethics: Access, Consent, and the Informed Community,” In [3], pp. 1 – 35

[5] Ladd, John, “Computers and Moral Responsibility: A Framework for an Ethical Analysis,” In [3], pp. 207 – 227; reprinted in [2], pp. 664 – 675.

[6] Lakoff, Robin, Language and Woman’s Place, New York: Harper & Row (1975).

[7] Lazzaro, Joseph J., “Opening Doors for the Disabled,” Byte, Volume 15, Number 8 (August, 1990), pp. 258 – 268.

[8] Nolan, Christopher, Under the Eye of the Clock: The Life Story of Christopher Nolan, New York: St. Martins Press (1987).

[9] Norman, Donald A., The Psychology of Everyday Things, New York: Basic Books (1988), [Reissued under the title The Design of Everyday Things.]

[10] Pearl, Amy, Martha E. Pollack, Eve Riskin, Becky Thomas, Elizabeth Wolf, and Alice Wu, “Becoming a Computer Scientist: A Report by the ACM Committee on The Status of Women in Computing Science,” Communications of the ACM, Volume 3, Number 11 (November, 1990), pp. 48 – 57.

[11] Perry, Stephen L., Disability, Civil Rights, and Public Policy: The Politics of Implementation, Tuscaloosa and London: The University of Alabama Press (1989)

[12] RISKS-FORUM Digest, Volume 11, Numbers 75 and 76.

[13] Sacks, Oliver, Seeing Voices, Quality Paperback Book Club Edition, New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, Inc. (1990).

[14] Van Gelder, Lindsay, “The Strange Case of the Electronic Lover,” Originally in Ms., Volume XIV, Number 5 (October, 1985), pp. 94, 99, 101 – 104, 117, 123 – 124, Reprinted in [2], pp. 364 – 375

Computers as Barriers to or Vehicles for Equity: Response to “Computer Access Equity”

Marianne LaFrance and Anne Meyer

1.0 Introduction

Walter Maner considers whether a case might be made for a basic right, one of access to information technologies. The issue arises, because as Maner himself notes, current statistics document broad inequities in availability of technology access. For example, females, people of color, disabled individuals, and people living at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder are typically denied access to the benefits of computing. While Maner concedes that there is “no basic right to computer access for all people,” nevertheless he argues that justice requires that persons who can raise themselves to parity with others should be able to access the computer resources that would enable them to do so. While we concur with this call for greater social justice, we believe that the analysis leading to it failed to fully consider whether current inequities are “systemic.” In addition, we argue that the focus on the access that people deserve tended to obscure the considerable role that computers can play in both creating and reducing societal inequities.

Our aim is thus to redress these oversights. First, we look more closely at how inequities in computer access come about. Specifically, we examine three systemic factors that contribute to differential access. In adopting the metaphor of a “biased social lottery” to characterize access inequities, Maner has perhaps unwittingly minimized the social factors that create and maintain inequities. In other words, we contend that his perspective results in insufficient attention being given to the social system surrounding information technology that depicts some people as more computer worthy than others and hence more deserving than others.

Next, we explore distribution of computer resources in a particular context, specifically public education. Education provides a rich and central context within which to examine equity issues. It is not only that computers are available in some educational settings and not in others or even that they are changing the very nature of what it might mean to receive an education but in addition, it is the case that computer technology is providing the wherewithal to alter some inequities previously believed to be intractable. We provide a number of examples of such use and argue that they represent reason to re-frame the issue of what a just allocation might be.

2.0 Factors Affecting Equity of Access to Computers

Among the many factors contributing to inequitable distribution of computer resources, we propose three central areas: availability of technology, appropriateness of fit between technology and user, and social context of computing.

2.1 Availability of Information Technology

An important factor affecting computer access is availability. This means quite literally whether the machines are available to those who could make good use of them. Are they available in the sense of being obtainable and nearby? Obviously, if there are not sufficient financial resources with which to procure computers then access is denied. Computers may also be unavailable in the sense that even if a computing machine is on hand, access to it may be denied because the machine is incomplete, outmoded, or out-of-order. Again economics is implicated here.

But computer availability goes beyond literal access. For if computers are theoretically available but practically unavailable because of priorities, then access is also denied. This latter meaning of availability means that even if a count of existing computers within a given school or organization indicated that there were enough to go around, they still might be inaccessible, if one has to scale sizable real and/or rule barriers to get to them. In other words, despite appearances, computers may not be available if there are restrictions on who can use them. The problem with restrictions on computer use is that they often appear so uncontroversial. Take the example of a school system which gives its computers first to gifted children and only later to less precocious students or students with disabilities, if resources permit. Or take the case of a teacher allowing males more time with computers than females because they ask for it or because the teacher feels that that is appropriate. Another pervasive prejudice is the concept that computers should be made available first to those who appear to have “more going for them.” Once this need is satisfied, the logic goes, one might be willing to consider providing machines for those who appear to be incapacitated in some way. In other words, when some people are regarded as more computer worthy than others then inequitable access seems entirely reasonable.

Once a priority list like this and the values it represents are granted, it no longer makes sense to require everyone to have equal right of access because individual inequalities have been accepted. The values which give rise to these priorities are tacit and represent the customary way of doing things. In other words, differential computer access does not represent a brand new issue; as Maner observes, it is merely another manifestation of how resources are typically distributed within society.

2.2 Appropriateness of Fit Between Technology and User

Even if computers are available, individuals may be denied access if there is a mismatch between their needs and the hardware or software. An obvious example is that computers are inaccessible if their interface attributes restrict access only to those who are mobile, who can see, and who can use their hands. Despite concerted efforts in a number of quarters to build computer systems in such a way that they can be used by people with physical disabilities, incorporation of physical access options into standard designs lags far behind need.

A more subtle barrier to access is the unavailability of appropriate and useful software for various users. It goes without saying that computers are gratuitous without software, but the issue of access is often talked about as though hardware and user-friendliness were the defining issues. If the available software cannot be used by various populations because it presumes a level of prior knowledge or physical ability or cognitive style or work orientation that does not exist for some users, then there is no access for them, even if on the surface it appears that the technology is available.

Similarly, the design of software should, but often does not, accommodate a range of styles and interests in users. Computer programs are usually written with images of end-users in mind. If these images were heterogeneous and encompassed a substantial range of possible users then accessibility might be at hand rather than at issue. But too often images of users are homogeneous and narrow, mirroring images of the programmers themselves, that is, people who are computer literate and academically experienced as well as more likely male, white, middle-class, able-bodied and likely English speaking. That excludes a lot of people and builds in a lot of inflexibility. The world encompasses a broad range of abilities, styles, preferences, and conventions. To the extent to which software is developed without recognition of this variation, then availability of computers will probably act to exacerbate group differences and thus form the basis for differential access.

The availability of appropriate software also goes beyond issues of parochialism. It also stems from unequal input into the software development process, especially concerning the purpose for the program. In the typical case, software is developed to satisfy some expressed market need, too often uninformed by input from those who may be the most affected by the resulting program. For example, a piece of educational software may be developed to facilitate an arguable educational objective such as rote memorization of historical facts. A program may be able to handle this kind of activity even better than a teacher, but whether the activity should be done at all is left unexamined. In manufacturing, software is often developed in order to automate processes previously requiring human labor. Automation is not bad by definition, but it may be misguided or even backfire if access to the decision making process is denied to those likely to be most affected by it. Zuboff (1988) in her book, In the age of the smart machine, points out that in pursuit of computer automation, business may ultimately lose by closing out the real potential of computer software to informate; that is, to enhance rather than replace the work that people do. True access thus requires involvement in defining what the computer will do, and towards what ends, by individuals whose goals and needs represent the broad end-user community.

2.3 Social Context of Computing

The third factor affecting access to computers concerns the social and interpersonal contexts that have been built up around them. Despite the phenomenal growth of computers, nearly every indicator of computer practice points to unevenness in their use. As noted previously, part of the reason is economic. But the problem of inaccessibility extends beyond this. As a society we believe people should not be constrained by superfluous characteristics such as class, race, or gender from being able to achieve desired positions or levels of satisfaction; equality of opportunity is one of our deepest held principles. Yet substantial inequalities between class, racial and gender groups exist and computer access represents one more arena in which this occurs. Statistics from everywhere indicate that computers are not evenly distributed in the population.

One disconcerting aspect of these inequities is that they appear to be chosen by the disfranchised themselves. That is, females and people of color as groups can be documented as expressing little interest in having access to computers. So if there is minimal expression of interest then surely one cannot argue that they have been denied access. The problem with this rather neat analysis is that it fails to take account of the culture of computing. In other words, we need to understand the character of the computing environment and the role it plays in blocking computer access. Computers may be one more venue in which nonwhite, non-abled, non-male, and non-middle class experience devaluation.

We begin with the observation that there are people who do not identify with computers. In fact, they may openly express disinterest and antipathy. But we need to ask about causes for this “disidentification.” Some insight can be gleaned from the work of Steele (1988) who has been interested in explaining under-achievement of black college students. His data suggest that people “dis-identify” with those domains of life associated with rejection and prejudice. The prime cause for disidentification is the lack of acceptance on equal terms. With respect to computing, this stems in the case of blacks and Hispanics from the traditionally devalued intellectual status of their groups in American society. This stems in the case of women from the prevailing belief that they are unable and/or uninterested in technical spheres. It stems in the case of the disabled from the belief that they are barely able to cope as is without adding a new claim on scarce resources. All these cases reflect beliefs widely held in society. Moreover, these evaluations are shared by everyone, even to a degree by the devalued themselves.

So how do individuals contend with lack of acceptance on equal terms. Since most people are disposed to maintaining some modicum level of self esteem, that is, an image of oneself as good, competent, integrated, self-directed and so on, one obvious way to maintain self esteem is to distance oneself from an arena in which one is likely to feel devalued. Upon experiencing difficulty with learning to use a computer, all of us may feel that we do not possess the requisite ability or skill. However, as Steele has pointed out, individuals who are devalued because of gender, race, or disability are doubly vulnerable in such a circumstance. When difficulty using a computer fits a stereotype of being computer incapable, the experience may engender anxiety beyond simple concern about skill, threatening the person’s core sense of self esteem and identity. Disidentification with computers arises as a protection against this vulnerability and the dysfunction it causes. Through the operation of this very subtle yet surefire process, certain people appear to have exempted themselves from the technology, but they have been denied access nonetheless.

2.4 Summary of Factors Affecting Access

It is clear that access to computer technology is inequitable in this society, that the inequities are frequently group rather than individually based, and that they parallel general societal inequities in some instances and in other instances are specific to the technology. For example, some access inequities stem from evaluation of some people as basically more computer-worthy. This is manifest in computers being made more available to some than to others, in more attention being brought to developing appropriate software for some more than for others, and in maintaining an environment which assumes that computers are not for everyone.

3.0 Computing Equity in the Context of Education

In the preceding section, we pointed to several factors that engender inequity in computer access. Interest in them stems in part from the fact that they coincide with, are indeed part of, a larger social system in which some people are seen to be generally more deserving than others regardless of the resource. But computer access is also an issue unto itself. To elucidate this and to help define principles for just distribution of information technology, we now examine access in the context of a key political right, the right to a public education.

3.1 Computers as Prerequisite for Education

For American citizens, education is both a right and a responsibility. Citizens can and must go to school. Moreover, to attend school means to adhere to the goals and performance criteria set down by the educational establishment. In this context, access to computer technology takes on special significance. For some years, the technologies of print have predominated pedagogy both as educational means and ends. In fact, the technology of print so dominates education that the two have come to be synonymous. During the first years of school, instruction focuses on the skills necessary to handle print. By “literacy” we generally mean the ability to read print and to express oneself in writing. Thus our very definition of children’s potential to succeed in school and in society is based on their capacities to handle print media. But for a substantial minority of people, print comprises a barrier rather than an access route to information and self-expression. For example, those with physical disabilities who cannot hold books or pencils, will never be “literate” through the medium of print. Currently such children tend to be educated in special, segregated environments because the predominant, print-based technologies of the classroom are inappropriate for them.

Until recently, there were few alternatives to print as a medium of information storage and retrieval, and of self-expression. Now, however, computers can provide alternative access to the processes central to education. Electronic multimedia offer an unprecedented opportunity for information to be delivered in a format that can be customized to meet the needs, interests and preferences of a variety of learners. A simple example is the capacity of computers to convert written text to spoken audio playback, enabling those who cannot decode print to understand the ideas contained in a piece of writing. Another example is the capacity of computers to accept spoken input as an alternative to keyboard input, thus enabling a physically challenged user to run the computer itself as well as to convert ideas to text without typing. In addition, the capacity of computers to carry digital sound, animated graphics, live video, and other media means that concepts can be conveyed in many formats besides text, providing alternative ways for individuals to grasp and work with ideas.

Computers thus offer expanded conceptions of human capacities as well as expanded definitions of what it means to educate. Disability exists then not so much in the individual but as a mismatch between an individual’s capacities to learn and the tools with which to do it. While students may not have rights to specific tools, they may have rights to the “least restrictive technology” for them, especially given that they are required to attend school and expected to learn certain bodies of knowledge. In this way, computers are equalizing devices in that they expand the potential of each individual to participate. At least in school, denial of access to necessary technology, when the tools exist, is essentially a denial of a fundamental right to an education.

