Assistive Technology on College Campuses in Washington State


Post-secondary institutions are legally required to provide accommodations to students with disabilities. This article details the results of a survey conducted assessing the assistive technology available on college campuses in Washington State. Fifteen college responses were analyzed according to our methodology, and statistics were gathered to infer conclusions about the results. Several forms of assistive hardware and software are discussed. In addition, a model is presented for implementing website accessibility. Finally, a phased plan for post-secondary institutions to implement proactive accessibility concludes our results. In sum, the surveyed colleges generally approach accessibility reactively, putting the onus on students with disabilities to discover inaccessible material and request accommodations.

Keywords: assistive technology, post-secondary, college, university, disabled, disabilities, Americans with Disabilities Act, accessibility


In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau released a report which stated that there are about 56.7 million Americans who have a disability, making them the largest minority (Brault, 2012). The term disability may imply a broad range of physical, cognitive, emotional and mental conditions which limit one’s way of life; individuals with disabilities meet a broad range of technological barriers, often times more than one (Pub. L. 110-325, 1990). Many Americans with disabilities experience less career success than their non-disabled peers (Kulkarni, 2014). As post-secondary education becomes increasingly crucial for employability, it is becoming more common for Americans to pursue higher education. Within the population of those with disabilities who do pursue post secondary education, the attrition rate is high due to many barriers, including the accessibility of curriculum materials, electronic equipment and resources (Belch, Holley A, 2004). K-12 institutions are required to maintain different legal mandates than those that post-secondary institutions are held accountable for, making the academic and technological transition from secondary to post-secondary difficult and often ambiguous for many students with disabilities. This paper solely focuses on the current legal and technological state of AT services in higher education within Washington State.


The term assistive technology has been legally defined as having two seperate meanings. An assistive technology device is considered to be ”any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities” (Pub. L. 106-398, 2000). An assistive technology service is defined as ”any service that directly assists an individual with a disability in selection, acquisition or use of an assistive technology device” (Pub. L. 106-398, 2000).

The Rehabilitation Act, the Tech Act, the Individiuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) all contribute to the legal requirements to provide AT services to students with disabilities. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 ”prohibits the discrimination of people with disabilities under any government run/funded program, business, establishment, etc.” (Pub. L. 93-112, 1973). Section 504 also requires that these agencies make proper accommodations for those with disabilities. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act was added by Public Law 99-506 as an amendment which ensures individuals with disabilities access to computers and other electronic office equipment (Pub. L. 93-112, 1973).

The Tech Act (otherwise known as Public Law 100-407) was signed into law in 1988 for the purpose of guiding states to begin the development and implementation of systems which will provide a variety of technological assistance to all individuals with disabilities, as well as their parents and legal guardians. The main role of the Tech Act is to help provide financial assistance to states for identifying assessing accommodation needs and technological resources, providing assistive technology services and conducting public awareness programs. (Pub. L. 104-334, 1988)

IDEA was passed in 1975 which ensures that students with a disabilities are provided with Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) (Pub. L. 101-476, 1990). However, the IDEA holds only secondary institutions to a legal mandate as K-12 education is a legal right. Because higher education is an option, not a legal right, college institutions are not required to comply with IDEA (Pub. L. 101-476, 1990).

ADA, which was enacted in 1990, ”prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in the areas of accessibility, employment, public services, public accommodations, transportation and communication” (Pub. L. 101-336, 1990). This means all post-secondary institutions are legally required to provide all students with equal access to academic materials, facilities, or other tools necessary to graduate. It does not specifically define technological accommodations, however it provides legal basis for students to individually request accommodations from colleges.

In a 2005 unfunded mandate survey provided by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 38 U.S. cities provided the total reoccurring annual cost of upholding ADA, $24,445,506 (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2005). A reasonable and vital goal for the U.S. public is to urge government funding within legal mandates like ADA, which can often require cities and public institutions to undergo large renovations and projects, discouraging real progress when there is a funding deficit.

Initial Research

Preliminary Campus Visits

Three separate onsite interviews were conducted with the assistive technology program directors at The Evergreen State College, Pierce College, and University of Washington (Seattle campus) respectively, in the initial stages of project planning to gain a more complete understanding of the current state of assistive technology at college campuses in Washington. Interview questions were designed to examine standard services provided in dedicated and shared spaces, the process for receiving accommodation requests, any plans to implement new or additional assistive technology, accessibility of paper and online materials, and OCR complaints (if any).

