The Changing Role of AT Labs in Higher Education


Terry Thompson, Coordinator of Assistive and Information Technology

North Carolina State University


Historically, colleges began providing assistive technology (AT) by setting up small AT labs, often within the Disability Services office. However, universities are increasingly expanding the availability of AT from isolated AT labs (centralized model) into the public computing environment (distributed model). The increased importance of networked computing, improvements in AT, and new OCR findings have all contributed toward a departure from the old centralized model.


OCR, in a letter to California State University, Long Beach dated April 20, 1999, said the following:


As universities have striven to provide effective communication to students with disabilities with respect to computer technology, traditionally the academic community has relied heavily on a single centralized unit on campus to house and maintain the specialized adaptive technology equipment. This practice has been seen as a method for enabling a small number of staff with adaptive technology expertise to serve a relatively large number of students with disabilities. However, such sole reliance upon a single centralized location (when not limited to adaptive technology training, but instead used for instructing disabled students in course subject matter) may run counter to the strong philosophy embodied in Title II and Section 504 regarding the importance of fully integrating students with disabilities into the mainstream educational program, unless such services cannot be otherwise effectively provided [see 34 C.F.R. § 104.4(b)(iv); 28 C.F.R. § 35.130(b)(iv)]. Thus OCR assumes in most cases computer access will be effectively provided to the student with the disability in an educational setting with his or her nondisabled peers and classmates at the various computer laboratory sites scattered throughout the campus.


Although this letter expresses a clear preference for the distributed model over the centralized model, the letter’s utilization of phrases such as “sole reliance” and “in most cases” indicates that centralized AT labs still may still play some role in the deployment of AT on college campuses. Those institutions that have been able to extend the availability of AT to the broader campus-wide computing environment have not generally abandoned their AT labs. Instead, they continue to maintain these labs as supplemental, experimental, or training labs.


North Carolina State University is one institution that has recognized the limitations of centralized AT labs, and is currently transitioning to a more inclusive approach to AT support. Historically, NC State provided its AT through two centralized AT labs, one located in Disability Services for Students (DSS), and another located in the main library. These labs provided an opportunity for students with disabilities to socialize with one another. They also allowed DSS and library staff to work closely with the students to ensure that they understood the technologies. Technologically, the centralized labs were relatively easy to support and maintain (compared with the complex academic network environment). Also, since their usage was controlled, the workstations required less rigid security than their public counterparts, which again made support and maintenance much less problematic.


However, there were many ways in which the AT labs created barriers:


·        Students with disabilities were segregated, and did not have an opportunity within the computing environment to network with their non-disabled peers.

·        Students with disabilities, particularly those with hidden disabilities, didn’t utilize these labs (perhaps due to the associated stigma?), thus they had no access to AT tools that may have otherwise benefited them.

·        The Information Technology Division did not support the workstations in the AT labs, so students did not have access to the vast array of software applications that were available in the general-use public computing environment.

·        The AT Labs were uni-platform (Windows), whereas students additionally needed access to other operating systems (Unix, Linux and Macintosh).

·        Staff who maintained these labs in the early days were not technical staff. Thus, technical problems were not easily resolved. 


Today, NC State continues to maintain and upgrade these AT labs, but additionally works closely with the Information Technology Division (ITD) and with network administrators in the Colleges to ensure that AT is available throughout campus.  The DSS lab is now supported by ITD (which provides access to all applications and multiple operating systems), but is not intended to be a primary lab for students with disabilities. Its purpose is to allow students with disabilities occasional access within the DSS environment so that they can (a) access the necessary applications and AT during DSS-monitored exams, (b) receive training on AT by AT support staff, and (c) meet with AT support staff for help with customizing their network-roaming desktop and application settings.


In Summer 2001, NC State conducted an on-line survey to assess how other universities were approaching the task of expanding their AT into the public computing environment. The survey included many questions specific to individual product categories, but also addressed a variety of administrative AT issues, including policies, procedures and support strategies. The full NC State Assistive Technology Survey Report is available at the following URL:

A summary of the product-specific results are provided below.

Screen Readers


The survey sample is broadly distributed in its approach to screen reader deployment. 20.8% of survey respondents deploy screen readers universally (i.e., available on most centrally-supported campus workstations).  41.7% install screen readers locally on select workstations in multiple public computing labs. 18.1% installed screen readers locally on select workstations in a single public computing lab. 47.2% install screen readers in a centralized assistive technology lab. Many of the respondents implement combinations of these approaches.


The most popular screen readers among the survey sample are Jaws (84.7%) and Window-Eyes (18.1%). For non-Windows operating systems, nearly 7% of respondents deploy outSpoken for Mac and 2.8% deploy emacspeak for Linux/Unix.