3.2 Computers as Access Devices

Most discussions on inequities in computer access tend to see the computer as an end in itself. While this may be a natural tendency with any new technology, the critical aspect of computers is their function as a means. As Professor Maner has pointed out, computers are tools and as they become more apparent as means of access to the world they will become less visible as things unto themselves. Refinements and additions such as user-friendly interfaces, capacities for input and output of voice, music, and graphics, and availability of continually updated information over telecommunications networks provide users with a means of entering and participating in the realm of ideas. Computers are vehicles for retrieving, manipulating, synthesizing, and conveying information, in its broadest sense. Seen this way, the access concern is less an issue of access to the technology per se, but rather access to the information and the self-expressive capacities that the technology carries.

The computer is thus a device for participation and as such can actually alter a number of social inequities. In other words, the computer affords a way for certain groups of people to achieve parity on their own terms. The following presents some examples:

3.2.1 AIDS Videodisc with HyperCard Software

ABC Interactive has developed a videodisc on AIDS. Included is information about the disease and its transmission, interviews with individuals of all ages who have AIDS, numerical data on its prevalence, and a great deal more. The videodisc is controlled by HyperCard software which enables users to select segments they would like to view, in whatever order they wish. Selection options are presented both in text and pictorially. When a particular segment is being shown on the video screen, the text of what is being said on the video screen is shown on the computer screen. At any time, the user may click in the upper right hand corner of the screen and change both the video sound track and the text on screen to Spanish. Use of the computer is simple and transparent. The technology provides broadened access to vital information.

3.2.2 Speech Synthesis for Reluctant Writers

To increase the writing abilities of children with language-based learning disabilities, CAST, in Peabody, Massachusetts, has made good use of speech synthesis. The use of synthesized speech has been found consistently to be a powerful motivator for children, especially for those who have severe written language disabilities. Although talking word processors for children have existed for some time, other features such as illustrations, digitized sound, drawing/animating capacity and other enhancing opportunities can now be combined with it. The result is that children, who cannot write a readable sentence in the medium of print, can type a word or two, ask the computer to read what they have written, write some more, listen to the computer read it, and so on. The ability of the computer to read back what they have written offers a number of benefits: gross errors in spelling can be caught by the writer because the word doesn’t sound right; child users experience a sense of personal power when the computer, a powerful machine, reads what they have written; and children with disabilities who normally cannot get past the purely mechanical level of letter formation, spelling, spacing, and punctuation can engage in writing at a sophisticated level, concerning themselves with communicating effectively and completing a written composition independently. Thus, the computer is an access device enabling children to express their own ideas effectively to others.

3.2.3 Eskimo children’s multimedia stories

In another project developed by Hester Brooks at CAST, the computer is being used as a vehicle for increased engagement in reading and writing with Inuktitut children. These children come from a village in Alaska very close to the Arctic Circle, where education is conducted in their native language until third grade, then transferred into English after a transition period. Many of these children tend to be alienated from the process of education and to feel personally disenfranchised. Children with language-based learning disabilities have an even more difficult time belonging to and succeeding in the culture of school.

The computer is used here as a way to bridge language and cultural gaps between meaningful personal experiences and the “literacy” activities commonly presented at school. Using digitizing devices for sound and pictures and the adaptability of type fonts, children create, narrate, and illustrate stories both in their own language and typography and in English. They can begin their stories by recording them in their own voices into the computer and playing the sound back by clicking on a button. Then, they can type the story in English typeface or in Inuktitut typeface, and both typefaces and “soundtracks” are available to the reader of the completed story. The entire story environment contains culturally relevant elements, including the small icons that indicate buttons for moving from page to page. Designed in collaboration with the students, the icons are not typical computer arrows, but include options such as fish swimming in one direction or another or polar bears walking in one direction or another. Moreover, the children have the opportunity to choose which icons they want to use in their stories. Far from being alienating, the computer is a link between the familiar and personal world of these children and the world of alphabetic symbols which they must master in school.

3.3 Implications for Equity

The computer is not an end but a means for obtaining and creating ideas. Literacy defined as print competency creates unnecessary barriers for people who can handle the intellectual content of print material but not the medium. The same material manipulated electronically offers a broadened set of methods so that users with different cultural backgrounds, physical or mental abilities, levels of print literacy, and stylistic preferences can all get access to content and express themselves in a meaningful and understandable way. Thus the computer is a device for accessing knowledge, just as stairs, ramps and elevators are devices for accessing physical spaces.

When computers are regarded not as a technology per se, but as tools of access for a wide variety of ends, a new perspective on equity comes into view. In the context of education, it seems difficult or impossible to distinguish between the right to a free education and the right of access to the necessary tools. In the past, we have not held conferences on the question of whether every school child has a right of access to pencils and books. Yet computer access is the topic of this track address. Because computers are markedly adaptable and can be used by people who might otherwise be unable to participate in school, a sensible and just distribution would seem to call for their being made available.

Conceiving of computers as access tools may also alleviate inequities based on the assumption that computer users are or must be unique or have some special technical acumen. Rather, users of the technology are simply those who have particular ends they wish to accomplish and particular skills and preferences associated with those ends. Thus, musicians use computers for musical notation and composition; artists, architects, and photographers use them for creating and editing images; film makers use them for animating and producing simulated landscapes and effects; people with disabilities use them for reading, writing, creating art, and participating in mainstream social and vocational environments; those needing to communicate in another language use them as instantaneous translation devices. In short, computers are not fanciful objects but serviceable and multipurpose tools.

4.0 Conclusions

Professor Maner has raised a number of issues around computer access equity. We concur on a number of points but diverge on others. They are as follows:

First, while we agree with Maner that computer access in our culture is inequitable, we part company with his tendency to attribute many of these to “caprice of nature or fluke of social circumstance.” Informational technologies did not derive from nor do not they exist in a social vacuum. Rather they originate from a society already solidly partitioned into unequal sectors and they often contribute to these distinctions not so much by conscious intent but by dint of institutional intransigence. We have directed attention to three manifestations of these processes, namely computer unavailability, inappropriateness of hardware and software to different kinds of users, and cultural prejudices about the computer-worthiness of different groups of people.

Secondly, while we agree with Maner that computers are essentially tools, we have gone further in suggesting that the issue of computer equity needs to highlight that computers are a means not an end. The issue is multipurpose access to information and knowledge not possession of the thing itself. The question persists: who shall be denied access to the tools?

Thirdly, by virtue of offering an expanded repertoire of access to learning, we have argued that computers potentially alter what it means to be literate as well as what it means to get an education. Specifically, having the right to an education may soon be tantamount to having right of access to computing resources.

Finally, we suggest that computers can and should be used as vehicles for increased social opportunity on one’s own terms. This may not be required on the basis of distributive justice but it does seem meritorious nonetheless.

Marianne LaFrance-Boston College

Anne Meyer-CAST, Peabody, MA

5.0 References

Steele, C.M., (1988), “The Psychology of Self-Affirmation: Sustaining the Integrity of the Self,” In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol 21, 261 – 302.

Zuboff, S., (1988), In the Age of the Smart Machine, New York: Basic Books.

Woodward, C. Vann, “Freedom and the Universities,” The New York Review of Books, Volume XXXVIII, Number 13 (July 18, 1991), pp. 32 – 37.

Acknowledging the Significance of Gender

Ann-Marie Lancaster

1.0 Gender as a Predictor

Computing is perceived by many as belonging to the male domain. Boys and girls in elementary and secondary levels view computing as more appropriate for boys than girls, and girls consistently differ from boys in: their level of confidence in their computer skills; their interest in computers; their perception of the benefits of computers; and their experience with computers. Fewer girls than boys have access to computers at school; boys are more self-confident about their potential with computers; and boys significantly outperform girls in computer literacy and computing tests. [1] Furthermore, enrollment of women in undergraduate computer science programs has been steadily decreasing since 1983, and there exists a significant discrepancy between the percentages of men and women who pursue advanced degrees in computer science. Between 1983 and 1986, women earned approximately 36% of bachelor’s degrees, 28% of master’s degrees and 10% of doctoral degrees in computer science. Only 9.4% of the Ph.D. faculty who teach computer science in four-year colleges and universities are women. [2]

The evidence is overwhelming that gender is a significant factor in predicting an individual’s potential interest and involvement in computing. Why is gender such a significant factor? Is it because recreational and educational software programs reflect the gender biases and stereotypes of their designers, predominantly white males? Is it a result of the difficulties that women students experience with self-esteem, lack of mentoring, and absence of role models? Is it because society, in particular, parents, teachers, and friends expect boys and men to be more interested and more skilled in computing than girls and women? Is it because males received more support and encouragement than females? All of these factors help shape the barriers that prevent women from full participation in the opportunities provided through computing. [3]

Furthermore, much has been written on the over masculinization of scientific theory, practice, and pedagogy and the need to transform science to include the values and methodologies associated with the female gender. Many scientists, both male and female, advocate a major paradigm shift in the scientific cultures from a patriarchal to a more balanced, connected and holistic way of perceiving and experiencing the world. Nevertheless, most of science teaching and theory are still trapped in the patriarchal mode. For example, male bias has been identified in how scientific problems are chosen and defined and in the way scientific work is designed and interpreted, and it is present in the underlying paradigms of fields of scientific study. Gender-based pedagogical biases are built into education and traditional pedagogy. [4]

It is critical that we explore how and to what extent gender bias pervades the computing field and identify the role gender bias plays in the construction and perpetuation of the barriers which deter women from the computing field. To what extent has the computer science profession considered the issue of gender? Gender is not mentioned in the curriculum guidelines of 1968, or in the curriculum guidelines of 1978. It is also not addressed in the 1991 report of the joint curriculum task force. Two recent ACM articles made reference specifically to the computer science culture and its male dominance. [5] In its 1990 report, the ACM Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Science raised the possibility that the field of computer science functions in ways that prevent or hinder women from becoming part of it. [6] The Committee suggests that we may need to evaluate our practices to ensure fair and equal treatment for all potential and current computer scientists. Those of us in the computer science profession have been responsible for designing computing curricula, for developing and proposing teaching paradigms for computer science, and for designing and implementing pedagogical strategies. We see these tasks as our responsibility. However, we have not explored the extent to which what we do and how we do it have been instrumental in making gender a significant factor in predicting an individual’s success in studying computer science. We are the primary molders of the computing culture within our educational institutions. We design the curriculum, we teach the courses, and we evaluate the students. We encourage some students and we discourage others. However, we have not acknowledged the significance of gender in the culture we have created.

What needs to be done if we are to understand the ways in which the computing culture alienates women and discourages them from participating fully in computing? First, the significance of gender needs to be raised to the status of a “real problem.” A “real problem” is one to which a significant number of persons within the discipline as well as persons with significant stature within the discipline are willing to expend considerable amounts of their time and energy seeking solutions. Second, we need to approach the problem as though we have some intention of solving it. As computer scientists, we have techniques and processes that we apply to those problems we truly hope to solve. For problems that we may not be able to solve completely, we seek partial or approximate solutions. In any case, the initial step in the problem solving process is to understand the problem.

2.0 Understanding Gender Bias

What is the problem we wish to solve? Our discussions tend to focus on the under-representation of women in the computing field. However, this under-representation is simply a symptom of a more fundamental problem which lies in the elements of the computing culture and how these combine to create a male-oriented and male-dominated culture. To understand the significance of gender in the computing culture, we need to understand its role in society as a whole and its role in the academic culture in particular. We need to understand the extent to which gender stereotypes influence our perceptions or interpretations of reality. We need to recognize the extent to which gender bias influences classroom pedagogy. We need to acknowledge the extent to which gender bias influences our interactions with and evaluations of students and faculty. We need to realize that men and women have grown up in different cultures and that our society offers roles, aspirations, and estimates of worth to women that differ from those it offers to men. In affirming women’s equality, we tend to overlook the differences because these differences have been used to justify unequal treatment and opportunity. However, when we encourage women to enter those academic fields which have been traditionally dominated by men without understanding how their perspectives and values may differ from men, we are linking the success of women to their ability to adopt the male mantle. [7]

The differences based upon gender are being rediscovered in the social sciences. Theories which were formerly considered to be gender neutral in their scientific objectivity have been found instead to reflect a consistent observational and evaluative bias. Male behavior tends to be regarded as the norm which results in disregard and trivialization of perspectives and values perceived as female. In particular, characteristics associated with the male gender such as individualism, separation, competition and domination have been emphasized while values associated with the female gender such as cooperation, interaction, connectiveness and caring have been ignored. Consequently, since their perspectives have been considered unsuitable for scientific study, women have been excluded from participating in the development and exploration of science. [8]

The significance of gender in the computing culture needs to be explored, investigated and pondered. Part of understanding the problem will be recognizing our roles in perpetuating the problem both individually and collectively. As a group, we will have to acknowledge the issue of gender in the computer science culture as substantive and to identify the institutionalized barriers and inequitable practices which prevent the full participation of women in the computing field. Unfortunately, as a profession, we have not yet acknowledged that gender is anything other than a superficial aspect of an individual’s experience in the computing culture. While the absence of women in computer science programs and on computer science faculties has been recognized and even lamented by the computer science community, there is little indication that a significant number of computer scientists understand their own participation in the development and perpetuation of a computing culture which is inherently hostile to women. The “solutions” that have been proposed are vague and unrealistic, focus on the symptom, and avoid acknowledging the significance of gender in determining an individual’s potential for success in a computer science program.

