If you’ve ever watched TV in a noisy bar and appreciated the closed captioning, you were benefiting from a technology developed to help people with disabilities.
That is exactly what will happen if more technology to aid people with disabilities appears in the classroom, argued a local member of a presidential committee making recommendations about how to help students with intellectual disabilities.
“The type of technology we’re talking about would benefit all students and all teachers. It might be driven by accessibility but it benefits all people, just like curb cuts (for wheelchairs) now benefit moms and dads walking with their strollers,” said Dan Habib, a filmmaker for the UNH Institute on Disability and a member of the President’s Committee on People with Intellectual Disabilities.
As an example, he pointed to software that automatically translates some websites into simpler language. Although it is targeted to students with learning disabilities, text-simplifying software can be useful for many people. This includes those for whom English is a second language, as well as newcomers to a topic who might be turned off by such complex language.
Similarly, the standard use of hyperlinks, embedded videos, text-to-speech and other nontraditional instruction tools can be helpful to many people, especially if it’s designed into a curriculum from the start, rather than being something teachers have to tack on at the end.
“The textbook is a very old technology that is not available to a wide variety of learners. It needs to be updated,” said Habib. Done properly, “it’s easier to use for all students and teachers than technology and curriculum not designed to be accessible.”
Habib, a Concord resident who was the Monitor’s photo editor for many years, made his arguments Tuesday during a quarterly meeting of the National Council on Disability, held at the Capitol Center for the Arts.
Habib was one of 18 citizen members of the committee that submitted a report last week to President Obama outlining a host of recommendations on how technology can help the intellectually disabled throughout their lives. He chaired the education subcommittee and Tuesday’s discussion concerned the report, titled “Leveling the Playing Field: Improving Technology Access and Design for People with Intellectual Disabilities.” It can be read online at acl.gov/Programs/AIDD/Programs/PCPID/docs/PCPID-2015-Report-to-President.pdf
“The focus is to make the everyday world more accessible,” Habib said.
Habib was nominated to the panel because of his work with his youngest son Samuel, 15, a Concord High School sophomore who has cerebral palsy. “He’s been the inspiration for everything I’ve done,” said Habib, who created a documentary titled Including Samuel about efforts by his family and four others to overcome cultural and physical barriers.
Some of those barriers are legal, as Concord resident Penny Duffy told the council Tuesday. Her daughter Abigail, a sixth-grader at Rundlett Middle School, is visually impaired, and Duffy praised the many technologies that help her in class, such as the ability to type in braille into a tablet and print out assignments for the teacher.
But then she talked about a reading program from two years ago, in which students had new iPads to access the material.
“Everybody was excited with new iPads, but she couldn’t access it – read it with Braille – because (the publisher) had decided we want to keep copyright so we won’t make it readable by screen readers,” she noted.
“Leveling the Playing Field” points to a number of non-technical changes that could help technology in the classroom, from tax credits for companies that develop cognitively-accessible technologies, to changes in copyright law that would allow those with cognitive disabilities to have free access to electronic books, which is currently the case for people who are visually impaired.
Other technologies discussed by the National Council on Disability in Concord include autonomous cars, which hold great promise for giving mobility to the visually impaired but faces a host of questions, including how someone can get a driver’s licenses that would allow them to operate such vehicles.
Reference was also made to the Inclusive Design Research Centre, which establishes standards for software and computer products for the disabled that are open source, so that anybody can use them or improve them without concern about licensing and fees.
As for Habib, he has seen what technology does for his son.
“My dream is to see Samuel wear a baseball cap that was reading his thoughts and typing them out on a computer screen,” he said.
(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, email@example.com, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)