Screen Magnification


Like screen readers, screen magnification software is deployed in various ways. 26.4% of respondents report universal deployment; 40.3% report local installs on select workstations in multiple public labs; 15.3% on select workstations in a single public lab; and 40.3% in a centralized AT lab.


The most popular screen magnification software among the survey sample is Zoomtext (90.3%). 15.3% of the respondents deploy Magic, and 9.7% deploy inLarge for Mac. Others specifically mentioned the built-in magnifiers that come with Windows (Magnifier) and Macintosh (CloseView), as well as Bigshot (a lower cost solution from the makers of Zoomtext) and gMag (for Linux).


OCR/Reading Solutions


None of the survey respondents universally deploy this technology, although reader clients could conceivably be installed on workstations throughout the campus network. 36.1% of respondents install OCR/Reading solutions locally on select workstations in multiple public computing labs, and 27.8% do so in a single public computing lab. The most common location for deployment of this technology, however, is the centralized AT lab (56.9%).


Kurzweil is the most popular product line in this category: 37.5% of survey respondents deploy Kuzweil 1000, while 55.6% deploy Kurzweil 3000. Additionally, 37.5% deploy OpenBook, and 23.6% deploy WYNN. A variety of other products were also mentioned, including Scan and Read, Reading Edge, and TextHelp Wordswork, as well as the popular OCR program Omnipage, which in itself doesn’t provide text reading functionality, but can be used somewhat effectively in conjunction with other assistive technologies.


Speech Recognition


No one in the sample is universally deploying speech recognition. However, as speech recognition technology continues to improve its accuracy and continues to gain popular acceptance, more colleges and universities will be considering deployment of speech for all students, not just those with disabilities. This will require some creative solutions to privacy and distraction issues associated with using speech recognition in public settings, but research in this area is already underway. 


A few survey respondents already report deploying this software in public computing labs (20.8% in multiple labs; 19.4% in a single lab). However, for the majority of respondents (55.6%), this technology continues to be provided in a centralized assistive technology lab. 


The most popular speech recognition product among the survey sample is L&H Dragon Naturally Speaking (80.6%), despite concerns over L&H’s financial difficulties. Also, 43.1% continue to deploy Dragon Dictate, Dragon’s original discrete speech product, now discontinued. IBM ViaVoice is the only multi-platform speech product: 9.7% of respondents deploy the Windows version, 8.3% the Mac version; and one respondent deploys the Linux version. An additional 8.3% deploy MathTalk, a speech recognition application for inputting mathematics.


One respondent reported using the iCommunicator, an innovative new product that applies Dragon Naturally Speaking toward accommodating persons with hearing impairments.


Word Prediction Software


Word prediction is predominantly deployed in a central AT lab (43.1%), although three institutions are universally deploying it across campus, and several others are deploying it on select workstations either in multiple public labs (18.1%) or in a single public lab (8.3%).


The most popular word prediction product line among the survey sample is TextHelp (48.6%), who produces both Read&Write and WordSmith. TextHelp products, however, are only available for Windows, and several institutions are deploying Co:Writer in both the Windows (18.1%) and Mac (11.1%) environments.  EZ keys is deployed by 8.3% of the sample, and others reported using ScreenDoors, Handiword, SoundsWrite, ReadPlease and WriteAway.


Mouse Alternatives


Alternative pointing devices are still predominantly housed in the centralized AT labs (47.2%). Only 8.3% of institutions reported universal deployment of mouse alternatives. These devices are available in multiple public labs for 26.4 % of respondents, and in a single public lab for 19.4%.


Respondents report deploying a variety of trackballs, touch pads, joysticks, switches and pen tablets. The most popular trackballs among the survey sample are Kensington (47.2%), Logitech (40.3%) and Mouse -Trak - (22.2%).


Hands-Free Speech-Free Input


This category encompasses all products that provide access to individuals with disabilities affecting both mobility and speech. Few institutions report having these technologies in place at all. This is most likely due to the high cost for these products, combined with a relatively low demand. Of the twelve institutions who report using head-controlled input devices, six use HeadMouse, four use HeadMaster, and two use Boost Tracer and Track IR. These products tend to be located in centralized AT labs (11.1%), although four institutions in the sample have installed this technology on select workstations in a single public computing lab.


Writing Tools (software-based)


Writing tools such as Inspiration (44.4%) and Write:Outloud (18.1%) are generally available in centralized AT labs (36.1%), but many institutions additionally make these applications available in public computing labs (11.1% deploy to a single lab workstation; 9.7% deploy to workstations in multiple labs). No one reported universal deployment of this technology.