Furthermore, discussions of gender issues are hindered because despite the fact that most of us in the computer science profession know very little about it, we either think we know quite a bit or perceive that there is very little to be known. This is not surprising since scientific communities have deep-seated traditions based upon the belief in an “objective” view of reality. To acknowledge that gender has anything to do with how we perceive reality would imply that there may be more than one “objective” way of perceiving reality or would imply that our own view is not “objective.”

To what extent do gender stereotypes influence our perceptions or interpretations of reality? What we see is being organized and interpreted by our previous knowledge. Although we may reject stereotypes on a conscious level, research has produced overwhelming evidence that the stereotype of the female in an inherently subordinate or inferior role to the male still operates as tacit knowledge and influences our perceptions. Unconscious bias may influence the perceived quality of suggestions, opinions, lectures, course content, and handling of administrative responsibilities. Numerous observed instances of this bias have been documented. [9]

To what extent does gender bias influence our classroom pedagogy? To what extent does it influence our curriculum guidelines and our perceptions of how material should be organized and taught? To what extent does gender bias influence our individual interaction with students and influence our evaluation of their performance and potential? To what extent does it influence us to encourage some students and discourage others? Studies of college students reveal that despite similar academic performances, women suffer a significant loss of self-esteem, self-confidence and academic ambitions during their college careers. The subtle attitudes and strategies that discourage girls from becoming involved in math and science and computing in the pre-college classroom are continued in the college classroom. For example, in college classrooms, men are more likely to be recognized and receive more eye contact from the instructor as well as more time and encouragement outside of class. Studies indicate that faculty interrupt women students more frequently than male students and often display a lack of interest in what women have to say. Male students receive more coaching by professors than do women and what men say is given more attention than suggestions or comments offered by female students. [10]

To what extent does gender bias influence our individual and collective evaluation of faculty members? Numerous studies demonstrate how the gender of an individual influences the perception and evaluation of his or her achievements and behavior. Studies of evaluation of work for publication suggest that reviewers tend to rate the written work higher when the author is believed to be male than when the author is believed to be female. Studies of performance evaluations strongly suggest that women may need more evidence than men for the same salary, rank or promotion. Men receive higher salaries than equally productive women at the same rank. Men who stand up for themselves are seen as competent and assertive; women who do the same are seen as obnoxious and aggressive. A man’s success is often seen as the result of ability and competence, while a woman’s success is attributed to external circumstances such as “being in the right place at the right time.” Consequently, women’s achievements are not as likely to be seen as reliable predictors of future success. [11]

The process of understanding gender bias in the computing culture must include extensive studies of how and to what extent gender bias is inherent in our definitions of computing, in our teaching paradigms for computing, in our classroom pedagogy as well as in our evaluations of academic performances and professional achievements. As part of this process, we must acknowledge the significance of gender and recognize the research which has revealed overwhelming evidence of gender bias in society, in academic disciplines and in the definition and study of science.

3.0 The Traps

We are understandably threatened by discussions of gender bias. This is intensified by the fact that being sexist is often presented as a binary proposition, either you discriminate based upon gender or you do not. To have grown up in this society without acquiring gender bias is no more possible than swimming in the ocean without getting salt on your body. We live in a culture in which women are inferior and their perspectives are devalued. When we stop denying the possibility that gender bias influences what we see and how we see it, we may begin to understand how it influences our behavior, our attitudes and our perceptions. There are common traps to avoid in the consideration of gender bias. These traps serve either to trivialize or to mask the issue of gender bias and as a result, hinder our ability to understand it.

3.1 Trap #1: Everyone experiences discrimination

A frequent response to the question of gender discrimination is “we have all been discriminated against.” It is important to distinguish between individual instances of discrimination and systemic discrimination. Gender biases are a result of cultural beliefs and social structures which view males as superior and females as inferior. Although much of the overt discrimination has been reduced and opportunities for women have expanded, the hierarchical system in which men are given preference is still actively functioning and the experiences of men and women continue to be very different.

3.2 Trap #2: Presence of women equates to absence of gender bias

Another potential trap is to equate the success of a few individuals with the absence of discrimination. For example, consider the argument “we have several women on our faculty therefore gender bias is not a factor in the functioning of our department.” This is analogous to saying that since some individuals survived a plane crash we can assume that plane crashes are not harmful. The presence of women on a faculty may indicate a certain degree of progress, however, it does not indicate the absence of the influence of gender bias. There are very successful women in the computing field, but they have succeeded despite the inherent hurdles not because there were no gender-based obstacles in their paths. The computing field continues to be male-dominated.

3.3 Trap #3: An “other” is the source of the problem

Another potential trap is to identify an “other” as the source of the problem. For example, there is substantial evidence indicating that attitudes and perceptions about computing are being developed at the elementary and secondary school levels. Consequently, we might contend that enrollment problems in computer science undergraduate programs are the result of the pre-college influences. There is no doubt that the negative pre-college influences are significant deterrents to women. However, there is every indication that these negative influences continue in college classrooms. For example, the self-esteem, self-confidence, and academic aspirations of women students decline significantly between their freshman and senior years despite strong academic performance. At the same time, the self-esteem, self-confidence, and academic aspirations of male students increase. The percentage of women with computer science undergraduate degrees who pursue graduate studies is significantly lower than the percentage of men. The problem of gender bias is pervasive and cannot be attributed to a single source. Addressing it must be a shared responsibility.

3.4 Trap #4: Women need to change

Another potential trap is to conclude that women should change, that is, if women would adopt the characteristics and attitudes associated with the male gender then they would be more likely to succeed. This simply reinforces the hierarchical system in which those characteristics associated with the female gender are considered inferior to those associated with the male gender. In other words, if women would be willing to accept their inferior status and deny the legitimacy of their values and perspectives, gender bias would no longer be an issue.

3.5 Trap #5: Experiences in the other sciences are worse

Another potential trap is to declare “that as least we are not as bad as the other sciences.” When the computing field was new, there were some indications that it might avoid the entrenched inequalities of the traditional sciences. Unfortunately, the early positive signs have diminished. The social and educational influences which have deterred women from entering traditionally male-dominated fields have now been established for the field of computing. In fact, the computer science environment has been characterized by some as “particularly harsh for women.” [12]

4.0 Conclusion

Continued exclusion of women from science and technology implies that women will have few opportunities to influence the ways in which scientific and technological developments will affect their lives. Gender bias not only creates barriers for women and denies them participation in crucial decisions, it also disadvantages society as a whole. The bias toward dominance and competition is apparent throughout the history of science and technological development. When we infuse values such as cooperation, interaction, connectiveness and caring into our study of science and development of technology, we will reduce the impact of factors such as competition, domination and separation. A potential outcome is the development of more socially responsible practices and policies.

Understanding the problem of gender bias is an essential part of the process of solving it. As our understanding of how gender bias functions in the computing culture grows and evolves, so will our ability to counteract it. It is this understanding that will enable us to develop specific strategies to reduce its impact in our computing curriculum and pedagogy, in our interaction with and evaluation of students, and in our interaction with and evaluation of our women colleagues. It is futile to attempt to address the under-representation of women in computing without members of the computing profession gaining a deeper and broader understanding of gender bias and its pervasive influence. Until we reduce the male orientation of the computing culture and transform it to include the values and perspectives associated with the female gender, we will continue to deny women access to the opportunities in computing. The first step in the process of providing access is to acknowledge the significance of gender.

Bowling Green State University

End Notes

  1. Sources: (1) Becker, H.J. and C.W. Sterling, “Equity in School Computer Use: National Data and Neglected Considerations.” Journal of Educational Computing Research, 1987; (2) Collis, Betty, “Sex Differences in Secondary School Students’ Attitudes Toward Computers,” The Computing Teacher 12 no. 7 1985; (3) Collis, Betty. “Sex Related Differences in Attitudes Towards Computers: Implication for Counselors,” The School Counselor 33 no. 2 1985; (4) Gressard, C. and B. Loyd, “Validation Studies of a New Computer Attitude Scale.” AEDS Journal 18 no. 3 1986; (5) Koohang, Alex A., “A Study of Attitudes Towards Computers: Anxiety, Confidence, Liking, and Perception of Usefulness.” Journal of Research on Computing in Education 22 no. 2 1989; (6) Lockheed, M.E., A. Nielsen and M. Stone, “Sex Differences in Microcomputer Literacy,” Paper presented at the National Educational Computing Conference, June 6 – 8, 1983; (7) Ware, Mary Catherine and Mary Frances Stuck. “Sex Role Messages vis-a-vis Microcomputer Use: A Look at the Pictures.” Sex Roles 13 nos. 3/4 1985; (8) Wilder, Gita, Diane Mackie and Joel Cooper, “Gender and Computers: Two Surveys of Computer-Related Activities.” Sex Roles, 1985.
  2. Sources: (1) ACM Committee on The Status of Women in Computing Science, “Becoming a Computer Scientist, A Report by the ACM Committee on The Status of Women in Computing Science,” Communications of the ACM, November 1990; (2) Frenkel, Karen A., “Women & Computing,” Communications of the ACM, November 1990; (3) Leveson, Nancy, Women in Computer Science: A Report for the NSF CISE Corsee Disciplinary Activities Advisory Committee, December 1989; (4) Widnall, Sheila E., “AAAS Presidential Lecture: Voices from the Pipeline,” Science, September 1988.
  3. Sources: ACM Committee on The Status of Women in Computing Science. “Becoming a Computer Scientist, A Report by the ACM Committee on The Status of Women in Computing Science,” Communications of the ACM, November 1990; (2) Becker, H.J. And C.W. Sterling, “Equity in School Computer Use: National Data and Neglected Considerations,” Journal of Educational Computing Research, 1987; (3) Ehrhart, Julia K., Sandler, Bernice R., “Looking for More Than a Few Good Women in Traditionally Male Fields,” Project on the Status and Education of Women, Association of American Colleges, 1987; (4) Frenkel, Karen A., “Women & Computing,” Communications of the ACM, November 1990; (5) Gabriel, Susan, Smithson, Isaiah (eds), Gender in the Classroom, University of Illinois Press, 1990; (5) The Government-University-Industry-Research Roundtable, Nurturing Science and Engineering Talent, National Academy of Sciences, July 1987; (6) Hall, Roberta M., Sandler, Bernice R., “The Classroom Climate: A Chilly One for Women?,” Project on the Status and Education of Women, Washington D.C.: Association of American Colleges, 1982; (7) Kiesler, Sara, Sproull, Lee, Eccles, Jacquelynne S., “Pool Halls, Chips, and War Games: Women in the Computing Culture,” Psychology of Women Quarterly, 1985; (8) Leveson, Nancy, Women in Computer Science: A Report for the NSF CISE Corsee Disciplinary Activities Advisory Committee, December 1989; (9) Markoff, John. “Computing in America: A Masculine Mystique,” The New York Times, February 13, 1989; (10) Widnall, Sheila E., “AAAS Presidential Lecture: Voices from the Pipeline,” Science, September 1988; (11) Wilder, Gita, Diane Mackie and Joel Cooper, “Gender and Computers: Two Surveys of Computer-Related Activities,” Sex Roles, 1985.
  4. Sources: (1) Chamberlain, Mariam K. Women in Academe, Russell Sage Foundation, 1988; (2) Gabriel, Susan, Smithson, Isaiah (eds), Gender in the Classroom, University of Illinois Press, 1990; (3) Gilligan, Carol, In A Different Voice, Harvard University Press, 1982; (4) Harris, Judith, Silverstein, JoAnn, and Andrews Dianne, Education Women in Science,” In Educating the Majority: Women Challenge Tradition in Higher Education, American Council on Education and Macmillan Publishing, 1989; (5) Bernard Jessie, “Educating the Majority: The Feminist Enlightenment,” In Educating the Majority: Women Challenge Tradition in Higher Education, American Council on Education and Macmillan Publishing, 1989.
  5. (1) ACM Committee on The Status of Women in Computing Science. “Becoming a Computer Scientist, A Report by the ACM Committee on The Status of Women in Computing Science,” Communications of the ACM, November 1990; (2) Frenkel, Karen A., “Women & Computing,” Communications of the ACM, November 1990.
  6. ACM Committee on The Status of Women in Computing Science. “Becoming a Computer Scientist, A Report by the ACM Committee on The Status of Women in Computing Science,” Communications of the ACM, November 1990.
  7. Sources: (1) Chamberlain, Mariam K. Women in Academe, Russell Sage Foundation, 1988; (2) Gabriel, Susan, Smithson, Isaiah (eds), Gender in the Classroom, University of Illinois Press, 1990; (3) Gies, F., Carter M., Butler D. Seeing and Evaluating People, The Office of Women’s Affairs, University of Delaware, revised edition, 1986; (4) Gilligan, Carol, In A Different Voice, Harvard University Press, 1982; (5) Hall, Roberta M., Sandler, Bernice R., “The Classroom Climate: A Chilly One for Women?,” Project on the Status and Education of Women, Washington DC: Association of American Colleges, 1982; (6) Harris, Judith, Silverstein, JoAnn, and Andrews Dianne, “Education Women in Science,” In Educating the Majority: Women Challenge Tradition in Higher Education, American Council on Education and Macmillan Publishing, 1989; (7) Bernard Jessie, “Educating the Majority: The Feminist Enlightenment,” In Educating the Majority: Women Challenge Tradition in Higher Education, American Council on Education and Macmillan Publishing, 1989; (8) Schaef, Anne Wilson, Women’s Reality: An Emerging Female System in a White Male Society, Harper & Row, 1985; (9) Tannen, Deborah, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, Ballantine Books, 1990; (10) Weis, Lois (ed.), Class, Race, and Gender, State University of New York Press, 1988.
  8. Sources: (1) Gilligan, Carol, In A Different Voice, Harvard University Press, 1982; (2) Harris, Judith, Silverstein, JoAnn, and Andrews Dianne, “Education Women in Science,” In Educating the Majority: Women Challenge Tradition in Higher Education, American Council on Education and Macmillan Publishing, 1989; (3) Bernard Jessie, “Educating the Majority: The Feminist Enlightenment,” In Educating the Majority: Women Challenge Tradition in Higher Education, American Council on Education and Macmillan Publishing, 1989.
  9. Sources: (1) Gies, F., Carter M., Butler D. Seeing and Evaluating People, The Office of Women’s Affairs, University of Delaware, revised edition, 1986; (2) Schaef, Anne Wilson, Women’s Reality: An Emerging Female System in a White Male Society, Harper & Row, 1985; (3) Tannen, Deborah, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, Ballantine Books, 1990.
  10. Sources: (1) Astin, Alexander W., Four Critical Years: Effects of College on Beliefs, Attitudes and Knowledge, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1977; (2) Chamberlain, Mariam K., Women in Academe, Russell Sage Foundation, 1988; (3) Ehrhart, Julia K., Sandler, Bernice R. “Looking for More Than a Few Good Women in Traditionally Male Fields.” Project on the Status and Education of Women, Association of American Colleges, 1987; (4) Gabriel, Susan, Smithson, Isaiah (eds.), Gender in the Classroom, University of Illinois Press, 1990; (5) Gies, F., Carter M., Butler D. Seeing and Evaluating People, The Office of Women’s Affairs, University of Delaware, revised edition, 1986; (6) Hall, Roberta M., Sandler, Bernice R. “The Classroom Climate: A Chilly One for Women?,” Project on the Status and Education of Women, Washington DC: Association of American Colleges, 1982; (7) Weis, Lois,ed., Class, Race, and Gender, State University of New York Press, 1988.
  11. Sources: (1) Gies, F., Carter M., Butler D. Seeing and Evaluating People, The Office of Women’s Affairs, University of Delaware, revised edition, 1986; (2) Schaef, Anne Wilson, Women’s Reality: An Emerging Female System in a White Male Society, Harper & Row, 1985.
  12. Sources: (1) ACM Committee on The Status of Women in Computing Science, “Becoming a Computer Scientist, A Report by the ACM Committee on The Status of Women in Computing Science,” Communications of the ACM, November 1990; (2) Frenkel, Karen A., “Women & Computing,” Communications of the ACM, November 1990.


