A critical shortage of professionals who are qualified to provide specialized assessment and training in computer skills, as well as hardware and software installation, configuration, and customization services, significantly affects the competitiveness of people who are visually impaired in this society. Since most jobs that people with visual impairments hold require the use of computer-based tools, inadequate and untimely training in both computers and assistive technology (AT) contributes to the persisting unemployment rate that is 15 times higher than that of the general population. Long waiting lists, insufficient time for training to be done properly, and increasing strain on the already overloaded service delivery system only make things worse.
To gain a fuller understanding of the nature and causes of the shortage of AT specialists, in 1999, AFB surveyed state and private agencies about their technology-related services. In 2000, AFB held a series of consumer focus groups in eight locations around the country, whose participants included end-users who had received technology-related training. Another set of focus groups sought input from AT specialists, their supervisors, and administrators of training centers. The daunting list of problems that emerged from the survey and focus groups coalesced to a few major themes.
Public and private rehabilitation agencies reported that the most significant challenges they faced in delivering AT services include insufficient training resources; difficulty finding, recruiting, and retaining qualified AT personnel; providing training for consumers who live in rural areas; inadequate methods of determining the qualifications of independent contractors; and an acute shortage of trainers in particular regions of the country.
Consumers' comments tended to be more negative than positive. Although many consumers reported receiving high-quality training and having greater self-confidence from learning how to use computers, a number of them thought that training was simply not available often enough to meet their needs. Many complained about training programs that lacked proper equipment or flexibility. For example, one setting had no computers connected to e-mail or the Internet available for consumers. Other settings lacked commonly accepted AT, such as speech in combination with screen magnification.
A number of consumers wished their training had included deeper coverage of their ATs and more detail about their work-related application packages. They asked for more time to learn the material being taught and more comfortable training situations (e.g., smaller training groups or classes where slower learners were not mixed with faster ones). They thought that group instruction with students using different ATs unnecessarily diluted the attention the trainers provided. Finally, many consumers complained that trainers were forced to cram instruction into an insufficient number of training hours, were inflexible about changing their teaching style to accommodate the students, and lacked sufficient knowledge about certain assistive and mainstream software packages to teach them adequately.
The AT specialists generally agreed that the shortage of AT personnel around the country is caused by the scarcity of resources for them to obtain necessary knowledge and skills, forcing them to struggle to find training from a variety of sources. They stated that because there is currently no widely accepted way to judge their qualifications, more training resources and a unified set of standards would be desirable. Generally balking at the notion of certification, they worried aloud that there is so much to know that unless standards are developed in such a way as to allow practitioners with different types of skill-sets to be certified, many current AT specialists will be put out of business. Moreover, there is no organization in the United States that they regard as a viable certifying body.
What AT Specialists Need to Know
Both the consumers and AT specialists agreed that AT specialists should have competencies in certain critical areas. AT specialists are expected to know about common hardware, a wide variety of ATs, technologies, mainstream application software packages, and even nonassistive technology, such as cell phones and personal digital assistants.
AT specialists are also expected to know a great deal about training and support services, including contacts and resources, as well as be competent in core elements such as file management, keyboarding, and troubleshooting. They also need to have the same life skills (mobility, grooming, and proper humor and demeanor) as everyone else. They need sound office and professional (business management, writing, public speaking) skills, as well as good teaching, problem-solving, and independent study skills.
Most AT specialists work in more than one environment. Some evaluate and train consumers. Many work in schools or agencies, and some work at job sites, training centers, and other venues. The plot thickened when the variety of tasks that AT specialists actually perform in these environments was evaluated. Many teach basic AT and application software skills, others go into work environments to interface AT with complex networks. Still others work as consultants to large governmental and corporate entities, advising them on the accessibility of systems.
AT specialists currently obtain their professional skills in unsystematic ways. Their professional development often occurs through apprenticeship arrangements, learning their skills from master trainers. AT specialists also take short courses when they can find and afford them; participate in workshops and "vendor trainings"; attend technology conferences; and make extensive use of training manuals, tutorials, listservs, and occasional online classes. Many take Microsoft and other mainstream computer and networking classes, and some take the California State University at Northridge (CSUN) certificate program—a cross-disability course that provides a detailed overview of AT and ergonomics.
