Campus Services to Enable Disabled Scientists in Canada


Disability centres can vastly facilitate an individual's efforts to overcome the great obstacles disabled scientists usually face when trying to follow their passion for science and research. In addition to workshops and counselling, such centres offer several technical aids. Services exist for students with sundry disabilities, such as learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, other mental health problems, chronic medical conditions, physical disabilities, and hearing and visual impairments. The following is an overview of what is happening on Canadian campuses.

University of Toronto

The Adaptive Technology Resource Centre ( ATRC) at the University of Toronto serves as an excellent example of an institute that develops and enhances the accessibility of information technology. Through research, education, design consultation and direct service, the ATRC aids students possessing various disabilities, most of whom are either visually impaired, mobility disabled, or learning disabled.

One of the ATRC's award-winning projects is the GNOME On-screen Keyboard ( GOK), an open-source software development project designed to create customizable, advanced alternative input solutions for the linux/unix environment. The aim of GOK is to enable users to control their computers without having to rely on a standard keyboard or mouse. Users with limited voluntary movements control their input through actions such as blowing and sipping to activate a pneumatic switch, blinking to activate an eye tracking system, head movement, limb movements, or muscle contractions.

David Bolter, GOK's chief of maintenance, explains, "GOK's intelligence comes from its awareness of its environment. By interrogating the GNOME accessibility service for information about what buttons an application has and subsequently displaying each button as a key on the keyboard, GOK is able to provide a more direct connection between the on-screen keyboard user and the task they are performing. Put another way, GOK makes users with disabilities more efficient by reducing the number of steps required to complete a task." He describes the technology as being "extremely flexible" and conveys that "GOK's inevitable success comes from the fact that it can be modified by anyone to add or improve features."

Queen's University

Committed to ensuring that information, resources, buildings, and services are maximally accessible and to facilitating the integration of disabled students into the university community, the centre for Health, Counselling, and Disability Services at Queen's University boasts a vast array of supports for students with disabilities. Such services range from career counselling to temporal considerations for exams and physical accommodations in classrooms and residence.

Queen's has a wide variety of technical aids and assistive devices available for use by students with disabilities in the university's Adaptive Technology Labs. Nonvisual technologies include Braille printers, voice input software, Braille output, screen-reading software and hardware, character enlarging software and hardware in addition to assistive listening systems. Services also exist for students with various other disabilities.

The Accessibility Task Force at Queen's strives to raise awareness and to facilitate understanding of disability issues, to help create a campus that is accessible to all disability groups, and to provide support to students with disabilities. Its funds are allocated to student bursaries, on-campus transportation, and various annual projects that enhance disability awareness at and access to Queen's University.

McMaster University

The methodology of the Centre for Student Development at McMaster University is very personable, as most of the services offered to disabled students involve one-on-one support from volunteers. "In terms of assisting science and engineering students, in addition to the standard assistance with tests and exams, we provide services in a variety of ways, ranging from career- and employment-related function to the peer-helper program," imparts Tim Nolan, the Centre for Student Development's Program Coordinator.

The peer-helper program is the nucleus of the services offered. Working together with disabled students, the peer-helpers aid the students by providing academic skill support, such as time management building, and physical assistance, for example through the peer transcription program. Print can be scanned and converted to electronic text for print-disabled students. In addition, support, counselling, and advocacy are complemented by academic and classroom accommodations as well as access to alternative media and technology, which include the use of assistive devices, auxiliary aids, computers, and specialized software, such as voice input.

University of Alberta

Specialized Support and Disability Services ( SSDS) at the University of Alberta promotes and coordinates efforts to meet students' special needs and provides support services. SSDS offers its users adaptive technology, equipment, training, and communication support services. "SSDS has recently implemented academic strategies classes for developing skills in learning, studying, and time management, as well as career counselling," tells Tracy Hetman, Coordinator of Communication Support Services.

SSDS provides users--200 of whom are enrolled in science and engineering--with access to specialized equipment and assistive devices. These include alternate format material preparation, such as e-text; large print; screen magnification devices; Braille devices and software; assistive listening devices; voice input and voice output software; note-taking devices; JOUSE, a joystick-operated mouse that is controlled by the mouth; and the concept mapping software Inspiration, a program whose integrated diagramming and outlining environments work together to help students comprehend concepts and information. The Disability and Ethics Initiative is working to bring disability courses, and potentially an entire disability centre, to the University of Alberta campus.

University of British Columbia

The Disability Resource Centre ( DRC) at the University of British Columbia "works with the University to eliminate structural and attitudinal barriers to those with disabilities," providing disability-related services to the students, staff, and faculty of UBC. The DRC also engages in research, teaching, and program initiatives related to disability.

In order to facilitate the academic success of its disabled students, the DRC works to provide equal access to University services, programs, and facilities, in an attempt to foster active participation within the University community. The DRC arranges mobility assistance, interpreting, and captioning in addition to providing specialized equipment. Other services for disabled students include note taking, peer tutoring, and exam accommodations.

Through its Crane Production Unit, the DRC produces materials in alternate formats. Access to and training on adaptive technological equipment for blind and visually- or print-impaired persons are provided by the Crane Resource Centre, which also houses a library and reference collection in Braille, audio book, large print, and electronic text for print-impaired users. Additionally, the Crane Resource Centre contains a modest collection of materials associated with post-secondary education and disability.

Able persons often forget that physical disabilities do not impose restrictions on one's mental capacity, an observation that is most commonly associated with Stephen Hawking. A physically disabled friend of mine explained, "We do what we have to do; sometimes, that means doing things differently. Technology has drastically changed my life." And as the ATRC's (University of Toronto) Web site conveys, "For people without disabilities, technology makes things convenient; for people with disabilities, it makes things possible."

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