ACM Committee on The Status of Women in Computing Science, “Becoming a Computer Scientist, A Report by the ACM Committee on The Status of Women in Computing Science,” Communications of the ACM, November 1990.

ACM Curriculum Committee on Computer Science, “Curriculum 68: Recommendations for Academic Programs in Computer Science,” Communications of the ACM, March 1968.

ACM Curriculum Committee on Computer Science, “Curriculum 78: Recommendations for the Undergraduate Program in Computer Science,” Communications of the ACM, March 1979.

ACM/IEEE-CS Joint Curriculum Task Force, Computing Curricula 1991, ACM Press, 1991.

ACM Task Force on the Core of Computer Science, Computing as a Discipline, ACM Press, 1988.

Astin, Alexander W., Four Critical Years: Effects of College on Beliefs, Attitudes and Knowledge, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1977.

Atkinson, Richard C., “Supply and Demand for Scientists and Engineers: A National Crisis in the Making,” Science, April 1990.

Becker, H.J. and C.W. Sterling, “Equity in School Computer Use: National Data and Neglected Considerations,” Journal of Educational Computing Research, 1987.

Chamberlain, Mariam K., Women in Academe, Russell Sage Foundation, 1988.

Collis, Betty, “Sex Differences in Secondary School Students’ Attitudes Toward Computers,” The Computing Teacher 12 no. 7 1985.

Collis, Betty, “Sex Related Differences in Attitudes Towards Computers: Implication for Counselors,” The School Counselor 33 no. 2 1985.

Ehrhart, Julia K., Sandler, Bernice R., “Looking for More Than a Few Good Women in Traditionally Male Fields,” Project on the Status and Education of Women, Association of American Colleges, 1987.

Frenkel, Karen A., “Women & Computing,” Communications of the ACM, November 1990.

Gabriel, Susan, Smithson, Isaiah (eds.), Gender in the Classroom, University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Gies, F., Carter M., Butler D., Seeing and Evaluating People, The Office of Women’s Affairs, University of Delaware, revised edition, 1986.

Gilligan, Carol, In A Different Voice, Harvard University Press, 1982.

The Government-University-Industry-Research Roundtable, Nurturing Science and Engineering Talent, National Academy of Sciences, July 1987.

Gressard, C. and B. Loyd, “Validation Studies of a New Computer Attitude Scale,” AEDS Journal 18 no. 3 1986.

Hall, Roberta M., Sandler, Bernice R., “The Classroom Climate: A Chilly One for Women?,” Project on the Status and Education of Women, Washington D.C.: Association of American Colleges, 1982.

Kiesler, Sara, Sproull, Lee, Eccles, Jacquelynne S., “Pool Halls, Chips, and War Games: Women in the Computing Culture,” Psychology of Women Quarterly, 1985.

Koohang, Alex A., “A Study of Attitudes Towards Computers: Anxiety, Confidence, Liking, and Perception of Usefulness,” Journal of Research on Computing in Education 22 no. 2 1989.

Leveson, Nancy, Women in Computer Science, A Report for the NSF CISE Corsee Disciplinary Activities Advisory Committee, December 1989.

Lockheed, M.E., A. Nielsen and M. Stone, “Sex Differences in Microcomputer Literacy,” Paper presented at the National Educational Computing Conference, June 6 – 8, 1983.

Markoff, John, “Computing in America: A Masculine Mystique,” The New York Times, February 13, 1989.

Schaef, Anne Wilson, Women’s Reality: An Emerging Female System in a White Male Society, Harper & Row, 1985.

Tannen, Deborah, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, Ballantine Books, 1990.

Tannen, Deborah, That’s Not What I Meant, Ballantine Books, 1986.

Ware, Mary Catherine and Mary Frances Stuck, “Sex Role Messages vis-a-vis Microcomputer Use: A Look at the Pictures,” Sex Roles 13 nos. 3/4 1985.

Widnall, Sheila E., “AAAS Presidential Lecture: Voices from the Pipeline,” Science, September 1988.

Weis, Lois, ed., Class, Race, and Gender, State University of New York Press, 1988.

Wilder, Gita, Diane Mackie and Joel Cooper, “Gender and Computers: Two Surveys of Computer-Related Activities,” Sex Roles, 1985.

DisABILITY, Computing and the Law: What You Should Know

Tzipporah Ben Avraham


Accessibility has many faces, facets and aspects. And access for a person with a major life impairment (disability) is a matter of legal definition and resolve. The miracle of access to the printed word has been revolutionized for disabled people through the use of the computer. Miracles never thought possible are occurring daily in elementary and secondary schools, as well as in colleges and businesses. To watch a quadriplegic input computer data by use of an eyeblink switch inspires and brings an enigmatic smile to us. To see a blind person read Braille just output from a computer also poises our mind in wonderment. To see a deaf person use a telephone with a TDD (Telecommunications Device for the Deaf) brings dignity of self-determination to a population we would never have thought could communicate so freely before. All this would have been science fiction a few short years ago. Yet today the wonders of technology are enabling many to achieve positions of independence.

However, as in all tangible things, law and regulation have indeed found their niche in this amazing world of computer miracles. And with the rule of law come the parameters of access, affordability and use. Many laws and responsibilities have come forth from this remarkable technological development called the adaptive computer. I wish to guide you around the key points of this human interface between technology and the disabled.

Laws, Regulations, Court Decisions and Disability Tech

Most people think of laws as scary things that pinstripe suited lawyers argue about in ornate halls of justice. However through law comes the greatest possibilities for technology access for disabled persons. Here are a few key laws:

  • Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990: 42 U.S.C. Sections 12101 et seq.

This is called the most significant piece of legislation concerning disabled persons ever in the history of the world. This 102 page law contains elements concerning employment, housing, public accommodation, and telecommunications. Regulations and public hearings will continue to 1992. In this law are many issues concerning the disabled and what is called “reasonable accommodation.” That phrase is included in many laws concerning disabled persons. Among the technologies of today are adaptive computer terminals for disability access. These would cover the broadest spectrum: Employers may have to place disability work stations in businesses where the disabled will work. Or TDDs may be required for deaf to have access to the phone lines for simplistic communication. Public accommodation will include libraries having talking terminals for the print disabled for access to the library’s computerized technology. Also included will be public buildings of all kinds, such as restaurants, hotels, trains, planes and rail stations, plus an array of public service and commercial establishments. In all places a computer is placed, access for the disabled may indeed become an actionable issue under this law if there is no accommodation. Thus an airline with a computer terminal for information for passengers may indeed be required to provide voice synthesis access for blind persons. Or a hotel may be required to have a TDD for a hearing-impaired person to use. And the net effect may well be lower cost as more people are mandated to conform to this law in the future. However, since most of these laws will not be in regulatory form until 1992, they are not clearly established yet.

  • Technology Act for the Disabled; Public law 100-407 29 USC 2201, 2202 et seq.

This law establishes sites of technology access for disabled persons. The theory is that the technology is quite expensive at present. Yet if more people (the rationale states) with disability had access to “try out” these devices and “train” on them, more disabled persons would take advantage of the technology. In accordance with this plan many centers are funded nationwide. Every state has established a “tech act” coordinator. In New York State, as an example, the New York State Office of Advocate for the Disabled has been designated as the liaison. In New York State the phone number is (518) 474-5567 and the coordinator is Deborah Buck. However every state has one designated agency and person to deal with this funding and plan. Seek out your own state’s plan and director for more concrete information.

  • International Meeting of Experts on Human Resources in the Field of Disability: Tallin Estonia SSR, 1989

A spectacular meeting was held on the International Implications of Disability and Technology Use in 1989 by the United Nations Disabled Persons Unit. A rich pamphlet was produced quantifying in a document technology use and law on the international plane. The name of this paragraph is the name of the document. You may get a copy of it by writing to the Disabled Persons Unit, United Nations Centre for Social Development and Humanitarian Affairs, PO Box 500, A-1400, Vienna, Austria. In this unique world document you will find issues concerning disabled children and telecommunications education, the use of disability technology in the workplace, how to train teachers to develop such resources, and an array of codified instructions to governments on how to accomplish this task. In international law, the rules and guidelines may only look like “recommendations,” because there are scarce resources to force or police a nation into compliance. Hence, upon reading, these rules and guidelines do not appear as laws to the otherwise uninitiated. Indeed they are, and this document presents a wealth of ideas and stipulations.

  • Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Public Law 93-112 as amended 29 U.S.C. Section 702 et seq.

The famous “504 law” appears in this section. 504 is “non discrimination on the basis of disability in federally assisted programs.” Before the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, this 1973 law, as amended, was the civil rights provision for disabled persons. It only allowed what was called “reasonable accommodation” in those programs for disabled persons that received Federal money. Until now a disabled person who needed an adapted computer to work could not use this law. However the ramifications were clear regarding 504 issues for colleges and schools of education funded by the government.

In this act, also, is the definition of a disabled person. To clarify “who is a disabled person,” I include this definition:

In the Federal Register, Volume 45 number 92 Friday May 9, 1980, page 30937, the Department of Education made regulations about disabled persons in education. Originally this was a rule made for the Education Department alone. However, it has become a universal reference as to who or what a disabled person is for the federal government’s purposes. Let me interject the verbatim listing of the definition:

Section 104.3 part j defines “Handicapped Person.”

(1) “Handicapped person” means any person who (i) has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities. (ii) has a record of such an impairment. (iii) is regarded as having such an impairment.

(2) As used in paragraph (j)(1) of this section, the phrase: (i) “Physical or mental impairment” means (A) any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems: neurological; musculo-skeletal; special sense organs; respiratory, including speech organs; cardiovascular; reproductive; digestive; genitourinary; hematic and lymphatic; skin and endocrine; or (B) any mental or psychological disorder such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities. (ii) Major life activities means functions such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, breathing, learning and working.

In this context, we have a medical-model definition of what handicapped means. In effect, those persons with those impairments are a ‘protected class’, who require certain adaptive technology to be equal in society.