In 2000 and 2001, only a few programs provided training to AT specialists. Northcentral Technical College in Wausau, Wisconsin, developed a certificate program for trainers of AT for people with visual and reading impairments. Lions World Services for the Blind <www.lwsb.org>, in Little Rock, Arkansas, provided training in a variety of skills to AT specialists who wanted to acquire basic and upgraded skills. The Colorado Center for the Blind <www.ccb-denver.org> created the PTAT (Professional Training in Assistive Technology) program to train computer-literate people to be AT specialists.
A noteworthy distance-learning option, offered by Cathy Anne Murtha <accesstechnologyinstitute.com>, combines PC- based teleconferencing technology (for lectures) with the Internet to teach a variety of courses in AT and mainstream applications. Most of her students are AT specialists, who often cannot afford the time to attend conferences or classes.
In the United Kingdom, the Royal National Institute for the Blind, in concert with the British Computer Association of the Blind, modified the teaching standards of an existing Information Technology trade organization. Together, they created a teaching competencies certification system that is designed to ensure that AT specialists who work with people who are visually impaired provide high-quality instruction. The group also gained the cooperation of technology vendors to provide standards for teaching the use of their technology.
Solving the Problem
Meanwhile, in the United States, several organizations called together professional conferences to come up with solutions to the shortage of AT specialists. The conferences reached a consensus about a core consumer training curriculum and, what was more groundbreaking, they recommended adopting the concept of minimum competencies for AT specialists as a reasonable alternative to certification. The key to the solution was the compilation of a comprehensive list of competencies, some or all of which AT specialists could strive to achieve.
Thus, in March 2001, with the support of consumer organizations, the AT specialists and vision rehabilitation professionals attending AFB's Josephine L. Taylor Leadership Institute created the Assistive Technology Specialist Competencies Task Force. Consisting of AT specialists and supervisors, university-based teacher trainers, and consumer representatives, all willing to work on specific tasks, the task force was charged with compiling and obtaining a consensus on a list of competencies.
The task force is also charged with developing ways to assess whether AT specialists have actually mastered any or all of the competencies on the list. The purpose of this difficult and detailed process is not to create a certification process, but to stimulate the growth of train-the-trainer courses throughout the United States. Armed with the competencies and measurement protocols, master trainers, vendors, and university personnel will be able to develop a variety of basic training and continuing education courses.
Progress to Date
After several meetings in 2001 and 2002, the task force completed its preliminary list of competencies and measurement protocols. It has also begun asking vendors to develop standards of their own to ensure that when they train AT specialists in how to use and give instruction in their products, there is clear evidence that the AT specialists have mastered the skills required. Examples include writing configuration files for a screen reader, teaching effective use of portable note takers; properly installing, configuring, and teaching the use of braille displays; and assessing a consumer's efficiency in using screen-magnification software and all its features. Thus, the task force has begun systematically surveying vendors to develop a comprehensive list of vendor training courses, material covered, and criteria for awarding certificates of completion.
By publishing articles such as this one, the task force hopes to receive feedback from the visually impaired community and the professionals who work with them. An e-mail address has been set up for this purpose. (See the information at the end of this article for details.)
Increased training opportunities will make it easier for AT specialists to learn their trade and keep up with new information and will make it more desirable for newcomers to enter the profession. Combined with greater attention to high-quality training by product vendors and improvements in standards for awarding certificates of completion, AT specialists will find it easier to prove to the world that they have a particular set of skills.
Recognizing the value of obtaining high-quality instruction, more AT specialists will seek opportunities to develop their portfolios. Accumulating well-earned certificates and other documents to display their qualifications will improve their prospects and increase their stature among the mainstream information-technology community. AT specialists will then be able to command greater compensation for their work. Shortages will abate.
If people who are visually impaired have adequate opportunities to obtain training in technologies that can give them equal access to information and employment, they will truly have a fair chance to participate fully in the benefits of our society. In the long run, the hope is that positive comments will outnumber negative ones when the next set of focus groups takes place a few years from now.
AT competencies fall into four major categories: assessment, equipment (hardware/software installation, configuration, customization), training (delivery), and professional competencies. Each category contains a series of competency clusters, and each cluster contains a set of specific competencies. For the complete list and to comment on the competencies, please visit the task force web site at <www.tsbvi.edu/technology/afb>.