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It's no page-turner, but . . .
Assistive Technology Center gets high marks from students with disabilities

| 14 November 2007

For her first two-and-a-half semesters at Berkeley, Ayetzi Nez slogged through her reading assignments the old-fashioned way, painstakingly studying page after page. "It was very difficult," recalls Nez, a soft-spoken senior, majoring in Spanish linguistics, who suffers from a disability that makes reading extremely challenging.

Nez, a transfer student from the College of Alameda, felt overwhelmed when she first arrived at Berkeley, but then a fellow student in the Disabled Students' Program (DSP) remarked to her, "I never see you in the Cave." It was a passing statement that Nez took to heart.


Ayetzi Nez found light inside the "Cave." (Wendy Edelstein photo)
 

The Cave is not some secret hideout - it's the nickname for DSP's Assistive Technology Center (ATC), which is located in the classroom section of Moffitt Library. Within its windowless, unassuming space, students who are blind, visually impaired, physically limited, or learning-disabled are matched with the software and hardware they need to make their careers at Berkeley less fraught and more successful.

Nez ventured into the Cave and was introduced to Kurzweil 3000, a sophisticated software program designed to help English-language learners or students with learning difficulties such as dyslexia or attention-deficit disorder.

Instead of struggling through her reading assignments, Nez now follows along as a synthesized voice reads every word on each page. Using the software "helps me get the information quicker and stay on track," she says. "I don't have to go back and re-read the assignment five times like I used to" before using the program.

The reading-and-writing software is customizable: Nez selects the reader whose voice she wishes to hear, chooses the speed at which the text is read, and adjusts the pages' magnification. She can highlight terms in one color, their definitions in another hue, and export the information to create a study guide. "It's time-efficient," says Nez, who says that, unassisted, she "can get things done - it just takes a little bit longer. One thing all of us who are in DSP need is time. It takes us double time or more what it takes somebody else. But we get it done."

Before DSP students get paired with a specific technology, Lucy Greco, the center's access-technology specialist, conducts an assessment. "I try to go through what works [for them] and what hasn't worked in the past, and then I try to match the technology to what their needs are," explains Greco. Part of her job is figuring out a particular student's biggest challenge: "Is it understanding what you're reading? Is it the speed of your reading? Is it focusing on your reading?"

Greco also secures a disabled-student grant to help students purchase the program for home use. Assistive Technology's software programs range in price from $400 (for a pared-down, learning-station version of Kurzweil) to the high-end $1,500 model that enables users to scan their own books. "We're not going to provide them with the tool and then take it away when they graduate," says Greco.

The conversion process

How do Nez' assignments migrate from her textbooks to her computer screen? That's where Alternative Media Service, an ATC program, comes in. Alternative Media converts reading materials into an electronic form to make them accessible for students with learning disabilities or physical or cognitive impairments.

At Berkeley, DSP students receive priority enrollment through early appointment times on Tele-Bears. That small time-buffer enables them to complete a number of steps, including contacting course instructors or departments to obtain reading lists and checking whether the instructional materials they need are available in an alternative format from Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic or the National Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

If a book isn't available in an alternative format, the student must then purchase it and deliver it to ATC, along with its receipt and a request to put it into an alternative-media format. At that point in the process, Martha Velasquez, Alternative Media Service's coordinator, checks a national database of college campuses to ascertain whether a book has been converted elsewhere.

Velasquez contacts the publishers of books that are unavailable electronically for permission to convert them in-house. Even though California AB 422, signed into law in 1999, requires publishers of instructional materials to provide the state's higher-education institutions with unencrypted electronic versions at no cost for students with disabilities, Velasquez has experienced delays in securing needed permissions. "It's a big stall for us," she says.

Once permission to convert a book is secured, Velasquez cuts its spine and feeds the pages into a high-speed scanner. (The book is later rebound and returned to the student.) She then divides the scanned book - now one large, unwieldy document - into separate files by chapter, and puts it into the format the student needs.

On average, it takes two and a half weeks to convert a textbook, and three weeks to convert a class reader. (The latter often aren't scanned very well or are blurred, notes Velasquez, with the text sometimes so degraded that it has to be retyped.) In spite of logistical hurdles, Alternative Media has increased its output from 200 books and readers last semester to 350 this fall. Fifty students currently are using the service.

Greco is proud that Alternative Media Service continues to grow. "Being able to use a program like Kurzweil seems to reduce anxiety in students immensely," she says. "Students who have anxiety disorders or bipolar disorders have been proven to function a lot better by using this type of assistive technology."

For Nez, the proof is on her report card: Since she began using the Kurzweil program, she's been getting straight A's (formerly, she earned a mix of A's and B's). Nez appreciates another benefit of reading her assignments with Kurzweil: "I can have somewhat of a life outside of school now."

For information, visit dsp.berkeley.edu.