The primary rationale used against implementing assistive technologies in higher education settings is budgetary constraints. I argue here that budgetary constraints notwithstanding, there are both legal and socio-political reasons why the implementation of assistive technologies ought to be a priority in colleges and universities, as well as in K-12 schools. First, I discuss legal reasons, which include the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. Then, I discuss socio-political reasons, including equity, inclusion, and alternative funding options.
It is a legal imperative that persons with disabilities have access to assistive technologies in institutions of learning, including U.S. colleges and universities, despite budgetary constraints. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits the discrimination of and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities. Section 12182 states as a general rule: “No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation,” (United States Department of Justice). Places of public accommodation include places of lodging, movie theaters, auditoriums, retail and service establishments, museums, libraries, public transportation, recreation areas, social service establishments, and “a nursery, elementary, secondary, undergraduate, or postgraduate private school, or other place of education,” (United States Department of Justice).
Persons have the positive right to the access and enjoyment of public accommodations as well as the negative right to be free from discrimination. It is pretty clear, based on the ADA, that one of the positive rights that people have, legally speaking, is a right to education. Although there is little case law just yet to understand the specifics of the ADA, courts have spoken on issues such as web accessibility and assistive technologies. The Office of Civil Rights Settlement Records explains via analogy between the legal requirement to bring buildings up to code and the purchase of technologies. In both cases, upgrades ought to improve accessibility or ensure compatibility with current assistive technologies (Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, 2014). Further, The Rehabilitation Act was amended in 1978 to address postsecondary education. Since that time, institutions of education are required to provide reasonable accommodations, which includes assistive technology (Day, S. & Edwards, B., 1996). Although there is still legal work to be done, there are federal laws in place requiring that institutions of higher education develop and implement assistive technologies.
In fact, despite the common argument that budgets are too tight to purchase, develop, implement and train faculty on assistive technologies, there are a number of funding opportunities available. Under the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988, states are awarded federal grants to develop and implement assistive technologies. The National Center for Technology Innovation, among others, offers a list of funding sources and funding alternatives, which include ADA Technical Assistance Programs, private funds, and loaner programs (National Center for Technology Integration, 2015). Even if we take the claim that budget constraints make it difficult for institutions of higher education to implement assistive technologies at face value, there are legal imperatives to do it anyway.
There are also sociopolitical reasons for why budget constraints should not undermine assistive technologies in educational settings. Although we have been taught to see disability as an issue of inferior embodiment, disability is not merely about bodies. It is about the way we perceive and structure the social world with respect to bodies. Disability theorist Rosemarie Garland-Thomson argues that disability is about both bodies and social justice; it is about misfitting (2011). A misfitting is a relation between particular bodies and particular environments that fail to sustain those bodies and their functionalities. Social justice requires that the shape of the world is changed to support a variety of bodies, not merely young, fit, male, able-bodies. All bodies are dependent on their environments to sustain them–we are all vulnerable; however, we have built a world that sustains able-bodied people and fails to sustain those with disabled bodies. In the same way that we have designed architecture in the past to accommodate solely the able-bodied, we have designed education and educational technology to accommodate solely the able-bodied.
As Susan Wendell argues, although it is viewed as such, disability is not a family problem; it is a social problem (1989). Further, resources for the disabled should not be seen as charity, they should be seen as resources. Viewing the disabled as inferior in embodiment, rather than identifying the ways that we construct society to accommodate young, fit, able bodies mystifies injustice done to disabled persons through inequity and exclusion. M.D. Rubblier explains: “The value and significance of assistive technology can be best understood when a person with a disability encounters a task she is unable to complete and an appropriate assistive technology device allows the person to successfully complete the same task,” (2013, 408). The misfits that disabled persons experience in education settings are not due to their bodies; rather, they are due to a failure of educational environments to sustain those bodies. If we value fairness, equality, and inclusiveness as political values, then we must make assistive technologies a priority that is not subject to arguments about budgetary constraints any more than resources for able-bodied students would be subject to arguments about budgetary constraints. It is both a legal and a socio-political imperative that we change the world to accommodate disabled bodies by prioritizing assistive technologies in institutions of learning.
It might be objected that assistive technologies remain a budgetary constraint, even if we view them to be necessary resources. A cost-benefit analysis could be used to suggest that since few people use assistive technologies and they are very expensive, it is not an issue of social justice, but merely a matter of expense. As Sharon Lesar Judge reports, “augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices, such as the Macaw by Zygo, cost up to $2,200” and “A Dynavox augmentative communication device, which, through software, provides synthesized speech via direct touch, joystick, auditory or visual scanning modes, costs $5,300,” (2000, 127). There is no doubt that assistive technologies–any technologies–are expensive. To put that in perspective, desktop computers cost approximately $1,000-$2,000 each. A good-sized university, Ohio State has about 1800 computers on their campus available for students to use (Hlebak, J., 2014). In fall of 2014, their enrollment was 64,868 (The Ohio State University). This means that there is one computer on campus for every thirty-six enrolled students. Some schools, such as Bowling Green have an even smaller ratio. Bowling Green has 1,700 computers with an enrollment of less than 15,000 students. One computer is available for every eight to nine students. This indicates that having technology available for students is important. If universities can invest–without budgetary constraint–in computers at this rate, then they should be able to make assistive technologies available at a similar rate. For every ten to thirty blind students at a university, providing an augmentative communication device should be well within the range of technology spending per student. If colleges and universities are willing to accept tuition money from–and even recruit–disabled students, then technologies that they can use to enhance their education ought to be provided for them.
In conclusion, although budgetary constraints are a fact of reality, a shift in perspective reveals that spending on assistive technologies is not only the right thing to do, it is legally required. Further, if budgetary constraints do not keep colleges and universities from providing technologies for able-bodied persons, they should not keep colleges and universities from providing them for disabled persons. Using fiscal arguments to deny accommodations to students because of disability is not in the interest of equity and inclusion.
Board of Regents University System of Georgia (February 14, 2014). Higher education, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and Section 508. Retrieved from http://www.usg.edu/siteinfo/higher_education_the_americans_with_disabilities_act_and_section_508
Day, S.L. & Edwards, B.J. (1996). Assistive technology for postsecondary students with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 29(5), 486-492.
Garland-Thomson, R. (2011). Misfits: A feminist materialist disability concept. Hypatia, 26(3), 591-609.
Hlebak, J. (February 19, 2014). University to reduce number of on-campus computers. Bowling Green News. Retrieved from http://www.bgnews.com/campus/university-to-reduce-number-of-on-campus-computers/article_21ed613c-99ca-11e3-bc4c-0019bb2963f4.html
Judge, S.L. (2000). Accessing and funding assistive technology for children with disabilities. Early Childhood Education Journal, 28(2), 125-131.
National Center for Technology Integration. (2015). Finding alternative source of funding. Retrieved from http://www.ldonline.org/article/6239/
Roblyer, M.D. (2013). Integrating educational technology into teaching. Boston, MA: Pearson.
The Ohio State University. Statistical summary. Retrieved at https://www.osu.edu/osutoday/stuinfo.php
United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. Information and technical assistance with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Retrieved from http://www.ada.gov/2010_regs.htm
Wendell, S. (1989). Toward a feminist theory of disability. Hypatia, 4(2), 104-124.