Shaping the Future of Assistive Technology Training
The proverb about a journey of 1,000 miles beginning with a single step neatly sums up the story of the first bachelor's degree program in rehabilitation with an emphasis on assistive technology (AT). That program has not arrived yet, but its journey is well under way at Northcentral Technical College's (NTC) Caroline S. Mark Center for Students with Disabilities in Wausau, Wisconsin.
That is where Joe Mielczarek, a vocational counselor who has run the center since 1983, and Jim Unger, a certified rehabilitation teacher and AT specialist, are at the tail end of writing the curriculum for the school's one-year AT speech output certificate program. This program is the first of three such programs; the other two will be in large print/optical character recognition (OCR) technology and braille technology. All three are expected to be offered online within the next year and a half.
The program is the result of an unconventional and highly successful collaboration between the center, which functions as a conventional rehabilitation facility for people who are visually impaired or blind, deaf or hard of hearing, or learning disabled, and NTC, one of 16 colleges in Wisconsin's two-year technical college system.
As Mielczarek pointed out, the symbiotic relationship has been highly beneficial for both entities: "The great thing about having a rehab facility inside a technical college is the number of resources that are right here. If a piece of computer equipment isn't working, I take it to the computer repair program; if I need a nurse, there's one right here; if a wheelchair breaks, I can take it to the welding lab. These are all things I wouldn't be able to do if I was in a traditional rehab center." Mielczarek and his team of technologists—Clayton Blom, Alan Edwards, Randy Ingman, Dave Schuh, Jim Unger, and Jayne Zillich—work with 200 to 300 people each year through the center. The center charges on a fee-for-service basis and bills several different entities, including NTC; Wisconsin's Department of Vocational Rehabilitation; and, in the case of older people who may not be covered otherwise, a foundation through the Badger Center for the Blind in Milwaukee.
Caption: Jim Unger, rehabilitation teacher and AT specialist, one of the AT program's developers. (Credit: Talia Frolkis)
In addition to working with students from the community and from NTC, each technologist has his or her own specialty. A typical day for Ingman includes surfing the web for the latest news and equipment from the AT field. "I monitor the web and hit all the adaptive sites because there's new stuff coming out every day," he said. As an example, he cited what he has learned about accessible cell phones. The Nokia 9290, which is available now, is also a personal digital assistant that can surf the net and do e-mail, but without a special connection called wireless application protocol (WAP), it is useless.
The connection does not exist in central Wisconsin at the moment, but is expected to be available late this summer. In the meantime, there's plenty of other work to do. Ingman works with students who are taking mainstream classes, teaching them how to work with WYNN (an OCR product for people with learning impairments), the Kurzweil 3000 reading machine, and voice input/voice output; how to download books from Bookshare; or how to use a particular program. "Whether it's a mainstream or a rehab student, they're all students and all need to take advantage of assistive technology in some way," he said. Among Ingman's current clients are an operating-room technician who is losing her sight, a patient with a traumatic brain injury, and NTC students who are taking courses in a variety of subjects.
The Need for Expertise
The relationship with NTC was one catalyst for the budding AT certification program. The explosion of new technologies for blind and visually impaired people (many of which have also become indispensable to sighted people with reading disabilities) placed new demands on rehabilitation professionals. Increasing types and numbers of closed-circuit televisions (CCTVs), OCR devices, and refreshable braille displays meant a corresponding need for credentialed professionals who understood and were able to match the products with users.
Credentialing was the serious issue, Unger said. Standards have long been established for rehabilitation counselors and specialists, but anyone can hang out a shingle and call himself or herself an AT specialist. So, four years ago, Mielczarek, Unger, Ingman, Schuh, and Edwards began brainstorming ways to change that reality. They then moved into the research phase of setting up standards and benchmarks for AT specialists. Schuh and Mielczarek put together a grant proposal. Approval to develop the program through NTC followed.
Explore the Core
The 10 credits' worth of core classes for the AT certificate program are the same whether students want to earn the certificates in speech output, large print/OCR, or braille technology. Core courses include Concepts of AT, Introduction to Braille, Introduction to Visual Impairment and Other Reading Disabilities, Laws and Regulations, and Methods of Evaluation and Report Writing. Certificate-specific courses for the speech-output certificate program include JAWS for Windows, Window-Eyes, Hal from Dolphin Computer Access and OutSPOKEN for the Macintosh, and Dragon NaturallySpeaking with Speech Output.
Students must earn a "C" or better in each course and must retake any sequential courses before they can continue to a higher level. Graduates are expected to be able to determine necessary adaptations, install and set up equipment and software, train users, and troubleshoot problems.
The curriculum development team decided early on that computer literacy was a prerequisite for entering the program and that associate's degrees would be granted only to students with advanced computer expertise. "You have to know Windows," Unger said. "Students can either pass a Windows proficiency test or must have a passing grade of "C" or better in NTC's Windows Operating class."
Students who complete the certificate program and want to go on for associate's degrees will take courses in computer hardware and software applications and receive degrees as computer support specialists. That, Mielczarek said, was a conscious decision by the team and was supported by faculty outside the center.
