Creating opportunities for students with disabilities
It’s a project that’s been brewing in one form or another for 10 years. Having the Assistive Technology Lab open its doors this year in February was a huge moment for the University of Manitoba’s accessibility community.
“I’m really excited about the lab for what it means to students,” says Student Accessibility Services Coordinator, Carolyn Christie.
Christie has been working behind the scenes to help open the Assistive Technology Lab and create a space for students who require speech to text or text to speech programs. Her smile is impossible not to notice. She’s excited at the opportunities the new lab creates for students.
“For students who don’t receive funding – because these programs are really expensive – they can come here and use them for free to do their course work and to advance in their programs,” says Christie. “That’s amazing,”
Christie’s excitement about the new lab, located on the third floor of University Centre, was mirrored by the brightness of the space itself. A full wall of windows allows natural light to stream into the room. The arrangement of the equipment, combined with the fact that most of it is easily reconfigured, adds to the airiness within the facility.
The space in the lab has been designed to keep a broad spectrum of students and their requirements in mind.
“We kept the furniture so that it could be moved around really easily so if there are students with different types of needs we can move things around. We can adjust the heights – we can make sure that everybody can find the space accessible. We left a lot of open space so that it’s easy for people to get around.”
The U of M’s assistive technologist Jeff Buhse oversees the lab. Study carrels with computers have been set up with different types of assistive technology on them too. Programs such as Dragon Naturally Speaking converts voice into text. It’s ideal for students who have limited use of their hands or have difficulty typing in other ways. Another program reads text to students and has the ability to highlight text, giving options for students if they’re unable to look or see a computer screen.
Out of 2,000 U of M students who have identified accessibility requirements, Christie estimates that between 100 and 200 students will use the new assistive technology lab, which officially opened on Feb. 4. Students in need are free to use the facility on a drop in basis or with an appointment. The lab is open every day from 8:30 to 5:00; however, arrangements can be made to use the facility outside of these times as well.
“If we have student staff working then we’ll have extended hours. We’re open during reading week, all through the summer, year round,” says Christie.
The lab was made possible from the Students First Project out of IST, which has been in development for a few years because of a lack of physical space. A number of funders came on board – including the University IT Advisory Committee, the Office of the Vice-President Administration, Student Affairs and the Campus Planning Office – which helped improve the facility for those who need it.
The facility also accommodates alternate format needs and houses resources for sign language interpreters. For example, some students require textbooks in alternate formats like e-text or braille.
“We have to send away to have those produced,” says Christie. “Anything for tests and exams that have to be in an alternate format, large print, e-text or braille – those we do in house. We also have on display some of the tactile images either we’ve done or the counterparts at the Government of Manitoba have done. For students who have difficulty with their vision then they’re able to see what the diagrams are in their textbook because they can feel the tactile image on the page.”