Citation: Fichten, C.S., Barile, M. & Asuncion, J.V. (1999). Learning technologies: Students with disabilities in postsecondary education / Projet Adaptech : l'Utilisation des technologies d'apprentissage par les étudiant(e)s handicapé(e)s au niveau postsecondaire. (190 pages). ISBN 2-9803316-4-3. Final report to the Office of Learning Technologies, 1999, Spring. Ottawa: Human Resources Development Canada. Eric Document Reproduction Service (ED 433625 EC 37369)

Dawson College
Final Report to the Office of Learning Technologies

Learning Technologies : Adaptech Project : Students with Disabilities in Postsecondary Education

Executive Summary
Spring 1999

Computer and information technologies have the potential both to enhance the lives of people with disabilities as well as to deny them equality of access to education, jobs, and community life. In particular, these new technologies have the potential to enable or to create difficulties for students with disabilities in the new Canadian knowledge based economy. Concerns about these technologies and their accessibility for people with disabilities are evolving issues for the next decade.


The goal of our research was to provide empirically based information to assist in decision making that ensures that new policies, software and hardware reflect the needs and concerns of a variety of individuals: postsecondary students with disabilities, their professors, and college and university personnel who make technological, adaptive, and other supports available to the higher education community.

Specific goals for the present investigation were to evaluate the use and utility of computer and information technologies in the postsecondary education of students with disabilities. Equally important was to make available empirical data to better advise: students, college and university personnel responsible for providing services to students with disabilities, planners, policy makers from both government and academic milieux, as well as developers and suppliers of mainstream and adaptive technologies. Specific objectives were:


Between the fall of 1997 and the spring of 1999 we conducted a series of three investigations where the focus was on evaluating the computer, information, learning and adaptive technology needs and concerns of postsecondary students with disabilities.

To obtain an overview of issues and concerns, in Phase I (fall 1997) we conducted a series of four bilingual focus groups in the Montreal area. This involved 31 individuals. Groups were held for (1) postsecondary students with various disabilities, (2) college and university personnel responsible for providing services to students with disabilities, (3) professors from both arts and science disciplines, and (4) academics, computer specialists and other concerned individuals. From these meetings we obtained broad notions about some of the key issues of relevance to the effective use of computer, information and adaptive technologies by postsecondary students with disabilities.

In Phase II (spring 1998) we went across the country and conducted two sets of structured telephone interviews with 37 college and university students with disabilities (representing all provinces and territories) and with 30 college and university personnel responsible for providing services to students with disabilities nation-wide. Again, the main focus was on the computer, information and adaptive technology needs and concerns of students with disabilities. Interviews were conducted in both English and French. These interviews gave us much more detailed information concerning issues such as: what computer, information and adaptive technologies students with different disabilities have, use, and want; how students get funding for computer technologies; and what kinds of access to technology different types of institutions provide to students with various disabilities.

In Phase III (spring '99) questionnaires were mailed to the membership of our two student group partners, the National Educational Association Of Disabled Students (NEADS), and the Association Québécoise des étudiants(es) handicapés(es) au post secondaire (AQEHPS). With the cooperation of more than 200 college and university personnel responsible for providing services to students with disabilities, copies of our questionnaire were made available to students at campuses across Canada. Questionnaires were made available in both English and French in a number of alternate formats: regular and large print, on tape, in Braille, and on diskette (both IBM and Macintosh). 725 current and recent (within the past 2 years) postsecondary students with disabilities returned completed questionnaires.

Findings and Conclusions

Information provided shows that Canadian colleges had a significantly and substantially larger proportion of students with disabilities than did universities, suggesting that technologies for students with disabilities need to be included in the overall computer and information technology planning not only at universities, but also at colleges. The latter are sometimes overlooked. Our data suggest that the vast majority of college and university students, regardless of sex, age, program of study, or type of disability, can and do use computer technologies to help them succeed. The number and nature of the advantages that computer technologies had for participants show how critical computers are to the success of students with disabilities. It is also interesting to note that personnel responsible for providing services to students with disabilities indicated that they saw the use of computers not only as beneficial for the students but also as cost effective for the institution.

About ½ of the students in our samples had two or more impairments/disabilities, suggesting the need for adapted work stations which can accommodate the needs of students with various disabilities. In this regard, there was a pronounced trend for students to "cross-use" technologies, i.e., for students with one kind of disability to use technologies intended for students with a different type of disability. For example, software that reads what is on the screen is used not only by students with visual impairments but also by students who have a learning disability. Use of large screen monitors and voice recognition (dictation) software provide additional instances of this trend. Multiple uses of adaptive technologies seems to be an important development, and the increasing number of accessibility features built into widely available mainstream products are of considerable interest to students with disabilities. Nevertheless, recent developments in sophisticated adaptive technologies have underscored the increasing importance of ensuring that different types of adaptive equipment be able to work together. In particular, the video card requirements of magnification software and the heavy hardware and training demands of voice recognition programs should be taken into consideration.

Perhaps the single most outstanding finding of our studies relates to students' concerns over the cost of computer, information and adaptive technologies. Regardless of what question was asked or how it was formulated, the high cost of acquiring and maintaining computer technologies was the single most important and common issue noted by computer users and non-users alike. The majority of students who had computer equipment at home indicated that they or their families had paid for these. When asked why they did not take advantage of a government program to help them obtain a computer or adaptive technologies, the single most popular answer was that students simply did not know about the existence of such programs. The solution to the problem is obvious: organizations/agencies that provide money, loans or computer technologies to students with disabilities need to do more effective "outreach." More broadly based information dissemination to better inform students (in alternate formats), financial aid offices, postsecondary personnel responsible for providing services to students with disabilities, and rehabilitation professionals about available opportunities is clearly needed.

The nature and implications of our findings are evident. Students with disabilities can and do use computer and information technologies to help them succeed in postsecondary education. Computers are best seen as enabling technologies - "electronic curb-cuts" - that allow students with disabilities to prepare for and to participate in the knowledge based economy of tomorrow. To plan for the future rather than catch up with the past we recommend that the broadest based consultations take place at colleges, universities and organizations and agencies which provide equipment and training for students with disabilities. Such consultations must involve students, who, of course, are ultimately the end-users. Personnel responsible for providing services to students with disabilities, professors, academic computer staff, adaptive technology and computer specialists, librarians, audio-visual specialists, rehabilitation professionals, college and university administrators, and representatives of various government agencies, among others, are key players in this equation. Creative partnerships and alliances are urgently needed.

Planning and decisions for campus-wide information technology purchases and systems development and implementation in postsecondary educational institutions are actively going on as this report is being prepared. In much of the planning, the needs of students with disabilities are simply overlooked - not taken into consideration - until it is discovered, much too late, that the expensive new campus-wide technology is inaccessible. Designing for accessibility always results in better, less expensive, and more timely solutions than retrofits. Data to guide decision making and specific recommendations concerning what could be done to ensure full access to postsecondary education for all of the students enrolled in Canadian colleges and universities are included in this report.

Contact Information

For additional information or to request copies of the report contact one of the authors:

Catherine S. Fichten, Ph.D., (e-mail)
Maria Barile, M.S.W., (e-mail)
Jennison V. Asuncion, B.A. (with distinction), (e-mail)
Adaptech Project
Dawson College
3040 Sherbrooke St. West
Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3Z 1A4
(514) 931-8731 (voice)
(514) 931-3567 (fax) (Adaptech Project Web Site)