As you see, many common ordinary people you know are “handicapped” under this definition. 504 gave the shape, quantity and format to the issues.

  • Section 508: Electronic Data Processing for Disabled Federal Employees of Public Law 99-506 as amended

This was the start of another array of laws concerning disabled persons and technology. Here is the full text of the law:

Full Text of Section 508 of Public Law 99:506

Electronic Equipment Accessibility

Section 508. (a) (1) The Secretary, through the director of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research and the Administrator of General Services, and in consultation with the electronics industry, shall develop and establish guidelines for electronic equipment accessibility designed to insure that individuals with handicaps may use electronic office equipment with or without special peripherals.

(2) The guidelines established pursuant to paragraph (1) shall be applicable with respect to electronic equipment, whether purchased or leased.

(3) The initial guidelines shall be established not later than October 1, 1987 and shall be periodically revised by the Director of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research and the Administrator of General Services in consultation with the electronics industry and the Interagency Committee for Computer Support of Handicapped Employees as technologies advance or change.

(b) Beginning after September 30, 1988, the Administrator of General Services shall adopt guidelines for electronic equipment accessibility under subsection (a) for Federal procurement of electronic equipment. Each agency shall comply with the guidelines adopted under this subsection.

(c) For the purposes of this section, the term, “special peripherals” means the specific needs aid that provides access to electronic equipment that is otherwise inaccessible to an individual with handicaps.

In this simple law, these 1591 characters started the revolution in disability technology policy. To dovetail this, Public Law 99-506 and its sections is the amended form of the Rehab Act of 1973. In this we see the progression of policy as the rights of disabled proceed.

A rather remarkable policy document called the “COCA Bulletins has been written concerning this. The regulations called the firmness bulletins quantify the rules of this law. You may get copies of this. Here is a quoted citation from the manual:

Managing End User Computing for Users with Disabilities has been prepared by the Clearinghouse on Computer Accommodation (COCA) of the Information Resources Management Service (IRMS), General Services Administration (GSA). This handbook presents guidance to Federal managers and other personnel who are unfamiliar with the application of computer and related information technology to accommodate users with disabilities and provide for their effective access to information resources. Issues reviewed represent “lessons learned” by agencies and GSA’s Clearinghouse On Computer Accommodation.

The unbound format of this handbook accommodates the need for periodic updating due to the rapid introduction of new accommodation-related products and services and the evolving nature of the guidance presented. Updates will be available on-line, and hard-copy and can be obtained by completing the registration form (see Appendix A).

COCA staff invite comments and contributions to the guide. In addition, COCA can be contacted to arrange demonstrations of accommodation solutions at their technical resource center. COCA is also available to assist managers with technical advice and assistance during acquisition planning.

The COCA staff may be reached at (202) 523-1906 voice/TDD (FTS 523-1906) or via mail at GSA, Susan A. Brummel, Director, Clearinghouse on Computer Accommodation, Room 2022, KGDO, 18th & F Streets, NW, Washington, DC 20405.

COCA offers a training class for managers entitled “Managing Computer Accommodation for Users with Disabilities.” In addition, COCA also offers informal introductory consultation/training at its technical resource center at the GSA building, 18th and F Sts. NW, Washington, D.C. 20405. Consultations can be scheduled by calling (FTS or 202) 523-1906.

Appropriate documentation is an important part of training. Whenever possible, documentation should be made available to the user in the most useful manner, whether this be Braille, audio tape, large print, captioned tapes or electronic media. For example, a printed manual on a database package is virtually useless to a blind user. “If documentation in a special form is required, management should take steps to secure such documentation after determining the accommodation requirements.” (end of quote from COCA documentation)

We see from this that technology assistance is well defined with the law and regulations. No base has been left uncovered. Thus the ever expanding laws and rules of disability and technology surface and remain intact. We see the building blocks of law and service which are the benchmarks and foundations of access technology.

  • Education of All Handicapped Children Act, Public Law 94-142 as amended. 20 USC Sec 1400 et seq.

This law is soon to be named the “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act” (IDEAS) by Congress on its reenactment. Children with disabilities also are afforded “reasonable accommodation” in their education. However another phrase, “related services,” has appeared in the laws for children with disabilities. In 20 USC Section 1401 (18) “appropriate education” for a disabled child is defined as providing “special education and related services.” A rather significant court ruling came from a child named “Tatro” who needed a “related service” of a catheterization to attend a mainstream school. In the case before the Supreme Court of the United States, “Tatro v State of Texas, 703 F.2d 823 (5 Cir. 1983,” the bottom line was that the Supreme Court decided an array of services are indeed “related” if it enables the child to continue in school in the least restrictive most appropriate environment. Thus catheterization was indeed given in her “free and appropriate public education.” From this decision an array of “related services” are contracted for, including use of and instruction of adaptive technology. In the New York City Board of Education, as an example, Dr. Stephen Hittman runs the Office of Contracted and Related Services. He runs a program by which disabled children and their schools can “contract” for “related services” for their needs. This came to be because of the Tatro decision. Dr. Hitmman’s Office at the New York City Board of Education is at 111 Livingston Street, Brooklyn, NY, Room 444 (phone (718) 935-3581). Perhaps your own area includes such an office.

Disabled children have also been afforded such devices as “augmentative speech” devices and “hearing aid loops” in what is called their “individual education program.” That becomes a “legal and binding contract” for services for each child. In New York State, a number of technology assistance centers called SETRCs (Special Education Training and Resource Centers) have been established. Many of the expensive technological devices used by disabled children have been recycled in these centers. One such SETRC is the Batavia School for the Blind of Richmond Avenue, Batavia NY, 14020 (phone(716) 343-5384). Here they recycle such things as computers, voice synthesizers and Braillers and an array of disability technology relating to blindness and vision impairment for children. A similar SETRC is at the Rome School for the Deaf, 401 Turin St., Rome, NY (phone (315) 337-8400).

  • State Run Schools for Handicapped Children, Public Law 89-313

Prior to Public Law 94 142, this law funded schools for disabled children. Such schools were to be run by the State Education Department and were mostly sequestered. Many schools, such as the above Batavia School for the Blind and Rome School for the Deaf, were established and were “disability specific” under this law. However, since mainstreaming was mandated and funded by Public Law 94 142 as amended, many of these schools have taken on a new face and purpose. Many now provide centralized points of training and technology for that specific disability. Look in your area for similar schools. Many of them may even contract to provide technology training for the specific disability and child you are seeking to assist.

You may find resources that amaze you. For deaf children and adults, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services of the federal government funds a project called “Captioning of Films for the Deaf.” There are two places specifically funded to produce captioned educational films for deaf persons. The first is:

National Captioning Institute, Inc.
5203 Leesburg Pike
Falls Church, VA 22041
(703) 998-2400

This institute provides closed captioning service for television networks, program producers, cablecasters, producers of home entertainment video cassettes, advertisers and other organizations in the federal and private sectors.

The second place is:

Modern Talking Picture Service, a captioned film/video program service made possible by the U.S. Department of Education. It makes available feature films and a range of educational films and videos. Users of theatrical films/videos should have a general audience setting that contains at least six deaf or hard-of-hearing persons. Users of educational titles should have a class or educational setting that contains at least one deaf or hearing-impaired person. There are 3,561 educational and theatrical titles in this free-loan captioned film program. Contact Modern Talking Picture Service, 5000 Park Street N, St. Petersburg, FL 33709, (800) 237-6213. (My thanks to Mr. Chuck Lynd of LINC Resources, Inc. at 1 (800) 772-7372 for this captioning information.)

The US Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services funds many services dealing with technology and the needs of the disabled. The specialized money to produce these captioned films is defined in the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance which one can find at any US Government bookstore. Many of these films are now captioned by use of specialized computer technology. An impressive array of these devices can be found at the Rochester Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, New York. Much software is available at present to help your common personal computer assist with captioning of any film. Hence again disability and computers take on a fascinating interface.

Some Court Cases of Note

Several court cases also verify the fact that persons with disabilities have access to technology also as a civil right. Here are some cases of particular note.

Children are particularly of interest to the US Supreme Court and an array of Federal courts. Many cases verify the right of a disabled child to education with related services in the least restrictive environment. These are most noteworthy:

Board of Education v Rowley, 458 US at n.4; (on related services of an FM loop for a hearing-impaired child to mainstream)

AW v Northwest R-1 School District, 813 F.2d 158 162-163 (8th Circuit), cert denied, 56 USLW. 3244 (1987)

Rockner v Walter, 700 F.2d 1058, 1063 (6TH Cir) cert denied, 464 US 864 (1983)

Springdale School District #50 v Grace, 693 F2d. 41, 43 (8th Cir.) cert denied, 461 US 927 (1983)

Most noteworthy is Rowley. In the text of the Supreme Court decision:

to the maximum extent appropriate, handicapped children… are to be educated with children who are not handicapped, and that removal of handicapped children from regular educational environments [should occur] only when the nature of the severity of the handicap is such that education in a regular class with the use of of supplementary aids and servicescannot be achieved satisfactorily.

In this, the Rowley decision, we find mainstreaming with related aids and services (such as the FM loop for the child) is indeed in keeping with Public Law 94-142’s intent. So children can and do receive an array of technology for their disabilities in the course of their education. The above mentioned accommodation for the captioning of films for the deaf is a clear example of this. It is clear that if a child in a regular class has any use of technology in the educational pursuits of the class, disabled children should have adaptations for their disabilities as well, so they can participate equally. Hence we see that Rowley firmly establishes technology access for disabled children.

In regard to bilingual education and technology for disabled persons, we find two noteworthy class action suits. One is the Jose P case: Jose P v Aumbach and the NYS Board of Education and NYC Board of Education. 557 Fed Supp. 1230 et seq. In this case, a Spanish-speaking disabled child sought related services for his disability in the school system. This suit is ongoing to this day. In it an array of special accommodations have been enforced and mandated through what is called a “writ of mandamus.” Spanish-speaking disabled children, as an example, are learning Spanish word processing if they are orthopedically impaired by using Dr. Steven Hittman’s Office of Contracted and Related Services to fulfill the need. Several vendors of training and Spanish speaking technology have adapted lessons for these children and are “contracted with” for these educational services.

Also the Lora consent decree concerning bilingual, bicultural special education services is found in 456 Fed Supp 1211 et seq. Under this decision and consent decree, a child blind from birth received Hebrew computer Braille training at Brooklyn College under my tutelage. This was quantified in her IEP and placed in force by NYS Family Court as her IEP for related services. The stipulation decreed that this was a “free appropriate education with related services based on the Lora decree and the Jose P case decrees.” Hence this very specialized educational service is provided by court ruling.

In higher education, we come across the case United States v University of Alabama CA No 86-C1779-S, N.D. 12/30/88, slip op. at 7, 26-27. This case dealt with the University holding a scrutiny on the disabled that they be made eligible for financial aid to be eligible for auxiliary aids. The decision stated that in 34 CFR section 1044.44(d) the recipients of Federal funding are required to ensure that students with disabilities are provided auxiliary aids, including taped texts, interpreters for students with hearing impairment, readers for students with visual impairment classroom equipment adapted for use by students with manual impairments and other similar services and actions. This should be only if the assistive device would not fundamentally alter or substantially modify the character of the program. Hence if all the class must learn statistics on a computer as an example, and a student requires a voice synthesis device to perceive the screen independently, the college is obligated to provide the device free of charge to the student. It is actionable offense under US Civil Rights Law otherwise.

In the arena of employment, the issue of “reasonable accommodation” for the disabled also arises in recognition of the fact that certain “accommodations are needed for a person with a disability to be employed.” Noteworthy is Gardner v Morris 752 F2nd 1271 (8th Cir. 1985), which said a “reasonable accommodation” should not be oppressive to the employer, however referred to 28 CFR Sections 41.53, 42.513(c) for a clearer definition of the meaning of “oppressive.” The CFR reference is in relation to disabled federal employees and what is considered a reasonable accommodation. However, the Americans with Disabilities Act now defines the accommodations of this section of Federal law as integral to the enforcement of the employment section in ADA. It is not considered “oppressive” for the telephone company, for example, to provide a versaBraille (TM) on the computer terminal to a blind telephone information operator who requires one for the functioning of the job. The numbers of the employees in the company, the nature and cost of the particular accommodation, and the nature and size of the employers business. Based on these specific decisions of the court, we have the guideline for businesses.

Miscellaneous Provisions of Law Relating to Technology and the Disabled

In 1984, I was quite instrumental in the formulation of the computer funding formula for disabled children in New York State. In Title 8 NYCRR Section 175.25 we find line 8, which states that all disabled children in NYS should have $17.25 per child for computer hardware and $5.25 for software per semester provided for their needs. This is the exact same formula as non disabled children in the state. I would deem this an important provision for disability computer policy persons to consider in their lobbying of their legislators. The exact same formula for non-disabled children for access to computer technology should be the same. This law is a model.

The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped also provides free tape recorded and Brailled textbooks to qualified persons. However, most people are not aware that in 1969, the physically handicapped who could not turn pages were also allowed in the program. The free tape player, record player and earphones are also available to schools and institutions upon proper certification. The address for further query on this is National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library of Congress, Washington DC 20542. If your institution, school or place of public accommodation has print disabled persons utilizing your facility you may be eligible to obtain not only this technology, but also tape recorded materials for the blind free of charge.

