As I write this, I am in Seattle, Washington for the first time! Actually, this is my first time on the west coast (and my first time further west than New Orleans, Louisiana)!
I got up at 4:30am EST yesterday morning to get ready and get to the airport for my 6:30am EST flight from Raleigh to Boston. After a two hour layover, I boarded my flight from Boston to Seattle, which was about seven hours long! Once I landed, I had to take almost one and a half hours’ worth of public transportation to get to my hotel. Needless to say, I was exhausted after that. After getting dinner with a colleague from NC State and realizing that I had been awake for nearly 21 hours, I just completely passed out!
This morning, I woke up at 7:00am PST and slowly made my way down to breakfast. Let me tell you, Residence Inn knows how to have a complimentary breakfast! They even have a waffle maker that makes FOUR MINIATURE WAFFLES at a time. We live in a beautiful age, guys.
At 8:30am PST, I checked in to the Ed-ICT International Network Symposium. For background, the Ed-ICT symposium is focused on how information and communication technologies (ICT) can create or remove barriers and decrease disadvantages for individuals with disabilities in post-secondary education and employment, in relation to social, emotional, and educational outcomes. This symposium, hosted in Seattle, Washington, is the first of five symposiums set to be held in the next three years. The next four will be hosted in each of the following countries: Canada, Israel, the United Kingdom, and Germany. Speaking solely for the Seattle symposium, there are researchers, professors, students, and other individuals representing the United States and each of the four aforementioned countries to provide more international views on strengths and weaknesses of different models and frameworks and to work towards unifying the accessibility and inclusion process.
I have broken this post into different sections because it ended up being just a giant wall of text, which was a intimidating and vaguely difficult to read! I hope you enjoy!
Jane Seale Presentation
After the introductory icebreaker activities, Jane Seale, a professor at The Open University in the United Kingdom and the leader of the Ed-ICT International Network, gave a presentation of her paper to introduce readers to the Ed-ICT International Network and its funding body, the Leverhulme Trust, and to critically evaluate the value and efficacy of existing models and frameworks. Her presentation went over these models and frameworks as tools for practitioners to develop resources and practices that focus on accessibility and inclusivity. The differences between these existing tools are that they have different levels of focus, processes of development and implementation, levels of validity and efficacy, and outcomes, both in gravity and scope of effect. While Ms. Seale’s paper is still in the draft stage and, therefore, cannot be shared in great detail, those were the overarching themes and description baseis. I believe that this paper will be very helpful in shifting the focus of institutions from implementing models and frameworks that they believe will work effectively to implementing those that will actually work effectively. However, that did bring about a large range of new questions in my mind.
⇾ Who decides which outcomes are desirable? Policymakers, institutions, professors, students, accountants… Each of these people may have different outcomes that are desirable. So, which opinion is the deciding factor? Is there a middle ground between all of the opinions?
⇾ How do the decision makers’ unconscious biases play into their opinions and practices? To what degree do preconceived notions affect how practitioners treat individuals with disabilities and accessibility practices?
⇾ How much weight do funding constraints put into implementation decisions and practices?
⇾ Do more practitioners focus on the bare minimum of compliance standards, or on what individuals really need? How many corners are cut in practices?
International Panel Presentation
After a short break, the next order of business was an international panel presentation. The panelists were: Tali Heimann of Israel, Alice Havel of Canada, Chetz Colwell of the United Kingdom, Dan Comden of the United States, and Christian Bühler of Germany. Each panelist gave a short presentation about where their respective country and institution is at in terms of accessibility and disability treatment. This was extremely informative because each panelist gave an overview of their models and frameworks, including their strengths and their weaknesses. By having this information presented from country, new discussions began on how practices could be shared between countries to promote greater accessibility and success overall. It was interesting to hear about how different countries decide on which models and frameworks to use, how legislation plays a roll in that, and how they measure success and performance, as well as the brutal truth from panelists’ personal experiences and thoughts. It gave me a lot of food for thought, right before lunch when I got food for my stomach!