The following is a brief description of the key observations that were collected:

  • The Evergreen State College, a public liberal arts college, has a designated Assistive Technology Lab that is separate from the general use computing center, equipped with computer stations that are loaded with Read & Write Gold, JAWS, Dragon NaturallySpeaking, Inspiration, ZoomText and LearningAlly. Physical assistive devices such as ergonomic keyboards, alternative mice, keyboards with large font and Dragon-certified headsets are also available to patrons of the lab (”Assistive Technology (AT) Lab”). A standalone AT Station, consisting of two machines loaded with the same software, is located on the general use computer center floor. The Evergreen AT Lab expressed concern over how crucial program materials such as syllabi are often not accessible to students, particularly ones who use screen readers, due to the fact that tools such as Style headings in Word (which allow screen-reader users to easily tab through section headings) are not used. The AT directors mentioned there were several resources, such as a braille printer, that they are currently unable to provide due to a combination of lack of adequate funding and the specialized staff that would be required to operate it.

  • Pierce College, a two-year institution, also has a designated AT lab. The lab machines are equipped with the following software: Dragon NaturallySpeaking, Inspiration, MathType, Open Book, JAWS, ZoomText, WYNN and Text Help. Ergonomically assistive devices such as Dvorak keyboards, Sip-and-puff technology, computer mice with trackballs and adjustable tables are also available to students. Pierce College also allows for certain types of equipment–ergonomic armrests, digital recorders, ergonomic chairs and tables–to be checked out to students for use outside of the Assistive Technology Lab’s operating hours. Pierce College expressed interest in moving towards free or open source software in an attempt to decrease operational costs and free up the budget for more resources. Like Evergreen, the program coordinator expressed great concern for the difficulties that arise when working as a liaison between the student requesting accommodations and faculty members, for the reason that faculty often see integrating accessibility into the curriculum as an afterthought instead of an integral step in the development of the curriculum. An additional obstacle that was highlighted was the lack of adequate funding for the consistent replacement of old or outdated equipment.

  • University of Washington (UW), a large public research university, operates a standalone Access Technology Center. In addition to having a standalone AT lab, UW is in association DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) a program that was designed to increase participation of students with disabilities within academia and the workforce by providing resources for students, educators, parents, and employers (”Disability Services Office”). The lab machines are loaded with the following software: Apple Universal Access, ClaroRead, Dragon NaturallySpeaking, FineReader, JAWS, NaturalReader, Read & Write Gold, Windows Magnifier, and ZoomText (”Accessible Software”). The AT Center reported that since the deployment of assistive software to the general computer labs on campus, there has been a significant decrease in AT Lab use. UW has a selection of ergonomic keyboard and mouse alternatives as well as adjustable tables and ergonomic chairs. The AT Center also provides embossing services for the creation of tactile graphics and braille. Due to the fact that the University of Washington is considerably a large institution, receiving funding for the AT Center was not an perceived issue by the directors of the program

Project Plan and Preliminary Findings

The initial objective for researching assistive technology in academia was to examine two areas of interest: the integration of accessibility principles into computer science curriculum among post-secondary institutions and the question of whether or not universal accessibility is achievable.

Preliminary research and interviews with directors of three assistive technology labs in Washington state lead to the conclusion that there is an abundance of assistive software and hardware that currently exist, with varying levels of user satisfaction. The primary challenge being faced by students with disabilities is not a lack of effective assistive technology, but rather a lack of integration of accessibility principles into post-secondary education as a whole. Legal ambiguity and lack of funding contribute heavily to this lack of support for students with disabilities. College officials rely heavily on students to report a need for an accommodation.

Furthermore, the development of technology over the past decades has resulted in an increased use of digital materials in the classroom, from entrance examinations, to course syllabi, to full length recorded lectures. The transition towards an increasingly web and technology driven curriculum presents a particular set of barriers to students with disabilities. A research study titled “Monitoring for Accessibility and University Websites: Meeting the Needs of People with Disabilities” published in the Journal of Postsecondary Education Disability found that in 2011 “only 51% of 509 web pages at a large public university in the northeastern United States” were evaluated to be accessible, with the most common errors listed as follows: “‘Form Label missing’, ‘Alt-tag’ missing, empty links, improper heading structure, and issues with the footer” (Solovieva, 113). Accessible website design is especially necessary for users with some form of visual impairment who rely on screen readers to navigate web pages.

Following preliminary research, the decision was made to narrow the scope of the project to specifically measure the quality of assistive technology on college campuses in Washington. It was decided that a survey would be developed to comprehensively assess the resources available and the procedure for receiving accommodation at each individual college, with the intent of eventually importing the data into a database that could be dynamically displayed on an accessible web page and made searchable for prospective students.