In pace with the Technology Act for the Disabled, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services has given Recording for the Blind a grant to produce computer diskette books for the blind and print disabled. You may make query of this publicly funded service by writing to Recording for the Blind, 20 Roszel Road, Princeton NJ. This would make the project a federally funded project subject to the stipulations of section 504 of Public Law 93-112.

The New York State Science and Technology Foundation is funded by the New York State Office of Economic Development. They provide grants to commercial developers of disability technology on an application basis.

Many disabled persons are eligible to receive technology free by evaluation from their local Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. Call your local Vocational Rehabilitation Center for rules and stipulations by which you or a disabled person you know can be funded for vocational rehabilitation services which could include the training of technology and the agency purchasing same. There is an array of different procedures for this service. Often such services are provided as a stipulation of Title 5 of Public Law 93-112, aid to states to provide services for adult disabled persons.

In the law also there is a provision of providing various services including technology to elderly blind persons. Here is the law:

TITLE VII – COMPREHENSIVE SERVICES FOR INDEPENDENT LIVING – PART C – Independent Living Services for Older Blind Individuals. SEC. 721.

SERVICE PROGRAM ESTABLISHED (a) The Commissioner may make grants to any designated State unit to provide independent living services to older blind individuals. Such services shall be designed to assist an older blind individual to adjust to blindness by becoming more able to care for individual needs. Such services may include:

(1) services to help correct blindness such as

(A) outreach services,

(B) visual screening,

(C) surgical or therapeutic treatment to prevent, correct, or modify disabling eye conditions, and

(D) hospitalization related to such services;

(2)the provision of eyeglasses and other visual aids.

(3) the provision of services and equipment to assist an older blind individual to become more mobile and more self-sufficient;

(4)mobility training, Braille instruction, and other services and equipment to help an older blind individual adjust to blindness;

(5)guide services, reader services, and transportation; and

(6) any other appropriate services designed to assist a blind person in coping with daily living activities, including supportive services or rehabilitation teaching services.

(b) No grant may be made under this section unless an application therefor, containing such information as the Commissioner may require, has been submitted to and approved by the Commissioner. The Commissioner may not approve any application for a grant unless the application contains assurances that the designated State unit will seek to incorporate any new methods and approaches relating to the services described in subsection (a) into its State plan for independent living services under section 705 of this title.

(c) Funds received under this section by any designated State unit may be used to make grants to public or private nonprofit agencies or organizations to:

(1) conduct activities which will improve or expand services for older blind individuals and help improve public understanding of the problems of such individuals; and

(2) provide independent living services to older blind individuals in accordance with the provisions of subsection (a).

(d) For purposes of this section, the term “older blind individual” means an individual aged fifty-five or older whose severe visual impairment makes gainful employment extremely difficult to attain but for whom independent living goals are feasible.

From this law we can discern that older blind persons may apply for rehabilitation services and related devices and services as well (including computer technology) for their disability.


Laws have enabled the use of technology by disabled persons in many ways. As the enablements become greater and as technology progresses, we may see yet more laws and regulations. In brief, adaptive technology has enabled disabled persons for many years. It continues to do so in an array of ways. Law both quantifies and also stipulates the use of technology by disabled persons. The singular proof and affirmation this will continue is the progression of past laws up to the present time. It is obvious that an array of thoughtful laws and judicial decisions has made this tech available in great quantity. The proliferation of these highly enabling machines will continue.

I hope that this has provided a valuable and useful guide to the reader. If you should have any questions, please refer them to me at Project EASI.

Project EASI at EDUCO

Appendix – Track Report: Equity and Access to Computer Resources

Amy Rubin

The Equity and Access Track of the National Conference on Computing and Values met from August 13 to 15, 1991. The findings and recommendations of the track are listed below.


  1. Existing computers, computer systems and information systems have inherent access barriers (cultural, gender, economic, infrastructure, etc.) which prevent their equitable use by all members of our society.
  2. Some of these existing barriers are due to natural human differences, and are only partially attributable to computers and information systems.
  3. Many barriers, however, derive from poorly conceived designs and encompass ethical, gender, economic and socio-cultural issues. These barriers often reflect deficiencies of society-at-large.
  4. To overcome access and equity barriers, we must recognize that computing and information systems can only be understood in terms of their social context (how the social context influences – and is influenced by – design and use issues), and not in abstract technical terms. Overcoming these barriers also requires clear delineation of the problems; identification of their origins; and motivation for change on the part of the creators, actual users, and potential users of the technologies.
  5. There are many reasons why policy makers and professional groups should address and attempt to resolve these barriers. They include ethical principles, corporate and organizational self-interest, individual employment opportunities, and legal mandates.

The problems of access and equity cannot be resolved in isolation from other issues discussed at this conference.

Summary of the Issues

  1. Software and hardware are most often designed without regard to differential physical and cognitive abilities. The computing community is moving slowly to address these needs.
  2. Even if adaptive technology is available in a special lab, while others have distributed access, this “separate but equal” access to computing resources still results in inequity.
  3. 3. Safety and perceived safety factors (like those encountered by women who must use computing facilities in remote areas or at night) can be barriers to access.
  4. Economic status determines access, level of access, and type of access. For example: costly state-of-the-art equipment, on-line information fees available to only those individuals and corporations able to pay, and one computer per person vs. sharing computing resources.
  5. Gender inhibits or promotes access. Boys frequently do not let girls play with computers. Women are steered away from technology. Women are allowed access only after an area becomes commonplace, well understood, and of lower status (application programming and systems analysis are shifting from male dominated to female pluralistic occupations; while system programming is still male dominated).
  6. Culture inhibits or promotes access. For example, software or documentation that is available in only one language, software that ignores differing traditions of learning and scholarship, or the incorporation of ethnocentric icons and interfaces in software.
  7. Discrepancies exist among the values expressed in computing technology by computing technologists as well as the community and society at large. For example consider the following list of values that appear in delivered computer based systems.

Actualized: (lots of evidence)

  • fast
  • clever
  • mine

Professed: (some evidence, in decreasing order)

  • on-time and within-budget
  • meets specification (can’t blame me)
  • correct (acceptable level of visible bugs – critical bugs well-disguised until I’m on some other project)
  • user friendly (minimal interface standards)
  • useful (fills an organizational need)
  • usable


Specific actions are required from at least three groups: 1) individuals and teams of individuals; including the members of the Equity and Access Track Group; 2) the Research Center on Computing and Society; and 3) government, corporations and funding agencies. Many of our recommendations require concerted and coordinated action by two or all of the three groups.

Individuals and Teams

1. Individuals and teams should engage in interdisciplinary research that will identify and expose values and manifestations of values evident in the existing computer culture. Some examples include: extensive use of jargon and acronyms, language like “male/female” connectors rather than plug and socket, computer/system names as reflection of male ideals, and “techno-macho” phenomena.

2. Individuals and teams should establish style/standards/methods groups with a charge to :

a. elicit a statement of values to be incorporated into computer based information technology that identifies:

1. user powers and rights
2. user responsibilities
3. imposed penalties for violation of norms
4. User access (transparent/equitable)
1. basic universal access – transparent
2. leveled access – also transparent
3. participation constraints should reflect “legitimate” rather than socio-cultural biases.

b. develop a “style book” for computer based information system design

c. develop a methodology and a set of tools that can be used to develop systems in accordance with the style book

d. participate in development and review of standards in cooperation with existing organizations (ACM, IEEE, ISO)

e. establish accreditation standards for educational institutions that take into account issues of equity and access to information resources.

f. develop and disseminate curricula and curricular materials

Research Center on Computing and Society

3. RCCS should act as a coordinator and clearinghouse by developing and supporting:

a. moderated Bitnet/Internet based forum for exchange and discussion of access and equity issues

b. dissemination of a bibliography

c. publicity for the forum and for Center services

d. a“clipping service” that would forward information (or at minimum notification of the existence of information) on participant selected topics, network and published sources.

e. coordination with other NCCV track groups – call attention to interdependencies among them (for example, the relationship between increasing access/equity and the need for some level of security)

f. a file of “success” stories – examples of how others have solved critical problems, indexed/keywords/case synopsis.

g. a brief annotated list of relevant journals

h. a monthly collection of the tables of contents from relevant journals.

4. RCCS should assist in the establishment of “consumer reports” that reviews existing hardware, software and information systems on the basis of equity and access standards.

5. Southern Connecticut State University should establish Resident Fellowships at RCCS that will allow researchers to come to the Center for extended periods to research these issues.

Government, Corporations and Funding Agencies

6. Government, corporations and funding agencies should establish and fund an interdisciplinary research program for transparent, appropriate and socio-culturally sensitive technology.

RCCS and Individuals

7. The Research Center and individuals should provide a mechanism – such as accepted peer review and tenure credit – that will acknowledge the values of research which can be accepted by all involved disciplines including computer science.

8. The Research Center and individuals should publicize inequalities and provide lobbying efforts to convince individuals, organizations, and governments of the importance to reform these issues.

All Groups

9. All groups should take and support legislative action including:

a. Amendment of the Communications Act of 1934 to redefine minimal “universal access” to include telecommunication, cable TV, and information resources.

b. definition of a new fundamental right: to benefit from access to information resources by assuring that essential equipment (hardware and software) and training is available at minimal cost or for free.

c. proposing that the National Research and Education Network (NREN) explicitly provide for low-cost or free access to network for K – 12 schools, libraries, nonprofit organizations, and individuals. This item should receive priority because NREN is expected to pass this year closing a window of opportunity to influence the legislation in the public interest.

10. Everyone should work on satisfying the need for substantial interdisciplinary research on how access, or lack of access, impacts individuals as well as the extent to which other socio-cultural factors are responsible for specific problems of access or equity.

11. Everyone should actively support and suggest research into interdisciplinary gender and cultural issues as they apply to computing, system design, etc.

12. We should all “do the right thing!”

Equity of Access: Adaptive Technology

a paper concerning the moral obligation of universities to provide their students with disabilities assistive technology both on campus and in the classroom – with accompanying QuickTime footage of interviews with the author, Frances S. Grodzinsky of Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, CT.

ABSTRACT: In this age of information technology, it is morally imperative that equal access to information via computer systems be afforded to people with disabilities. This paper addresses the problems that computer technology poses for students with disabilities and discusses what is needed to ensure equity of access, particularly in a university environment.


English language dictionaries define accessible as easy to approach, enter, speak with, or use.(1) For the forty million Americans with disabilities,(2) and those who will develop disabilities as they age, access takes on a special meaning. It is the key to an independent and “normal” lifestyle. Since 1973, laws have been enacted in the United States to facilitate accessibility for persons with disabilities. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act mandated that all federally funded agencies meet certain physically accessible standards in general and that they provide “reasonable accommodation” for employees with disabilities, including work-site modification, job modification, or other action to overcome physical or other disability-related barriers in the workplace. Section 508 addresses the appropriate accommodation in terms of technology. It requires that all federally funded agencies and their contractors provide access to computers for all employees with disabilities who need it, and specifies the types of access needed.(3)

In 1975, the Federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act guaranteed children with disabilities the right to free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment.(4) The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which addressed employment, transportation, public accommodation (e.g., theaters and rest rooms), and telecommunications, removed physical barriers to accessibility.(5) In the United States, therefore, people with disabilities can now be hired for jobs for which they are qualified, travel by public transportation, and enter buildings to work. Because we are in the information age, however, a person’s livelihood often depends on familiarity with and ability to use a computer.

Philip Brey, in his article titled “The Politics of Computer Systems and the Ethics of Design,”(6) asks: “What are the new issues concerning social morality posed by Information Technology?” One of those issues is that of equal access to computing systems. Although we have lowered street curbs, put in ramps, and made public transportation accessible to people with disabilities, we have lagged behind in adaptive accommodations for computer systems. Why? I think that the swiftness of the computer revolution and the impact that it has had on society were unanticipated. Designers of computer systems were so eager to move into the mainstream, where the return on investment was obvious, that they ignored a segment of prospective users: those with disabilities. For example, at a recent Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) exhibition, only two of approximately one hundred exhibits presented devices for persons with disabilities. When questioned about the lack of adaptive interfaces for certain software products, the vendors usually replied that no one had even considered this group of users. Ellen Barton, in her article “Interpreting the Discourse of Technology,” affirms that “integration of technology most often functions to maintain existing levels of power and authority.”(7) It is a serious moral problem when computer technology developers ignore the very group who can be empowered most by such technology.

