The United States Justice Department is working to improve the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to accommodate the needs of disabled persons by updating assistive communication technologies. Twenty years after the passage of the ADA, disabled students at Michigan State University are still working toward equal accommodations.

The Justice Department is holding a series of public hearings to discuss possible changes to Titles II and III of the ADA.  The four major topics being addressed are:

  • Accessible websites for blind and visually impaired users- installing technologies that read web content to users
  • Movie captioning and video description services for deaf, hard of hearing, visually impaired and blind viewers
  • Accessible 9-1-1 call centers for persons with disabilities- equipping dispatch centers to receive text and video messages
  • Accessible public equipment and furniture for the disabled
Photo credit: Jenna Chabot

John Shumway, a communication technology senior and the president of the MSU Council for Students with Disabilities (CSD), would like to see the changes occur, but is unsure of how the public will react since they will come at a price for businesses.

“In our culture, we look at the immediate gratification not the long term benefits; but in the long term they [businesses] are going to have to revamp their websites and move up technology anyway,” he said.  “It’s shoving them towards the inevitable, but this way it has the government stamp on it.”

In regard to the descriptive technology proposed for movie theaters, Shumway said, “It’s a catch-22.  I think it would disrupt the movie because you’re watching the movie while the device is describing it to you, but the movie is going to go on to another scene. I like the direction the government is going, but there are some things you can’t change without wrecking it.”

MSU Disability Resources

Shumway, a visually and mobility impaired individual, is one of the approximately 1200 students that are registered with the MSU Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities (RCPD) each year.  The RCPD provides services to students including: accessible textbooks, alternative testing, housing accommodations, alternative transportation, note-taking assistance, assistive technology, classroom accommodations, and other accommodations listed here.  MSU began accommodating disabled students in 1933, decades before there were laws in place requiring universities to do so.

“The RCPD often entertains visitors from other universities,” said Stephen Blosser, the RCPD Assistive Technology Specialist.  “We have been accommodating students for a long time, and universities just getting started look to us as experts.”

Blosser works with students to provide them with assistive software and textbooks, among other tools.  He explained that more than 70 volunteers work at the RCPD to help create alternative format textbooks in a process that requires cutting the binding and individually scanning pages into a computer. Volunteers spend most of their time editing the books by describing captions, charts and pictures that the software can’t pick up on.

“This type of work needs to be done by the publishers,” Blosser said.  “It is our hope at the Assistive Technology Center (ATC), to convince publishers to provide materials ready to go.”

Stephanie Forton, an athletic training sophomore, is also a student registered with the RCPD with a visual impairment.  She used large print and pdf formatted textbooks last year in her IAH class.  She has found the textbooks helpful, and one reason she chose to attend MSU was because of the RCPD.

“The fact that the RCPD director has a visual impairment, and that my specialist has a similar condition as I do, makes me feel like they better understand what I need,” Forton said.

Challenges Remain

Joe Stramondo, a bioethics, political philosophy and disability studies bioethics graduate student, is also registered with the RCPD and is a member of the CSD.

“Barriers to communication technology for me have less to do with the technology itself and more to do with the positioning of it because of my mobility disability,” Stramondo explained.

Currently, the ADA requires accommodations to be made mainly in regard to physical space, such as wheelchair ramps and curb cuts.  The proposed changes are taking the law a step further, but Stramondo still faces some problems with the existing law.  The ADA requires new space to be accessible, but until buildings are renovated, he still doesn’t have equal access to certain areas such as Spartan Stadium.

Stramondo, who described himself as a “huge Spartan football fan” sits on a platform to view the games which he said “doesn’t have nearly enough space.”

“The season ticket holders get to sit in front and the platform isn’t tiered, so everyone else gets pushed behind them.” said Stramondo. “It’s frustrating.”

Shumway and Stramondo, both residents of Owen Hall, have similar concerns about some of the equipment in the building.  There are a number of computer kiosks in the lobby for residents that are raised and require the user to sit on high stools.  One of the computers is lowered for easy access for wheelchair users.

“Everyone uses it now because it’s easy to get to.  People with disabilities hardly get to use it, but that’s how the law is.  You cannot make something specifically for the disabled because that’s segregating.  Everyone wants to use it because it’s easier,” Shumway said.

Shumway described a similar problem with the washing machines in Owen Hall that were made accessible for the disabled.  “Everyone wants to use them because they are newer,” he said.

Attitudes toward the disabled are another obstacle faced by many students that cannot be changed with any kind of government policy.

“I think that when you’re a person with a disability, you experience attitudes that are taught to folks without disabilities and folks with disabilities that are built into our culture every day, and it’s impossible to create a policy to change that.” said Stramondo. “It’s really about culture shift.”

The ADA was established in 1990 and prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and guarantees equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications.

The RCPD is located in 120 Bessey Hall on the MSU campus and is open Monday through Friday, 8am to 5pm.

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