Transcending Distances and Differences
Electronic communications tools provide new learning opportunities for students with and without disabilities
By Norman Coombs

From the October 2000 AAHE Bulletin

This article is based on the author’s lecture, "Transcending the Distance in Distance Learning: Challenging Gaps of Ethnicity, Socioeconomic Status, Gender, Learning Styles, and Physical Disabilities," presented at AAHE’s 2000 National Conference on Higher Education.

We are all differently challenged. I am blind, so I use an earphone that allows my computer to talk to me. A PowerPoint slide doesn’t do much for me as a presenter, but my listeners need something to look at or they can’t keep focused while I speak.

I remember a cartoon from The New Yorker that depicts two dogs sitting in front of a computer terminal, and one says to the other, "On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog." I can relate to that cartoon because on the Internet, I’m at home. Technology is a great equalizer.

From Skeptic to Expert
My first exposure to computers came through a friend, who suggested I look at a computer that had a speech synthesizer. I was a fairly stuffy traditionalist, a conservative historian, and my initial response was "What does a historian want with a computer?"

But to pacify and mollify him, I decided to take a look. That was 15 years ago, and I haven’t turned off my computer since. I quickly learned that the computer had all kinds of possibilities for all kinds of things, not the least of which was allowing me to compensate for my disability.

For me, in the beginning, the computer was a word processor, but it soon became a communication tool. Early on, I found it convenient to get hooked to the Internet and use it in many ways.

Before I used a computer, I relied on a staff to read me my students’ assignments. But in 1985, I started asking my students to submit their term papers through email. One of the first students to do so was deaf. (Rochester Institute of Technology is home to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, and there are 1,000 deaf students on our 14,000-student campus.)

I graded her paper and emailed the grade back. The next day, I got mail from her again, asking a question about my grade. I emailed her back. The next day, another email, which I again answered promptly. The next day, another email arrived, and I started to wonder what was going on.

Well, I opened the next email, and it said, "This is the first time in my life I’ve talked to a professor or teacher without having someone in between." And I thought, "Wow. Here we have two sensory disabilities, and we’re transcending them both in one blow. We’re able to communicate directly."

It was then that I realized the potential of this new technology for people with disabilities. Not just as a communication tool, but as a tool to open things up in many different ways, to connect with my students, and to connect my students to each other.

Why Adapt for Disabilities?
You may be asking why should you bother adapting your campus for people with disabilities. I suggest four reasons.

It’s the right thing to do
I’ve already told you how it’s changed my life and the lives of my students. We’re only a few of the hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities who have benefited from Internet technology. According to the admittedly limited statistics available on this issue, blind people and some others with disabilities are on the Internet at a higher proportion than much of the public. This is in spite of the fact that most of them have very limited incomes.

Technology opens such a new, valuable world to people with disabilities. For students, it gives them a more level playing field.

It makes economic sense
You must provide materials to students in alternate formats, and putting those materials on a website is often the cheapest way to accomplish this.

Think about the cost of producing and mailing a Braille version of your college catalog to a student. Let me put that in context. At home, I have the American Vest Pocket Dictionary, which, in the Braille version, fills seven volumes and nearly covers my desk. How many volumes will your college catalog fill in the Braille version?

However, if it’s already online, all you have to do is make sure it is on the site in ways that are readily accessible.

It’s the law
Several laws require public institutions to provide people with disabilities equal access to all of your services and facilities. The law you’ll know best is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While the legislation does not specifically mention equal access to computers and the Internet, the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, which enforces the law, and recent court decisions have interpreted the legislation as meaning just that.

Do it for yourself
The line between people with disabilities and those without disabilities is not a vertical line dividing us, it’s a horizontal line joining you and me. I lost my sight when I was eight, throwing sticks in the park. If you are the average person, your eyesight began to degenerate at age 13. Yes, and it’s still going down.

Your hearing has been going down since you were a teenager. And maybe your joints are getting stiff. Aside from those facts, consider that anyone can suffer from an accident. The fact is that we’re all going to be living, unless we die prematurely, into our 90s and maybe beyond 100. When are you planning to stop using your computer, to stop using the Internet? So I say, do this for yourselves so as you get older, the things you value will still be available to you.

Tools for Everyone
It’s not only students with disabilities who benefit from the interactive technology that I use in my virtual "classroom," which includes email, chat rooms, and online discussions. For example, one student told me that when he’s online, he is judged on what he says, not what he looks like, his racial background, or anything of that kind. He finds that a refreshing experience. As I’ve already said, on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

But it’s not just a sense of anonymity, because he and the other students do meet regularly, face-to-face, in a classroom. They know who he is. But somehow people are oblivious to that when they get on the computer, which is interesting.

I don’t have any real statistics with gender situations, but I am aware that toy manufacturers have been disappointed that they can’t sell video games to girls unless the games are interactive. And, so, if that model holds, a distance-learning class is a relational situation. My experience is that women in the class seem to do well, sometimes better than the men. One of the reasons is that more of the women know how to type, but it surely goes beyond that.

For example, one of my female students never talked much in class, but when she got on the computer, she participated quite a bit. When we discussed this, she said that in class she was afraid of saying something stupid and getting a crazy look. But that just wasn’t an issue when she was on the computer. Again, the other students knew her, so it wasn’t that she was anonymous. Perhaps it’s that when there is no stage, there’s no stage fright.

This seems to be the same reason that people with learning disabilities do well with distance education and interactive technology. In the regular classroom, you can stammer too long and you can’t go back and undo what you said. But when using email or a message board, students have more time to read, to ponder, to write, to rewrite. And many students with disabilities feel more comfortable with this.

Many people with different learning styles find interactive technology useful, too. It gives you a lot more independence in how you work, the pace at which you work. If it’s an asynchronous class, which most of mine are, you can pick the time of day when you’re most wide-awake. [An asynchronous class does not meet at a set time but provides students with course materials online, including readings, embedded and streamed multimedia, external websites, etc., and is often supplemented by online chats or email discussions.]

I firmly believe that when you adapt your teaching style to deal with communication barriers of any kind, and overcome that communication barrier, that the result is that you’re going to communicate more clearly. Teaching is communication, and anything that helps you to teach better is going to be good for everyone.

Norman Coombs is chair of EASI, Equal Access to Software and Information, a corps activity for the TLT Group, AAHE’s teaching, learning, and technology affiliate. He also is a professor emeritus at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Contact him at

Audiotapes of this and other conference sessions are available for purchase from Conference Media Contractors, Inc. See or call 888/222-1614 (toll free). This session was adapted from Session #HE00-158. To view the PowerPoint slides that accompanied the author’s presentation, see For more information on adaptive technology, see the Equal Access to Software and Information (EASI) website, EASI is a corps activity for the TLT Group, AAHE’s teaching, learning, and technology affiliate.

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