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Adaptive Technology Helps Disabled Students Succeed - 2003-05-19

The computer revolution has made life easier for many. But for people with disabilities, computers are more than just a convenience - they're something of a miracle. A growing number of universities are providing "adaptive" or "assistive" technology to help their disabled students and staff with their studies and their careers.

Adam Schwartz takes us to the Adaptive Technology Center on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.

Tucked into a quiet corner on the first floor of Indiana University Main Library, a young man sits at a computer terminal. He's typing, but looking away from the computer screen, which is as dark as his sunglasses. Next to him, a young woman is hunched over her keyboard, a metal cane at her feet. She's not looking at her screen either, which displays rows of Braille lettering as black dots on a white background. Both are blind. At Indiana University's Adaptive Technology Center, disabilities such as blindness, low vision and limited mobility don't matter as much as they do in the outside world. Here, they are overcome through computer technology.

"Through adaptive technology we're able to change lives, one life at a time, through one accommodation at a time," said Margaret Londergan, who created the ATC in 1999 after realizing that many students with disabilities were not aware of the new hardware and software that was available for them. She envisioned a resource center at the University that would give students access to the tools they needed to achieve academic success.

"I chose to go into this line of work because I believe in the potential of every individual, and by providing adaptive technology, we maximize the opportunity for individuals to reach their potential," she said.

Adaptive technology refers to computer hardware and software that has been developed specially for use by people with disabilities. The Center has a variety of software applications with odd names like Jaws, Zoomtext, and Dragon Naturally Speaking. It also has some unusual hardware, like a keyboard that requires just the slightest touch of the fingertips, and a computer mouse that's operated with a foot rather than a hand. Since the Center opened, 2,000 students have taken advantage of high-tech tools like these.

Delia Thompson works inside a soundproof booth at the Adaptive Technology Center. She's printing out a textbook in Braille for a blind student from Korea who's in an intensive English program. The printer turns out a sheet of stiff, white paper embossed with rows of raised dots.

Printed materials for the blind have been available since the mid-1800s, when Louis Braille developed an alphabet of raised dots that could be read with the fingertips. But creating pages of Braille text has always been a laborious process, and as a result, books in Braille have been few and expensive. But with computer technology, that's all changed. Now any manuscript can be quickly and inexpensively turned into a Braille book.

Ms. Thompson, who has been blind since birth, works here full-time, converting written text into Braille books. She says she prefers to do things for herself rather than rely on others.

"I'm a very strong advocate for independence," she said.

Computers have made that self-sufficiency possible. Once, when a blind person wanted to get some reading done, he or she would have had to depend on a sighted assistant to read out loud. But now, using adaptive technology, Ms. Thompson can read on her own.

"I wouldn't have gone through college if adaptive technology didn't exist," she said. "[If it weren't for] computers, then I think blind people would be totally lost."

She can answer her e-mail, use the Internet, and create documents with a word processing program. She reads the text on a device called a Braille display, which is roughly the size and shape of an ordinary computer keyboard. But instead of keys, a row of hundreds of little metal pins runs across the length of the display. The pins pop up to form Braille letters, which Ms. Thompson reads like she would Braille dots printed on paper, with her fingertips, moving swiftly from left to right. When she reaches the end of a line, she presses a button on the display. The pins drop and then immediately pop up again in a new arrangement, with the next line of text.

Moira Roberts, 29, is a graduate student in Indiana University's School for Public and Environmental Affairs, and one of the IU students who use the Adaptive Technology Center. She has dyslexia, a learning disorder that makes it very hard for her to read.

"I have problems comprehending what I'm reading. I read extremely slowly," she said. "I can read, it's not that I can't. But not on a graduate level. I read at an eighth grade level."

Ms. Roberts was accustomed to getting top grades in undergraduate school. But when she entered the master's program, she could no longer get around her dyslexia.

"When you get to the graduate level, you're doing so much reading, it was just too much for me, and although those little tricks of the trade that you always use to get yourself over, no longer work, when you get to a certain level," she said.

Dyslexia made graduate school so hard for her that she considered dropping out. That's when she learned about the Adaptive Technology Center and a screen-reading program called Kurzweil 3000. The Kurzweil allows her to read faster with better comprehension.

It all begins with a razor blade. The first step in preparing a book to be read in the Kurzweil 3000 is to cut Ms. Roberts' textbook apart. The pages must be removed so they can be fed into a scanning machine.

Technician Tomas Gregg feeds the loose pages into the high-speed machine, which converts the written words into digitized text. Then, the text is recorded onto a compact disc.

"Let's see. Here's your books, and here's your CD of your books digitized," he said.

At her computer, Moira Roberts puts the CD into the drive. The text of her book appears on her monitor and a synthesized voice begins to read.

On screen, the text is highlighted in color. The current sentence is in yellow and the word that's being read is in bright green. This way, Ms. Roberts can see and hear the words at the same time, making it easier for her to understand what she's reading. The software allows her to set the reading speed and choose from different synthesized voices.

Ms. Roberts no longer thinks about dropping out of graduate school. With the help of the Kurzweil, she's nearly completed her masters program. Since the Adaptive Technology Center opened, it has become a model for similar enterprises around the United States. In the years ahead, adaptive technology is expected to become even more sophisticated, giving people with disabilities even more opportunities to follow their dreams.

Note: The names of the students in this story have been changed at the request of the Adaptive Technology Center .