In 2002 Blue Ridge Community College, in Flat Rock, North Carolina received funding for a two-year initiative to improve access to information technology in community colleges. The project used student feedback to identify barriers; assess and upgrade existing information technology on campus; and implement faculty-wide trainings on overcoming barriers to information technology experienced by students with disabilities.

The first step in the project was to form an eight-member Student Advisory Board. Each of the eight members of the Advisory Board was given a grant equal to the tuition, activity fee, technical fee, and insurance fee of a 4-hour course ($147.25 in 2002) for each semester of participation. To conform to Business Office requirements, the students' time was designated as contracted services.

At the time of the project (Fall 2002), 126 (out of an enrollment of 1,988) students were identified as having disabilities: 51.6% had learning disabilities; 26.6% had visual disabilities; 22.7% had an orthopedic disability; 18.9% were deaf or hard of hearing; 15.1% had a psychiatric disability; 6.3% had a speech disability; and 17.6% had other disabilities. The makeup of the Student Advisory Board reflected the diversity of disabilities represented in the student body: two members had learning disabilities, while each of the other six members had a different disability type.

The Student Advisory Board conducted a campus-wide survey to identify barriers students with disabilities faced when attempting to access information technology at the institution. Survey results revealed that the most common physical and technical barriers were: difficulty with assistive technology (such as using JAWS® with Blackboard®) on campus; difficulty using wheelchairs at computer stations due to cramped computer labs and cords; and difficulties in accessing websites and online classes. The number one barrier cited by the students, however, was the lack of faculty knowledge about providing equal access to students with disabilities.

The college's response to the findings of the Student Advisory Board's survey was two-fold. First, the North Carolina Assistive Technology Project (NCATP) was asked to do a technology and physical access survey of the Blue Ridge Community College main campus in Flat Rock and its Transylvania Center in Brevard. Eleven student computer labs, one media center and the student library were evaluated on the main campus. One Learning Center (GED) classroom, the library, two computer lab classrooms, and one distance-learning classroom were assessed at the Brevard campus.

Although both surveys found much of the information technology and the campus facilities accessible, some access barriers remained. In response to the NCATP surveys, new accessible workstations were installed in the library at Flat Rock; the main website was redesigned with accessibility in the forefront; computer labs were redesigned to provide more space for persons using wheelchairs; and all new copiers have accessible controls.

The college's second response to overcoming barriers identified by the Student Advisory Board was to develop and implement three trainings for faculty, and to create a faculty handbook on disability and access to information technology. The first faculty workshop addressed full-time faculty and focused on accommodating students with learning disabilities (the most prevalent disability on campus). The training lasted 90 minutes on a workday and was conducted by an outside trainer with expert knowledge of learning disabilities. Faculty response to the training was positive.

The second faculty workshop was directed to adjunct faculty. This workshop focused on basic information about disability, the law, barriers commonly encountered, and accommodations that can be made to overcome or avoid these barriers. Faculty, staff and administration were invited to the third faculty workshop, an information session on web accessibility, which was conducted by a trainer from NCATP.

Indicators of Success

Two documented, long-term results of the project were (1) the creation of a faculty handbook and (2) an increase in the accessibility of information technology on two campuses.

Students with disabilities and Disability Services staff collaborated on creating The Faculty Handbook: A Desk Resource Guide to Removing Information and Education Barriers to Students with Disabilities. The guide drew from several existing sources of disability and access information, including accessibility information from DO-IT at the University of Washington, educational information technology resources from the Southeast ADA Center (DBTAC), and suggestions from the Blue Ridge College Student Advisory Board. It consists of a review of the Americans with Disabilities Act mandated rights and responsibilities affecting both faculty and students with disabilities, followed by a discussion of accommodation procedures for tests. It then provides an introductory overview of information technology, access and testing barriers and suggested accommodations for students with blindness/visual impairments, hearing impairments, physical disabilities, learning disabilities, speech impairments, and psychological disabilities.

Following both the student identification of barriers to information access and the two-campus survey by NCATP, new accessible workstations were installed in the library at Flat Rock; the main website was redesigned with accessibility in the forefront; computer labs were redesigned to provide more space for persons using wheelchairs; and all new copiers have accessible controls.

Although the Information Technology Departments at both campuses had procurement policies in place prior to this project, none of these policies included guidelines for accessibility of new hardware and software. The Disability Services Office and the Information Technology Department have developed and proposed new policies.

This promising practice was edited and reproduced with permission. It is a part of a collection titled Promising Practices in Accessibility of IT for Post Secondary Education in the Southeast Region. Developed by CATEA's Southeast ADA Center with funding from NIDRR under U.S. Department of Education Grant #H133D010207.