According to the theory of justice of John Rawls, the notion of justice is usually understood as implying that individuals should not be advantaged or disadvantaged unfairly or undeservedly. This implies, among other things, that society should not promote the unfair distribution of “primary goods,” that is, those that are prerequisite to carrying out life’s plan.(6) I agree with Brey’s assessment that, in this age of information technology, access to information via computer systems is quickly achieving the status of a primary good. Brey argues, therefore, that it is morally imperative that both computer systems and their surrounding social structures should be arranged to facilitate equal access.(6)

Because universities receive federal funding, they are obligated by law not to discriminate against people with disabilities. “Reasonable accommodation” in computer training that occurs at the university, unfortunately, often is interpreted to mean assisted learning, not adaptive technology. I would argue that, at present, students who are physically challenged and those with learning disabilities are not being afforded an equal education if they are not given access to computers which meet their needs, namely, those that use the latest adaptive technology. Such technology, which permits equity of access, has helped to reassure people with disabilities that they can attempt a university education with minimal accommodation in most major courses of study. It can empower such students and improve their self-image and quality of life by preparing them to take their place in the work force in the age of information technology. As Norman Coombs, in his article “Liberation Technology,” asserts: “Today more and more of the disadvantaged are asking for empowerment so they can help themselves. They want freedom to compete with the rest of society on a more nearly even playing field.”(8) Given the growing importance of access to computer systems, there is a moral imperative for a society, and by extension a university, to ensure that all of its citizens are given the opportunity to have such access.(6) This paper addresses the problems that computer technology poses for students with disabilities and discusses what is needed to ensure equity of access, particularly in a university environment.

The Problems

Many parents of children with disabilities have been struggling with educational systems across the United States to obtain equitable educational services for their children. The problem is that in many states, children with disabilities either go to special schools or are segregated into “special education” classrooms. However, as Tamar Lewin indicates in her article “Disabled Students Gain Access to Regular Classes”:

Many educators and parents believe that segregating children with disabilities is bad, both educationally and morally. They say that such a policy undermines the development of both disabled children, by failing to give them a choice to develop the skills and relationships that they will need as adults, and other children, by preventing beneficial contact with the full range of people in their communities. (9)

Although education is academic, it is also social. Students without disabilities who are accustomed to the full inclusion of students with special needs in their classrooms tend to grow into more accepting adults. Yet full inclusion is far from the norm and is still debated by special education experts and parents. Lewin cites the case of one family who had to move the disabled child 230 miles from home, dividing the family, in order to find a school system that would not segregate the child into a separate classroom. (9) Whether included or segregated, disabled students are not guaranteed access to computer technology.

By the time a student has reached the end of high school and is looking for a university, there is a choice as to where to apply. Parents want the most independent and normal college experience possible for their children with disabilities. While most colleges have handicapped access to buildings and dormitories, there are few accommodations for students with disabilities that encourage an independent learning experience. For example, even when note-takers and readers are provided for those who have motor impairment, and students with learning disabilities have tutors who will help them with their reading and writing, this “assisted learning” environment does not foster independent learning. More and more of the university curriculum, however, involves the use of computer tools and courseware. Students use word processors for papers in all courses, spreadsheets for accounting and finance, mathematics and statistical packages, a computerized dissection program in biology, modeling programs in chemistry, and design tools in computer science, to name a few examples. In fact, the use of computer technology has become a de facto course requirement across the curriculum.

An Example: Sacred Heart University


I became interested in adaptive technology through contact with several students at Sacred Heart University (Fairfield, Connecticut, USA) who were physically challenged. One young woman had such severe arthritis that she could barely type at the traditional keyboard – in a class that was 50% “hands-on”! I also had two visually-impaired students, one who needed a personal assistant to type in his programs and write out his examinations, and another who could not perform the laboratory assignments because she could read neither the assignment nor the computer screen. I have also had students whose wheelchairs would not fit underneath traditional computer worktables. This was a very troubling situation. There were many obstacles to a “normal” university education for these students. What message were we sending? While certain accommodations were being made, they seemed inadequate in a university that advertised dormitories which were “fully wired” for computing.

Although adaptive technology tools existed, we, as a university, did not have them. Why not? The answer seemed obvious: we were designing our university education for able-bodied, non-learning-disabled students. Were we showing “user bias”? Brey defines user biases in computer systems as features of their design that work against the interests of some or all of their users. (6) I would like to extend this analogy to the design of university education. Selective user biases disadvantage only some users of a system, and our students with disabilities were clearly at a disadvantage in terms of computer access. They did not fit the profile of an “ideal” or “normal” user and were therefore excluded and selectively burdened by choices of the university. Until universities make adaptive technology available for their students with disabilities, they will be guilty of user bias.

Why, then, have many universities not made adaptive technology available? I believe that universities in general are not sensitive to the needs of their students with disabilities. In fact, many shy away from recruiting such students because of the extra financial burden it might place on the institution. For that reason, adaptive technology is not common on most university campuses across the country. It costs money to equip and maintain computer laboratories. Convincing a university to provide special technology for a small fraction of its population is not easy, although it may be the morally correct thing to do. One could, however, make the financial argument that, balanced against increased revenue from tuition, the cost of software and hardware to make computers useful to students with disabilities is minimal. And the number of students with disabilities who are studying or want to study at universities is increasing. At Sacred Heart, for example, with a population of approximately 1,800 full-time undergraduates, in two years the number of documented students with disabilities who need adaptive technology services more than doubled from 45 to 105; and many more students began to use the university learning center (ULC) on a regular basis. It is difficult to gather precise statistics on the number of students with disabilities, because it is against the law to seek out such students for identification purposes. They must identify themselves to university officials.

One Solution: An Adaptive Technology Laboratory

At Sacred Heart University, the solution to the problem of how to fully include people with disabilities in all aspects of campus life, including computer use, was to create an adaptive technology laboratory (ATL) equipped with specialized hardware and software tools to advance the computing skills of students with disabilities. The laboratory was networked with the campus-wide computing system, affording student access to all software used on campus. The software interfaced with the adaptive tools providing accessibility. The ATL was particularly important to students with disabilities who wanted to study computer science. It afforded them full access to computing resources. The lab was physically located within the ULC, where tutors could evaluate the needs of students and guide them toward the most appropriate adaptive tools.

Funding the adaptive technology laboratory was a challenge. For three years, I wrote to foundations, state granting agencies, and national education granting agencies. Most of these potential sources stated that it was the responsibility of the university, according to law, to accommodate its students with disabilities. Unfortunately, such accommodations normally did not extend to computer technology. Finally, the possibility of creating an adaptive technology laboratory materialized when the university agreed to match a grant that I wanted to submit to the National Science Foundation for instructional laboratory improvement. The grant proposal argued that computer technology is necessary for university students if they are to complete their major courses of study, because more and more of the courses are dependent upon computing tools. It reasoned that providing adaptive tools to students with disabilities would empower and prepare them to work with the latest technology when they graduated.

Although the grant application was successful, it provided only for equipment. There was no provision for training staff or students to use the adaptive tools once they were installed on the computers. With the support of an associate vice president of academic affairs, several ULC staff members, tutors, and faculty members were able to attend a four-hour workshop to learn what adaptive technology can do for students with disabilities. This core group then offered workshops to other faculty and staff at the university, both to demonstrate the tools and to train faculty to identify students and refer them to the ATL. In addition, a computer science senior, who was severely dyslexic, became very interested in adaptive tools and so became the technical support person in the laboratory. Finally, the university recognized the need to help the growing number of students with disabilities and created the position of director of students with special needs. Once the adaptive technology laboratory was created, a benefactor was impressed with the university’s commitment to its students with disabilities and provided substantial monetary support for the laboratory.

New Concerns


During the first two years of the ATL, several new concerns arose. Although an adaptive technology laboratory may be a partial solution to the question of how to effectively serve students with disabilities, more and more universities are demanding laptop computers for all incoming freshmen, and so the issue arises of adaptive technology for the laptops for incoming students with disabilities. Will the university buy site licenses to allow adaptive software to be loaded onto such machines? How will the problem of alternative input devices be resolved when laptop computers configured and supported by the university are mandated for all first-year students? Providing a laptop without adaptive software for students with learning disabilities, or without alternative input devices for students who are physically challenged, would be useless.

For example, a first-year student at Sacred Heart University who had significant learning disabilities rarely used his computer. He had a very difficult time with the keyboard and was distracted by the scrolling screen. Consequently, his papers were poorly written. He failed three of the five courses that required papers during his first semester. When he was evaluated in the ATL, it was observed that because of his lack of keyboard fluency, he used very small words and simple sentences, and he could not cut and paste easily. After experimenting with several software applications, he learned to use an abbreviation-expansion program that allowed him to retrieve words by typing in abbreviations. He was also introduced to word-prediction programs that allowed him to choose words by typing in a letter or a number. He spent many hours learning how these tools worked and how they could interface with his word processor. By the second semester, there were no longer technological barriers to writing papers, and he passed all of his courses.(10)

While this student could successfully complete his work at the ATL, he was still unable to use his laptop. He needed to have the appropriate adaptive software installed on his laptop for it to be useful to him. Barton states that

scholarship provides evidence in support of the leading ideas of the dominant discourse – namely, that the use of technology can expand pedagogy and expand literacy; it also buttresses the major ideas of the antidominant discourse – namely, that the use of technology can contribute to the maintenance of unequal relations of power and authority. (7)

We are currently working with the computer center staff to sensitize them to these issues.

Although the adaptive technology laboratory has been a tremendous resource for individual out-of-class assignments, it did not address the problem of in-class computing. Several of our classes, from English to computer science, are taught in a laboratory setting. Our university has six computer laboratories and several networked classrooms for general university use. Unfortunately, the present platforms are not equipped with adaptive devices, even though these labs have handicapped access. It is ironic that handicapped access means one can get a wheelchair through the door, but it does not mean that one can fit it underneath the worktable! As a result, students who are visually-impaired cannot read the screens for in-class work. There are no screen enlargers, nor is there voice output.

The first-year writing program at Sacred Heart University offers an instructive illustration of the resulting problems. Electron Networks for Interaction (ENFI) is a program developed at Gallaudet University to enable deaf students to interact in classroom discussions. Using ENFI, English composition is taught in a closed laboratory; and students use the computer to collaborate, brainstorm, and critique each other’s work. Although this works very well for our able-bodied students, it creates a technological challenge and frustration for those with certain impairments. One student with cerebral palsy, for example, could not easily respond to his classmates’ queries because his restricted hand movements made it impossible to type anything but short words in real time. Another student, with a severe visual impairment, could not read the screen and was therefore eliminated from any in-class exchanges. Both of these students paid for the course, were allowed to register for it, and were expected to do the work! Networks, which in theory democratize participation by creating a level of equality, were useless because the students in question had physical impediments to their access.

Ellen Barton affirms that the dominant discourse in technology – based upon an unquestioned assumption that technology benefits society – sometimes marginalizes the very people it strives to empower. The way technology is integrated into the classroom often follows “an institutional imperative, in which the making of meaning is subject to the existing lines of authority in a particular context.”(7) Had the needs of incoming students with disabilities been assessed before the semester began, the relevant laboratories could have been equipped with appropriate adaptive devices, thereby saving the students embarrassment and frustration from working with technology that was, for them, inappropriate.(10) Recently, students at Sacred Heart University who have used adaptive devices in the laboratory have begun to advocate, as their right to equal access in the classroom, that such tools be provided by the university in other computer settings.

Examples of Adaptive Technology


A variety of hardware and software tools can provide access to information technology for persons with disabilities. To date, these have generally been designed by vendors who specialize in adaptive devices. Currently, however, we are seeing some movement by large computer vendors toward creating products with accessibility for the disabled. Billie J. Wahlstrom, in her article “Communication and Technology: Defining a Feminist Presence in Research and Practice,” poses an interesting question:

Despite the success of such programs (adaptive technologies), we should ask why adaptive software that allows for a variety of learning styles and disabilities has to be added to our systems. Why is it not simply developed from the start? (11)

We are beginning to see some movement in that direction.

Adaptive Software

It is encouraging that many of the large computer manufacturers have recognized the need to address the issue of accessibility. Several have combined their efforts with manufacturers of adaptive devices to provide compatible interfaces. Microsoft, Apple, IBM, and Sun all have web sites, which offer resources for accessibility. (See Resources) The World Wide Web Consortium, an organization that sets technical standards for the World Wide Web, has just released preliminary guidelines designed to help keep people with disabilities from being shut out of cyberspace.(12)

Sun’s web page on technology and research contains an article by Bergman and Johnson titled “Designing for Accessibility.” (2) In this article the authors state:

not only is providing access the right thing to do, but it is also a requirement in all current federal contracts as required by section 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act. In the commercial sector, The Americans with Disabilities Act calls for similar considerations when reasonably accommodating current and prospective employees.

Information technology companies who want federal contracts need to have adaptive interfaces for their disabled employees. Therefore, it is beneficial for software developers to provide interfaces to adaptive devices so that companies who are awarded federal contracts will use their software.