Sheryl Burgstahler Presentation
Sheryl Burgstahler, the Director of Accessible Technology Services at the University of Washington, then gave a presentation about how design framework and models have informed her work. In essence, she went over definitions of terms, including accommodations and universal design, values and goals of models and frameworks, ability as a continuum related to diversity inclusion, the differences between K-12 and post-secondary education, and universal design as used at the University of Washington. The most common ICT accommodations at the University of Washington are creating accessible documents and captioning videos, according to Ms. Burgstahler. Two important principles of implementing universal design into ICT are that it builds in accessibility features and is compatible with assistive technology (AT). A few exemplary practices that she cited were: promote accessibility within context of universal design, social justice, civil rights, and inclusive campus culture; develop IT accessibility policy, guidelines, checklist, and procedures; create a campus-wide IT Accessibility Task Force with IT Accessibility Liaisons; and undertake projects that are reactive and proactive, and from the top-down and the bottom-up. There are ways to support the efficacy of universal design, such as offering training, supporting user groups, proactively test websites and PDFs, and offer incentives, including free video captioning, free PDF remediation, and Lynda courses. Ms. Burgstahler ended her presentation with some comments that students have made in regards to accessibility on their campuses. The examples that spoke to me the most were: “Often AT does not integrate well with mainstream ICT because they aren’t made with each other in mind;” and “Accessibility should be an important component for all ICT, not tacked on at the end as an afterthought or a “feature.”” I think that these comments are very insightful and important to take into account when creating and implementing accessibility practices because assistive technology, which specifically includes assistive, adaptive, and rehabilitative devices for individuals with disabilities, and other forms of information and communication technology seem like they would go very obviously hand-in-hand, but they are created as separate entities. This separation then contributes to issues in which the technologies do not marry well and a gap forms where individuals are lost in the middle. For example, having PDFs online is important for students to be able to access course material in a way that works well for them, but may not be remediated in a way that allows the PDFs to be accessible for all individuals. While those PDFs can undergo remediation in a separate office, there is still a disconnect between that office and the original source. That plays into the second comment that I identified because the new, accessibly PDF is created at the last minute on an individual basis, rather than having that PDF be distributed by original source, rendering it more as an “added feature,” in my mind.
The first day ended with round-table discussions and a plenary to share said discussions. The aim of these discussions was to discuss which models, frameworks, or approaches individuals use in their own practice, how they use them, and the factors that influence the value and utility of these practices. My group sort of followed the prompt, but really just began to discuss what we do at our individual institutions and how effective our actions are. A common theme that I heard was that my group seemed very confused on what defined a model or framework. Due to this, we really focused on approaches. We discussed how funding and time constraints play a role in how disabilities are addressed, given that there is honestly never enough money or time to do everything that we really want to do. Technology is making great leaps and bounds, but we just do not have the time or money to become well versed in every piece of software and provide the software or its instructions to all students. Meanwhile, we all agreed that models, frameworks, and approaches need a great deal of work to get to an ideal place, and that we need to train instructors on how to implement these practices in their courses effectively. The number one thing about this discussion that really surprised me was finding out that some universities in Quebec have what they call “ambassadors,” who advocate on students’ behalves and educate instructors about various disabilities. When I was listening to this, it really hit home for me because it sounds a lot like what I do in the Allies for Students with Disabilities at NC State. I guess I just never really thought about other universities having similar organizations. Maybe we could get an international network for student advocacy organizations going?
Overall, I believe that the first day of the Ed-ICT Symposium was incredible and eye-opening. As an undergraduate student, I was very intimidated at first to be in a room of professionals from all over the world, who actually work in this field and know what they are doing. However, I was met with a lot of warmth and appreciation for my contributions. As a student, my comments and questions added to the discussions because I had personal experience on the opposite side of the field from these professionals. When I was asked about my role (also read as: why are you here?), I was hesitant to reveal that I am an undergraduate student because I was afraid that I would not be taken seriously, due to the all-too-familiar ageism. Revealing that I am the president of the Allies for Students with Disabilities, though, led to an even greater depth of discussion because I work directly with students and with the university, so I can see students’ actual needs and how the university either meets or fails to meet these needs. In the end, I felt very welcome at the symposium and I am very appreciative to the Ed-ICT International Network, the Leverhulme Trust, and the NC State University Allies for Students with Disabilities for providing the funding to allow me to attend this amazing event!
I am already ready for the second day (although, not for my red-eye flights which have me leaving at 11:05pm PST and getting back to Raleigh at 9:05am EST…)! Be on the lookout for another, incredibly long post about the remainder of the symposium tomorrow! If you have made it to the end of this, good job and thank you for reading!