Terry Waldvogel, a computer information specialist instructor at NTC, pointed out that many of the people who will be trained by the program's graduates will be using the technology in their workplaces and cited a common scenario: "The equipment you're going to be interfacing with is going to be on a network. With the network interface cards, the routers, and switches that flow through the cards, you're going to run into some problems along the way with adaptive software, so to know how to troubleshoot is going to be a big part of making adaptive software and hardware work."
That requirement suits Rhonda Baranowski just fine. One of two students who is enrolled in the program, she is finishing an associate's degree in computer programming and has completed NTC's computer networking associate's degree program. Depending on the result of a grant Mielczarek is currently writing, she will have to wait a semester or a year to finish the certification program. Unger explained why: "I'm a rehab teacher by day, and I teach AT classes at night, and because of NTC restrictions, I can only teach two classes now."
The speed with which Unger will be able to finish teaching the last two courses depends on a recently written grant. If the funding comes in, he will be freed to teach the AT courses while someone else fills in with his rehabilitation work, and Baranowski and her fellow student, Josh Popelka, will receive their certification in December. If not, they will have to wait until next May.
Baranowski, a Wausau native, plans to look for a job in her field when she is finished. She will not have to look far if Mielczarek has his way. Because of partnerships previously established by NTC, the program has come to the attention of officials in the Ukraine. These officials have asked—and Mielczarek has agreed—to establish a similar facility there, and he wants Baranowski to be part of the setup team.
One strength of many of the technicians who are blind or visually impaired is that they have been on the receiving end of the services they provide, and Baranowski is no exception. Through the school's regular tutoring center, she was paired with Matt Hildebrandt, a sighted classmate who serves as a reader for some of her more visually oriented computer classes. A fourth-semester programming student, his job at the tutoring center is paid through NTC's tutoring center, which functions independently from the Caroline S. Mark Center. Baranowski went to the tutoring center, rather than to the Caroline S. Mark Center, to find a tutor for a course she took last semester. She was paired with Hildebrandt, and the two are working together again this semester.
"He helps with the visual part," Baranowski said, "navigating on screen and some of the navigating around through the menus to get to where I need to get to." "I helped Rhonda in HTML class; she was easy to get along with, and we were a good match," Hildebrandt said, as they started to work on their current assignment for a C-Sharp programming course. The instructor put a lot of notes and comments into the on-screen assignment, and working together from their class notes (Baranowski's in braille), Hildebrandt guided Baranowski exactly to where she needed to be on the screen. They were not using AT, but the small study room in which they were working contained an audiotape player, a CCTV, a scanner, and a Juliet Pro braille embosser, in addition to the computer.
Making the Difference
NTC's tutoring center can provide sighted readers for students who are blind or visually impaired, but Kristin Miller, who is visually impaired and dyslexic, needed more. She is now on the verge of graduating from NTC's child care program and is interviewing for jobs in her field. The Caroline S. Mark Center is what made the difference.
Miller, whose sight is good enough that she can use a CCTV and ZoomText Xtra 7.0, Level 1, is, by her own admission, "stubborn." She had been coming to the center on and off from her home in Ashland (about three hours north of Wausau) since she was a child, but at home, with a cadre of sighted friends, she was able to succeed at school. College was different. "I would take a normal screen, put my eye on the screen, and use ZoomText with no voice technology," she recalled. "I started using JAWS midway through my first semester and started talking to the computer this year. I went from failing and being on academic probation to nearly a 4.0 average—all from JAWS in the voice output area. I don't know what I'd be doing without it."
Caption: Kristin Miller, who is visually impaired and dyslexic, was able to succeed in college once she learned to use voice output technology. (Credit: Talia Frolkis)
For Miller, the "digital stuff" has been the best. With Dragon NaturallySpeaking 6.0, JAWS for Windows, and Jawbone (a utility that allows these two programs to work together), she can read and retain information. In addition, she uses ZoomText Xtra and is able to follow the words on the computer screen.
It is Miller and people like her who showed Mielczarek and his team the need to develop the AT program."We assist so many people who are blind and visually impaired in schools and employment and saw the poor resources they had available to help with AT that all of us said something had to be done," he said.
There is no doubt that for every Kristin Miller who succeeds, there are many more who don't. For that reason, Mielczarek and his team have received support from organizations that serve people who are blind or visually impaired, as well as product developers and vendors. This responsibility is not something that the center takes lightly. It has created a 30-person advisory board to help develop the program, consisting of representatives from the American Foundation for the Blind, American Printing House for the Blind, Freedom Scientific, and Pulse Data HumanWare.
"They [the board members] tell us what types of products we should be teaching," Unger said, citing synthetic speech products as an example. A decision to teach the top four programs had been finalized when Syntha-Voice Computers went out of business. At that point, Unger consulted board members to determine which product should replace Slimware Window Bridge, which had been in the curriculum and would no longer be available.
Once the AT program is in place, an articulation agreement will be officially signed between NTC, which is part of Wisconsin's technical college system, and the University of Wisconsin–Stout, which is part of the state's four-year college system. Under that agreement, students who want to go on for their bachelor's degrees will enter Stout as juniors. They will graduate with bachelor's degrees in rehabilitation with an emphasis on AT and, in doing so, will fulfill the goal of Mielczarek and his team. "We want to graduate the best AT trainers for blind and reading-impaired people to access for assistance in any education or employment setting," Mielczarek said.
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