Sun recognizes that disabilities cross all sectors of the population and that the computer is a great equalizer. Bergman and Johnson write: “Like all computer users, users with disabilities vary in age, computer experience, interests and education. When barriers are removed, the computer gives them a tool to compete with all other users on an equal basis.” (2) Professor Norman Coombs’s personal experience confirms that assertion. Coombs states:

When I began utilizing the computer to communicate with my students, I had no idea of its potential to change my life and my teaching. First, it began by liberating me, a blind teacher, from my dependence on other people… [and]… only when a deaf student joined the class did I come to realize its potential. This young deaf woman said that this was the first time in her life that she had conversed with one of her teachers without using an interpreter intermediary.(8)

Sun is building disability access into the Java platform. Support is forthcoming in four areas: Java accessibility API, Java accessibility utility classes, Java accessibility bridge to native code, and the pluggable look and feel of the Java foundation classes. (13) An exciting aspect of Sun’s effort is that

on a component-by-component basis, the presentation is programmatically determined, and can be chosen by the user. Instead of a visual presentation, a user could instead choose an audio presentation, or a tactile (e.g. Braille) presentation, or a combination of the two. This is one step toward equal accessibility for the blind, for example, who still have major problems because graphical user interfaces are not translated well by screen readers. With this support, a user wouldn’t need a separate Assistive Technology product interpreting the visual presentation of the program on the screen, but would instead have direct access to that program because it would interact with the user in his/her desired modality. (13)



Ergonomics concerns the relationship of person to machine. The prevalence of computing in the work environment has put anyone who uses a computer for more than two to four hours a day at risk for repetitive strain injury (RSI).(14) RSI is an umbrella term for cumulative trauma disorders produced by prolonged, repetitive, forceful, or awkward movements, particularly of the arm and hand.(14) Carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, and other ailments of the fingers, arms, shoulders, and back are examples of RSI, and they can severely limit computer access. RSI is easy to prevent if people are educated about the correct use and positioning of keyboard and mouse. Yet cases of RSI are increasing and it is estimated that disabilities caused by it will limit computer access for many people.

To accommodate those with carpal tunnel syndrome or various arthritic conditions, there are several adjustable keyboards, including the Goldtouch Adjustable Keyboard, which allows the user to adjust the keyboard to a more comfortable position. In addition, there are adjustable-height worktables that can accommodate wheelchairs, (see image on top) and there are a variety of chairs that have adjustable arms and backs for users who need extra support or have back problems.

Alternative Input Features and Devices


Physical disabilities can severely restrict the use of a mouse and limit keyboard access. As a result, many manufacturers have begun to build alternative input features into their products. For example, Sun Microsystems has built access features into the X Windows server. Server features, known as AccessX, provide basic workstation accessibility, and they are typically used by people with mobility impairments. These features include “sticky keys,” which allow single-finger operation; “repeat keys,” which delay the onset of repeating characters for users with poor coordination; “slow keys,” which require that a key be held down for a given period of time before it is accepted to prevent accidental key-press events; “mouse keys,” which provide keyboard control of all mouse events; “toggle keys,” which indicate the state of a locking key with a tone; and “bounce keys,” which require a delay between keystrokes before accepting the next key press to prevent accidental key presses by persons with tremors.

The Advanced Magic Wand Keyboard (see Figure 1) for PC computers is a miniature electronic keyboard for people with a limited range of motion. Users hold a stylus and point at letters on this special keyboard. Stingray is a small track ball with programmable acceleration, click-lock ability, and two large buttons. It works on a Mac. My-T-Mouse is a mouse-controlled on-screen keyboard for the PC. There are both Windows and DOS versions. Head Mouse and Tracker are head-pointing devices for alternative input. They allow the users to manipulate the keyboard with slight head movements. These work in conjunction with Magic Cursor, OnScreen Keyboard (see Figure 2), and Telepathic 2000* (word-prediction software), which together are known as Doors2. Programs that use eye movements to move the mouse are currently being developed. WiVik Onscreen Keyboard* is a movable on-screen keyboard for the PC which enables the user to enter text into Windows applications using any pointing devices, including mice, track balls, joysticks, touch screens, pens, and head-pointing devices. WREP* provides word-prediction and abbreviation-expansion powers.

For persons with disabilities who require voice input, two new products have appeared on the market: Via Voice, which provides voice input and voice output, and Naturally Speaking, which replaced Dragon Dictate for voice input. In both, the user can speak naturally rather than in discrete sounds.

Click It on the Mac provides easy access to menus, dialogue boxes, windows, and scroll bars without using a mouse. It also provides speech output of text and menus. Intellikeys is an input device and membrane keyboard that works on both the PC and the Mac (but utilizes different cables for each platform). It includes six overlays which enable the keyboard to be set up in different ways that accommodate the specific disability of the student – for example, keys arrayed in alphabetical order. This is especially good for students with physical dysfunction. In addition, computer conferencing can be used for students whose physical mobility is limited and for the hearing-impaired.

*Editor’s note: Some products listed on this page may no longer be available.

Adaptations for the Visually-Impaired

In order to read full text, users with visual disabilities should have a 17-to-21 inch monitor. In addition, adaptive devices are able to adjust font, size, and color, which otherwise can be barriers for users with visual impairments. Magic Deluxe is a screen enlarger program that works on the PC. It can magnify text two, four, six, eight, and twelve times and is adjustable. Students with visual disabilities can also be served by voice input devices (see previous section). In addition, the Spectrum Jr.* (see Figure 1) is a full-color video magnifier that allows the user to adjust the magnification and color of text or graphics that he or she is reading. It is a free-standing scanner. Reading Edge and the Bookwise Scanner by Xerox* allow books to be scanned onto tape and into the computer with voice output. Several voices and speeds can be chosen to accommodate the user. ZoomCaps Keyboard Labels (see Figure 2) are enlarged keyboard character labels that come in white on black and black on white. They help with the visibility of characters on the keyboard.

*Editor’s note: Some products listed on this page may no longer be available.

Devices for Students with Learning Disabilities

Students with cognitive processing difficulties or learning disabilities (LD) can be served by computer software that generates vocabulary and creates outlines. Such students are also greatly aided by online dictionary and reference software. Word-prediction software, which includes Aurora Prediction (see Figure 1) and Co-Writer, tries to identify the word that a student is searching for based on the student’s own past usage. It offers word suggestions that the student can access by number, thus limiting typing. This is particularly helpful for students with aphasia and traumatic brain injuries, as well as
those with coordination problems. Co-Writer also has voice output for students who have trouble reading the screen. It incorporates a keyboard emulator that creates a split screen: one half is the keyboard, which is accessed through a track ball, and the other half is the area for the student’s writing. There is a new product from Antrim, N. Ireland called Text Help®,* which does powerful word prediction as well as homophones. For example, it will say “they’re” and then clarify it as “they are.” An exciting dimension of this product is that it can grab text off the Internet and translate it into voice.

LD students often have a lot of trouble with the organization of ideas. Inspiration® for the Mac and PC is a graphical outlining tool that enables students to brainstorm, diagram, and write. Students can create diagrams, flow charts, and outlines and can switch easily between graphical and text formats. It allows them to add note reminders to their graphical charts which can be used later when writing their papers. Visual diagramming helps students clarify ideas by creating idea maps, cluster diagrams, concept maps, and mind maps. One keystroke then transforms this diagramming into an outline. This tool interfaces nicely with word processor programs. Day to Day Notepad on the Mac also is an outlining tool. Reference software, such as the American Heritage® Talking Dictionary™ 5.0* and Microsoft® Bookshelf®, can facilitate online reference for the user. Microsoft Bookshelf contains nine resources on one CD including a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, the Encarta® 2000 World Almanac, the Encarta® Desk Atlas, the Columbia Dictionary of Quotations, and the Encarta® Desk Encyclopedia.

*Editor’s note: Some products listed on this page may no longer be available.

Impact on Students

One of the most frustrating aspects of teaching disabled students is the difficulty of convincing them that adaptive technology is a key to an independent educational experience. Students who have become dependent upon human support services often find independence frightening.(8) For example, a wheelchair-bound student who had cerebral palsy relied upon his mother to type his papers for him. One semester, the faculty was considerate enough to give him examinations with yes/no questions that he could answer with a nod. When he was referred to the adaptive technology laboratory at his school, he did not want to go and had to be forced to go by his mother. The director set him up with an Intellikeys keyboard with sensitivity adjustment and large letters and coupled it with Co-Writer for word prediction and word processing. He then became so enthusiastic that he went to the ATL regularly of his own accord because he realized that he could function independently in his schoolwork.(15)

Another student with cerebral palsy had to be convinced by his professor that in his computer class, which was 50% hands-on, the student should perform the computer work by himself, using the available adaptive devices. The student thought that it would be just as meaningful for him to tell someone which key to push on the keyboard. He never believed that anyone would be interested in fostering his independent learning skills.

In another case, a female student with cerebral palsy had no ability to speak. She had a computer on her wheelchair, but could only be a passive student in class. She had no desire to use a voice synthesizer because the voices were all robotic or male. It was only when female voices were developed that she agreed to use voice output. This enabled her to actively participate in classroom discussions and created an interesting social dynamic for the rest of the class who waited while she typed in her thoughts, which were then translated by her computer as voice. She could also talk to her friends on the telephone, something most people take for granted.(15)

Another case involved a low-vision student of mine who was delighted that suddenly she could read all of her texts using Spectrum Jr. and that she could use screen enlargers to interface with her word processing programs. She became totally independent in schoolwork and could do unassisted research.

Two other students of mine, computer science majors with severe learning disabilities, used adaptive software to function independently with reading and writing assignments. They felt better about themselves and their ability to compete in the job market. One was employed to maintain the computer system in a prestigious establishment. The other began to teach courses at Sacred Heart University, continuing to use adaptive tools to organize her lectures and structure her courses.

Because adaptive technology is a relatively new field of research and development, the adaptive technology laboratory at Sacred Heart University affords computer science majors an opportunity to develop some research projects. In addition, the impact of the ATL has extended to other programs in the university. For example, it is used by the education department to train primary and secondary school teachers in the use of adaptive technology for their students with special needs, and it provides opportunities to graduates for in-service-related careers and an on-site laboratory for internships.



Accessibility is the key to equity, both at the university and in the workplace. It is our moral responsibility at the university to provide access to computer technology for people with disabilities. As Wahlstrom notes, “what we do with technology in our classroom resonates in the larger context.”(11) From an ethical point of view, the cases described above support the following arguments. For utilitarian ethics, given the fact that 19% of the population have significant disabilities,(16) providing them with adaptive technology, rather than denying it, would bring about more benefit for more people, allowing many more to be creative members of society. There would be a significant improvement in the productivity of the work force and the happiness of the community. From a deontological perspective, adaptive technology provides or restores to persons with disabilities their autonomy, their dignity, their self-respect. From a virtue-ethics perspective, adaptive technology enables people to flourish and reach their full potential as rational, responsible individuals. There is even an egoistic argument in favor of providing adaptive technology to persons with disabilities. Through disease, accident, or old age, every person is potentially someone with a serious disability. Out of self-interest, the egoist would therefore want society to provide adaptive technology to persons with disabilities.

In the age of information technology, a computer equipped with adaptive devices can be the equalizer that allows people with disabilities to participate in society and compete for jobs. However, such technology requires funding and policy changes. Norman Coombs warns that while the computer is seen as a democratizing force in society, it could benefit mainly the middle class. Unless there is a deliberate policy to the contrary, computing technology could leave the economic underclass further behind.(8) One long-term benefit that we can hope to realize from autonomous learning and empowerment for persons with disabilities is the creation of an assertive group of individuals who will lobby for more built-in adaptations in the development of computer hardware and software. It is a benefit to society to have people with disabilities actively employed and enjoying a quality of life heretofore unknown before the advent of computing.


The author would like to thank the National Science Foundation for grant number 955086, which facilitated the creation of an adaptive technology laboratory, and also thank Sacred Heart University for matching the funds. She would also like to thank Professor Barbara Heinisch, former director of the Center for Adaptive Technology at Southern Connecticut State University, for her help.



1. Stein, J. (ed) (1966) The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Random House, New York.

2. Bergman, E. & Johnson, E. (1997) Designing for Accessibility, available at: http://www.sun.com/access/developers/software.guides.html

3. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (sections 504, 508).

4. Lewin, T. (28 December 1997) Where all doors are open for disabled students. New York Times, 1, 20.

5. The Americans with Disabilities Act (1990).

6. Brey, P. (1997) The politics of computer systems and the ethics of design. Computer Ethics Philosophical Enquiry Proceedings, 8 – 19.

7. Barton, E.L. (1994) Interpreting the Discourse of Technology, in: Selfe, C. & Hilligoss, S. (eds) Literacy and Computers, Modern Language Association, New York, p. 72.

8. Coombs, N. (1990) Liberation Technology. Edu, 1 – 4.

9. Lewin, T. (28 December 1997) Family tests law on the meaning of inclusion. New York Times, 20.

10. Rinaldi, J. (director of the university learning center) (1997) Anecdotal cases.

11. Wahlstrom, B.J. (1994) Communication and Technology: Defining a Feminist Prospective, in: Selfe, C. & Hilligoss, S. (eds) Literacy and Computers, Modern Language Association, New York, pp. 171 – 185.

12. McCollum, K. (4 February 1998) Web-standards group releases draft rules to help the disabled explore cyberspace. Chronicle of Higher Education.

13. Sun Microsystems (1997) Java’s support for accessibility, available at http://www.sun.com/access/articles/java.access.support.html

14. Heintzelman, M. & Pfeffer, P. (1997) Machines, statues, and people: strategies for promoting RSI awareness in computing curricula. Sigcse Bulletin, 29:1, 296 – 299.

15. Heinisch, B. (former director of the Center for Adaptive Technology, Southern Connecticut State University) (1998) Anecdotal cases.

16. Disability Chartbook (1997), available at http://www.infouse.com/disabilitydata/home/

The Center for Adaptive Technology at SCSU

The Center for Adaptive Technology at Southern CT State University