Finding Appropriate Support for
Students with Disabilities
Teaching students with disabilities is often not much different from teaching students without disabilities. Yet sometimes a student’s specific disability makes it especially challenging for him or her to take a particular subject. Fortunately, MIT has a number of resources to help faculty who find themselves confronted with such a situation. In this article we hope to acquaint faculty members with some of the resources that are available, and to describe the factors that generally go into making the most effective use of them.
A Case Study
To make the discussion more concrete, we will use a specific example as a case study: the experience of Srikanth Bolla, a blind student who took Terrascope Radio (SP.360) in the spring semester of his freshman year.
At first glance it might seem that Terrascope Radio would be an ideal class for a blind student. Much of the work involves highly analytical listening sessions, in which students are asked to identify the elements that go into creating effective audio stories. The subject’s central project involves gathering sound for, then writing and producing, an audio program on the year’s theme Terrascope topic.
All of these require skills that would seem to come naturally to someone who relies on his ears more than on his eyes. But audio-gathering equipment is generally menu-driven and not very accessible to blind users, and, more importantly, modern audio-editing software is based on visual analogies, in which editors use a mouse to manipulate sound clips on a computer screen. Thus it was not immediately clear how to make such a class accessible to a student who is blind.
The process began near the end of the fall semester, when Srikanth’s academic advisor, Professor Sam Bowring (EAPS), learned of Srikanth’s interest in the class and informed Dr. Ari Epstein, the class’s primary instructor. Epstein met with Srikanth, and then he, along with Debra Aczel and Ruth Weinrib from the Terrascope office, met with Kathleen Monagle (Student Disability Services [SDS]) and Mary Ziegler (Adaptive Technology Information Center [ATIC], part of Information Services and Technology), who were already working with Srikanth and the instructors of some of his fall-semester classes.
That meeting began with an in-depth discussion of the nature of the academic experience of Terrascope Radio, the standards students are expected to meet, and the kinds of work they are expected to carry out. Then Epstein created an inventory of the tools and materials used by students participating in the class, and ATIC staff reviewed those tools’ accessibility. They found that the standard sound-recording equipment had key functions that could be accessed only through a visual LCD display, and that the standard sound-editing software was known not to work with screen-reading software (software that produces audible versions of information displayed on a computer screen, in order to make the computer accessible to a user who is blind).
Then followed the key discussions, in which Terrascope, ATIC, and SDS staff developed a plan for what steps should be taken to make the class accessible. As often happens, the instructor and the disability/technology experts began the discussion with very different perspectives. Epstein felt that Srikanth would need specialized equipment and software, as well as semester-long access to an aide familiar with radio-production techniques. ATIC staff felt that specialized equipment and software were indeed called for, but that constant dependence on an assistant would be more harmful than helpful to Srikanth’s experience. They stressed that the goal is to put the student on an equal but not advantageous footing with respect to other students. Both parties agreed that Epstein and the undergraduate teaching fellows who assist in the class would need instruction and practice on standard screen-reading software and whatever special equipment and software Srikanth was to use. ATIC staff evaluated the hardware/software alternatives suggested by Epstein, and together the group settled on what to purchase for Srikanth’s use. But all participants were unsure how to help Srikanth develop the skills necessary to use the specialized equipment, particularly if he did not have access to regular outside assistance.
One breakthrough came when Epstein located Jean Parker, an experienced radio producer who is also blind and who lives in Pune, India, a relatively short plane ride from Srikanth’s home town of Hyderabad. He proposed that Parker be engaged to give Srikanth specialized instruction during IAP, when Srikanth already planned to be at home. Monagle and Ziegler wanted to be sure that any instruction supported by their offices would meet clear MIT standards. The solution was for Epstein to design a special IAP-long independent-study class for Srikanth, with specific assignments, deadlines and expectations. Parker would be engaged to assist Srikanth during the first few days of the class, during which she and Epstein would be in close communication via Skype and e-mail. Srikanth would e-mail his daily assignments back to MIT, and Epstein would evaluate them quickly and send them back to India. After the first few days of intensive tutorial Srikanth would return to his home; he would complete the rest of his IAP assignments on his own, with regular Skype and e-mail check-ins and evaluation. Also during IAP, Epstein and the undergraduate teaching fellows, with assistance from ATIC staff, would learn how to use screen-reading software and familiarize themselves with the audio hardware and software Srikanth would be using.
The program was a success. Srikanth began the class with a small head start on his fellow students, most of whom had little or no audio experience. That head start vanished in the first week or two, as the other students learned the basics of the class’s standard equipment and software, and through the rest of the semester Srikanth was an ordinary participant in the class, making strong contributions to in-class discussions and exercises.
He also was able to be a full participant in the Massiah Foundation-Terrascope Field Experience, a trip to Abu Dhabi over spring break during which he and other Terrascope Radio students gathered sound, found and interviewed potential subjects and strategized about their work. After the group’s return, Srikanth participated fully in producing the class’s final project. (The project, “The Heated Future: A Timely Tale” can be found at <http://web.mit.edu/terrascope/www/radio_archive.html>. It was broadcast on WMBR and has recently been licensed for rebroadcast on KUT, the NPR station serving Austin, Texas.)
A number of key factors contributed to the success of this collaboration:
- Early intervention. Instructional staff and disability/technology staff met well before the class began in order to begin mapping out alternatives.
- Full sharing of perspectives. Disability staff need to have a complete picture of the desired student experience in order to be of best assistance, and instructional staff must become aware of MIT’s general goals for students with disabilities. In this case, for example, instructional staff originally wanted a very high level of support for Srikanth, while disability/technology staff felt it was important that the level of support not be too high, so that Srikanth could have the same educational experience as his fellow students. The more the faculty member can tell ATIC/ODSS about the nature of the class and the way in which it is taught, the easier it is to create and implement reasonable accommodations.
- Full assessment of needs and goals. ATIC staff tested class equipment and software, enabling disability/technology staff and instructional staff to develop recommendations for alternatives (and in some cases for alternative classroom procedures).
- Assistance and training. In some cases, as in this one, instructional staff will need training in appropriate hardware and software.
- Adapatability. Because of the flexibility of his appointment in the Terrascope program, Epstein was able to take on the effort involved in this particular approach to preparing for Srikanth’s full participation in Terrascope Radio. Each faculty member’s circumstances are different, and so each will need to assess his or her own role in meeting MIT’s obligation to accommodate students with disabilities. One of the key functions of ATIC and SDS is to help each faculty member find the solution that works best for his or her specific situation and subject, while simultaneously meeting the student’s needs and MIT’s obligations.
- Ongoing discussion as new issues arise.
Once accessible products and materials are selected or created and a plan is in place to make use of them, faculty and student can concentrate on academics. Disabilities Services and ATIC are experts on the accommodation needs of students with disabilities and on techniques for meeting those needs, and faculty are experts on the academic goals and standards of their classes. The ultimate goal is the same as for any student at MIT: independence, problem-solving ability, and the skills to conceive and complete complex projects, both alone and with a team.